HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE(director: Terence Fisher; screenwriters: Peter Bryan/from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle; cinematographer: Jack Asher; editor: Alfred Cox; music: James Bernard; cast: Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), André Morell (Doctor Watson), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), David Oxley (Sir Hugo), Miles Malleson (Bishop Frankland), Francis de Wolff (Doctor Richard Mortimer), John Le Mesurier (Barrymore), Helen Goss (Mrs. Barrymore), Michael Mulcaster (Convict, Selden), Sam Kydd (Perkins), Judy Moyens (Innocent peasant girl); Runtime: 88; MGM/UA/Hammer; 1959-UK)
“They don’t make Sherlock Holmes films better than this superbly cast and told 1959 version from Hammer Studios…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
They don’t make Sherlock Holmes films better than this superbly cast and told 1959 version from Hammer Studios, which also happens to be the first Sherlock done in Technicolor. Hammer’s noted propensity for cheap horror does come into play in this modest production but without doing any serious damage, as the enhanced horror mood it sets is actually richly expressed in the eerie gothic atmosphere surrounding the mansion and in the foggy moors and in the hidden quicksand and in the distant howling dog sounds. The only things a bit cheesy were the papier-mâché mask worn by the menacing hound and that sex is given a more pronounced place in the story than usual. Peter Cushing has the right idiosyncrasies and proud temperament to make for a splendidly chipper and rational thinking Sherlock, who also shows more than a passing interest in the mystical. It might be the best role and performance this veteran actor of horror movies ever had. André Morell is a memorable Dr. Watson, playing his role in an intelligent and understated manner so he’s not appearing as a cartoonish Watson as was the case with this role in so many other versions. Christopher Lee dazzles as Sir Henry Baskerville, as his strong screen presence complements Cushing’s and gives this duo an onscreen strength seldom equaled by other co-stars. One might think in the horror genre only of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the same category.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fascinated about the devil dog legends he heard told in a grand style from his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson while on vacation in the English moors. The legend that influenced him most was of the 17th century squire who suspected his wife of infidelity and had his hound attack her. Instead, the hound turned on his master and killed him. Thereby the heirs were cursed for the rest of their lives by the spirit of a devil dog. Doyle wove this legend into his own story and also used other legends of a similar nature to come up with his most popular story “The Hound of The Baskervilles.”
The plot in this 19th century tale concerns a curse placed on the Baskervilles that dates back to 1740 when an evil, godless and cruel-minded rascal named Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), keeps a peasant girl (Moyens) locked in one of his rooms and when he loses a bet to his liquored up and dissolute peers he offers as payment the unwilling captive girl to satisfy their lust. But she escapes and Sir Hugo going against the wishes of his rowdy but guilt-ridden male guests, sets the hounds on her trail and hunts her down. He catches up with her by the ruins of the abbey off in the desolate part of the moors, and kills her with his dagger. But a hound attacks him to avenge her death and a curse was set on all the Baskervilles.
The film opens as an overweight and impatient Dr. Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) is visiting the smallish Holmes in London from his home in Dartmoor and has told him about this legendary family and the rotten luck the family has had ever since, because he wishes Holmes to take the case to protect the last Baskerville heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, and track down this demon-hound.
Henry has come from Johannesburg to inherit a million pounds and the Baskerville estate from his brother Sir Charles, who died two weeks ago from heart failure–a noted defect in all the Baskervilles. His dead body was found by his loyal servant Barrymore (Le Mesurier) near the abbey ruins, in the same spot where Sir Hugo was murdered. Barrymore has pointed out that there was this most horrid look on Sir Charles’ face, but no marks on his body. This is enough to arouse Dr. Mortimer’s suspicion about foul play, and he’s also troubled that Henry’s life might be in danger.
Holmes agrees to take the case and meets with the arrogant and hard to like new landowner, Sir Henry, in his London hotel, where Henry is visibly upset that one of his boots is missing. Also while conversing, Holmes notices a deadly tarantula crawling up Henry’s arm. After killing the tarantula and noting these spiders don’t exist in South Africa, Holmes has Watson escort Henry back to his estate in Dartmoor and tells him to never allow Sir Henry to walk alone at night in the moors — that his life is indeed in danger. He says when he clears up his business in London he will join them in a week.
When Mortimer, Henry, and Watson arrive in Dartmoor, the carriage driver Perkins warns them to be careful that an ex-convict (Mulcaster) serial killer escaped from the nearby prison.
Watson while walking along the moors to the abbey ruins, runs into Henry’s poor neighbor with a mangled right hand, Stapleton (Solon), trapping animals for his next meal. Stapleton returned to his native Devonshire roots with his hot-tempered daughter Cecile (Marla Landi) when his Spanish wife died in Spain, as he wishes to become a gentleman English farmer.
Watson, after leaving Henry under the care of Mortimer because his heart bothers him, intrepidly goes out alone at night on the moors to check out a light he sees coming from there and discovers to his amazement that Holmes deceived him and has been hiding out in the abbey all this time. He took the next train after Watson left and has been secretly observing the area and talking with the escaped convict, also hiding out there, about what the convict observed. Holmes also discovers an abandoned mine located on Stapleton’s property, which has many secret passages including one leading to the abbey. Watson and Holmes are startled to hear the death howl of what they believe can only be the legendary hellhound but arrive too late to stop the mauling to death of the unrecognizable victim, whom they think is Henry. It angers Holmes to think that Sir Henry has been killed under his protection, as he vows “I shall not rest until I get the creature or killer.” But when they return to Baskerville Hall, they learn the dead man was the escaped convict – who for some unexplained reason was dressed in the clothes of Sir Henry.
Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.
Holmes is concerned that there will be an attempt tonight on Henry’s life when he learns that Sir Henry has been invited to dine with the Stapletons and has fallen in love with Cecile. He has reasons to believe this because the dagger from the 1740 crime scene that he recovered has now been stolen from his room. While staking out the abbey ruins, where Cecile lures Henry on the pretext of romance, Holmes and Watson are able to prevent just in time a real hound in a mask (actually it was a Great Dane) and not the supernatural legendary hellhound, from mauling Sir Henry to death. When the dog fails, Stapleton and his daughter Cecile try to kill Sir Henry. They hope to make it look like it was the legendary curse that was responsible, but are stopped by Holmes. The Stapletons are the illegitimate descendants of Sir Hugo’s and figure to be next in line to inherit the Baskerville wealth. In this film version, where class-warfare is stressed, the criminal-minded upstarts get what they deserve and as a result Victorian morality can live in peace for another day.
Jack Asher, the cinematographer, did an excellent job of providing the proper atmosphere and the subtle lighting tones to make this Technical production look extra good. Miles Malleson as the absent-minded and eccentric Bishop Frankland, who collects rare spiders and is a noted expert on entomology, gave a sparkling comic relief performance. Francis De Wolff is perfecto as a huffy doctor. Both Ewen Solon and Marla Landi make for credible bad guys with venom in their hearts. While John Le Mesurier, in his minor role, makes for a convincing butler who didn’t do it. And, of course, there was Doyle’s compelling mystery story that was excitingly related by regular Hammer director Terence Fisher.
REVIEWED ON 8/7/2002 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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