Originally released in 1959
Screenplay by Peter Bryan based on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Terence Fisher
Peter Cushing is probably most known to audiences today for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film but he was also a frequent performer in the Hammer Horror film series where he played roles such as Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein. This was his first appearance as Holmes but he would revisit the part a decade later, including this same story, as part of a BBC television series.
Christopher Lee was one of the most prolific and well-known faces in cinema, often portraying villains such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Like Cushing, he was also highly associated with the Hammer Horror films. A few years after this film he performed in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, another Terence Fisher production, this time as Holmes himself and would play the role again twice in the early 90s.
This atmospheric adaptation highlights the horror of the premise quite effectively. Cushing is very good as Holmes, though he is even better in the later television adaptation.
The 1959 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is interesting in several respects. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be made in color and while it shows some signs of its budgetary limitations, the location filming adds a sense of scale that benefits the tale. It is also the first appearance of Peter Cushing as the Great Detective – a part he would reprise a decade later for a television series which included a feature-length adaptation of the same story. This means that we have the rather unusual situation of having two takes by the same actor on the same story and can observe some differences between them.
The film opens with a rather lusty and quite lengthy rendition of the Baskerville family legend. While the period details don’t exactly scream English Civil War to me, the general beats of the tale are there – a young woman is chased across the moor by the brutish Sir Hugo Baskerville who, moments after stabbing her, is savagely torn to pieces by a giant, devilish hound. While rather overblown (and overacted), this sequence serves two purposes – firstly to emphasize that this is a Hammer film and that the horror and action of the story will be emphasised, and secondly it limits the length of the consultation scene in which Dr. Mortimer will explain the matter to Holmes by showing us what happened rather than telling us in conversation.
From this point we switch to the consultation in which we get our first sense of Holmes and how Cushing will play him. He is certainly cold and rather imperious in these scenes which suits the tone of the production (he is a little warmer and more humorous in the television version) and there is a sense of a great energy that I consider an important part of the character. This is particularly obvious in later sequences in the film in which we see him actively examining a location as he moves quickly across the space. Perhaps most striking however is just how closely he resembles the Paget illustrations, especially in the prominence of his cheekbones and the deepness of the eyes.
While the consultation and the scenes that follow in London are certainly considerably abridged from the novel, the story does follow the basic structure. Dr. Mortimer explains why he fears for the life of the last of the Baskervilles and entreats Holmes to advise Sir Henry on whether he should go to the Hall. They visit him in his hotel, witness some signs that further emphasize the danger he is in (including a rather ridiculous animal-based assassination attempt that thankfully is quite brief), and make arrangements for Watson to stay with him for his protection while Holmes has to stay in London.
The great problem of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Holmes vehicle is, of course, that the Great Detective is hardly in it. That is one reason why the actor playing Sir Henry was billed above Sherlock Holmes in several of the earlier film adaptations. This version keeps that structure which makes the casting of Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville all the more important as they will have to carry the mid-section of the film.
André Morell plays Watson and offers a good counterbalance to Cushing. He is not as warm as some other versions of the character but he comes over as dependable and competent, if not blessed with Holmes’ deductive genius. While he will have some clumsy misadventures during his time on the moors, they come about because of his desire to protect others rather than because he is an inherently bumbling type and he retains his dignity throughout.
Christopher Lee portrayed Sir Henry and it is rather interesting to see him in a role that is rather more heroic than he normally got to play. Indeed, as he notes in an interview that is included on the Twilight Time blu ray I watched, this represents one of the very few films in his career where he played, against type, a romantic lead. It’s a rather solid performance although that romantic subplot is rather rushed (though that clearly is not his fault) and he plays very nicely off both Cushing and Morell.
The film does a good job of capturing the scale of the moor and making it a threatening location, both in terms of suggesting that it is being stalked by a giant spectral hound but also by emphasizing its marshiness. This is most clearly shown in a sequence in which Watson falls in while trying to protect a woman. This not only creates a moment of peril, it also establishes the dangers of the crossing the mire which is an important point for later in the story.
It should be said that while the film does keep many of the plot beats of the original story there are a number of changes made, some small and some bigger. Some of these struck me as a little silly – the aforementioned assassination attempt at the hotel and a sequence involving a mine shaft are clearly there just to add visual peril as well as some suggestion of some satanic rites being performed on a body – but I feel the simplification of the villain’s role and plan is a pity. That character feels much flatter than in most of the other versions of this story I have seen as a result, making them seem less impressive as an adversary.
While this adaptation may not be as faithful as I might like, I should say that it is more faithful than I expected. The film captures a lot of the elements that I like about the story and works hard to evoke an atmosphere of dread, often with success. Most of the roles are cast well and I think Cushing proves to be a very impressive Holmes, though I personally prefer his subsequent TV portrayal where he gets to show some lighter, warmer sides to the character along with the sometimes stern and aloof characterization we see here.
It may not be the perfect adaptation of this novel but it is an entertaining one and worth a look if you are already a fan of the story.