The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be the most familiar and famous Sherlock Holmes story of all. With its mixture of mystery and horror elements, and consequent crossover appeal, it’s easy to see why Doyle’s story has attracted so many filmmakers down through the years. My own favourite adaptation of the story remains the Rathbone and Bruce effort from 1939, but Hammer’s 1959 production does come very close to being its equal. There are a number of liberties taken transferring this classic story from the page to film, but I think I’ve said before that this never especially bothered me since I often feel that, for all their classic status, there are aspects of Doyle’s original writings that can be a little tedious. Hammer certainly tweaked the material here and there but the essence of the story remains and, when all’s said and done, that’s as much as anyone should reasonably expect from a literary adaptation.
The story, for those unfamiliar with it, concerns the legend of a curse on the aristocratic Baskerville family, wherein the male heirs are doomed to meet a grisly fate visited upon them by the mythical hound from hell. When the penultimate holder of the title dies alone under mysterious circumstances on the bleak moors, the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), returns to his ancestral home. Fearing for the safety of the new occupant of Baskerville Hall, a local physician, Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff), calls on the world’s greatest consulting detective (Peter Cushing) for advice. Mortimer’s account of the origin of the curse is told in flashback and forms the prologue of the film, setting things off at a storming pace that rarely lets up. The only slackness that occurs, and it’s very slight at that, is when Holmes sends Watson (Andre Morell) off alone to play nursemaid to Sir Henry. At this point Holmes is absent from the screen and the film suffers a little for it. However, this is a feature of the source material that can’t be avoided – anyway it offers the opportunity to see Watson acting on his own initiative for a change, and that alone means that it doesn’t deserve to be criticised too harshly. The scenes on the moors at night have an eerie, supernatural quality (lashings of mist and a soft green glow emanating from ruined buildings) that were the stock in trade of Hammer films and house director Terence Fisher. When Holmes eventually returns to the screen the film immediately gets a new lease of life, with Cushing lending a sense of urgency and energy. The final denouement takes place among the same spooky ruins that provided the backdrop for the opening, and this is the point where the movie disappoints a little. Until then the hound itself had never been as much as glimpsed, the characters only referring to it in hushed and fearful tones and it’s unearthly howls being heard echoing across the moors. Given the anticipation that such a build-up encourages, it’s hardly surprising that the beast struggles to live up to it in the flesh.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is credited as being the first Holmes film in colour, and Hammer certainly did it proud. The opening is a riot of rich, vivid hues that look as pretty as anything the studio ever produced. James Bernard’s typically powerful score adds to the melodramatic atmosphere and Fisher’s direction is suspenseful and pacy (something which he’s occasionally been accused of neglecting in favour of atmosphere). Cushing and Morell were inspired casting, with the former providing one of the finest portrayals of the great detective on screen. He comes as close as anyone ever has to capturing the essence of the character, combining athleticism with erudition, waspish arrogance, and a sly humour. Morell moves Watson away from the bumbling foolishness of Nigel Bruce to offer a more serious sounding board for the wits of Holmes. Lee gives his usual professional performance as the last of the Baskervilles who falls for the sexy and feral Marla Landi, although he does succumb to a bout of the Elmer Fudds at one point (Come on now. Why did you wun away?). The support cast is as good as one would expect from a Hammer picture, with Miles Malleson doing a nice comic turn as a spider-loving clergyman while John Le Mesurier, Ewen Solon and Francis De Wolff lurk menacingly.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of MGM’s catalogue DVDs, and that means it’s just about adequate. The studio rarely seemed to consider it necessary to give their 1.66:1 titles an anamorphic transfer, and this release follows that pattern. There are also a variety of damage marks but none of them are seriously distracting. The R2 carries no extras save the theatrical trailer. Generally, this is an excellent Holmes film and, since it’s also one of Hammer’s best, it’s a pity the studio never followed it up and turned it into one of their series. Cushing and Morell had the makings of a fine team and it’s tempting to wonder what they could have done with the characters had they been given an extended run, but I understand the film just didn’t turn a big enough profit for Hammer to keep it going. However, they did leave us with a strong movie that holds up well to repeated viewings.