|Robert Duvall as Watson and Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).|
Of all the large-screen versions of Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps the best is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which arrived at the end of 1976. Sumptuously encased in some of the most luxurious costume and production design and cinematography ever lavished on an adventure story, it was the best of that year’s Christmas presents, the one that – depending on your modus operandi – you either wanted to unwrap right away or else save for last. (Oswald Morris’s lighting, Ken Adam’s production design and Alan Barrett’s costumes have been lovingly preserved on the Blu-ray disc.) Truth to tell, 1976 didn't offer such a tantalizing Christmas for movies: the other big releases were Rocky, Network, The Last Tycoon, A Star Is Born, Silver Streak, Bound for Glory, Nickelodeon and The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The only other movie that offered audiences a treat was John Guillermin’s remake of King Kong – and its delights were buried in a pile of disparaging reviews. But King Kong and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution were alike in that they were both witty and unstinting in their determination to treat the viewer’s senses.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, directed by Herbert Ross, was culled not from one of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories but from a novel by Nicholas Meyer – who wrote the adaptation – premised on the fact that the fictive Holmes was a contemporary of the real-life Sigmund Freud. In the narrative, Watson (Robert Duvall) is anxious about the cocaine excesses of his friend Holmes (Nicol Williamson), which have led him to concoct paranoid fantasies about Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), the boyhood tutor of both Holmes and his brother Mycroft (Charles Gray). So he and Mycroft draw Holmes to Vienna in pursuit of the imagined master criminal so that he can meet Freud (Alan Arkin) and be placed under his care. After the eminent psychoanalyst has hypnotized the master detective out of his craving for the drug – and before he manages, spinning off hints offered in Holmes’s nightmares, to identify the source of his fixation on Moriarty – Holmes reciprocates by agreeing to aid him with another of his patients. Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave), a Parisian actress whom Freud similarly weaned off her dependency on cocaine, turns up in a local hospital in fragile shape after escaping her mysterious abductors. When she’s kidnaped a second time, Holmes joins forces with Freud to track her down.
| Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin and Nicol Williamson |
Nicol Williamson was also something of a movie misfit, though he’s as much fun to watch as any of the cinematic Sherlocks, his trademark nasality giving him in this instance an aristocratic flourish, like a pince-nez. He’d failed extravagantly as a movie Hamlet (in Tony Richardson’s 1969 version) but here and in a couple of subsequent pictures – Robin and Marian, where he played Little John, and Excalibur, where he was Merlin – he was a skilled character actor, capable of being both funny and poignant. Holmes and Watson are always an odd couple, but has there ever been an odder pairing than Williamson and Robert Duvall? Duvall affects a stage British accent that seems modeled on C. Aubrey Smith in colonial swashbucklers like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and The Four Feathers, and he cavorts delightedly, as if he were a guest host on Saturday Night Live. Then there’s Alan Arkin as a surprisingly athletic Freud, in a stunt Viennese accent. Meanwhile Olivier, who could act everyone else off the screen if he chose to flex his hambone, underplays hilariously in the part of the milquetoast ex-tutor, scandalized by his treatment by his one-time charge. (The sole miscalculation is the actress and nightclub owner Régine as a singing madam, but the fault may not be hers: the number she’s given, “I Never Do Anything Twice” by Stephen Sondheim, is so self-consciously clever that it becomes a distraction.)
Perhaps it’s an overstatement to say that Olivier could have acted everyone else off the screen. Vanessa Redgrave, rounding off her astonishing first decade in movies, brings a combination of exoticism, seductiveness and enigma to the role of the one-time demimondaine whose admirers pay her tribute with the orchids she adores. The other actors are playing a high-stakes game of caricature, but Redgrave inhabits her character – so sensuously and yet so delicately that you can’t figure out how the hell she’s pulling it off. Like many of her early movie performances (in The Sea Gull, The Trojan Women and Agatha, to pick three others), her work in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time and it’s been forgotten now, but she’s an absolute marvel. The movie’s fallen off the radar, too. Take a look at the Blu-ray and you’ll see right away what a shame that is.
Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.