Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Neglected Gem #93: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

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 TycoonA Star Is BornSilver StreakBound 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
Though it’s just a bauble, the movie is lush in every aspect: in the visuals, in the multiplicity of plot lines, in the variety of characters and most certainly in its star-studded cast, which also includes Joel Grey as a mysterious little man named Lowenstein, Jeremy Kemp as a supercilious baron (whom Freud challenges to a fencing match at their club when the baron makes an anti-Semitic comment), Samantha Eggar (lovely in Edwardian gowns) as Mrs. Watson, and Georgia Brown – Nancy in the West End and Broadway casts of Oliver! – as Mrs. Freud. There’s a vaudevillian quality to the performances, the sort of thing you always expect but never get in star-crammed Agatha Christie thrillers of the same era, like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, which came out two years earlier. Joel Grey doesn’t have much to do, but he’s such a deliciously strange comic presence – and he has such marvelous timing - that you cherish his few scenes. This was the period when Hollywood was trying to figure out how to use him; he’d won a Supporting Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret in 1972, but he was too specialized a performer to generate the projects he deserved. He got one, the role of the creepy clairvoyant who collaborates with a detective (Cliff Robertson) on the case of a missing child in 1974’s Man on a Swing – a lousy movie but a sensational performance. Robert Altman employed him as a malapropping producer in his over-conceptualized Western Buffalo Bill and the Indians, which came out a few months before The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but after that year Grey vanished from Hollywood, back to the musical stage.

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 RĂ©gine 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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