“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
— Sherlock Holmes
Though the great detective varies this line repeatedly in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, it shows up with eye-rolling regularity in the movies. I liked when Nicolas Meyer had Spock say the line, attributing it to his “ancient ancestor,” in his script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Unfortunately, Meyer also put it in his promising, yet mildly disappointing, film adaptation of his own novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
Nicol Williamson has the interesting acting challenge of playing Holmes in the flurry of a nervous breakdown. He does it well. But we see Holmes at such extremes — ranting with paranoia, politely offering tea, suffering the hallucinations of cocaine withdrawal, meekly convalescing — that it becomes difficult to recognize the traditional Holmes at all.
And that’s the point. This is very likely the first portrayal of Holmes deliberately designed to step out of the shadow of Rathbone. No longer is the goal to depict the character as a self-assured, well-mannered, semi-superhero, avoiding any exploration of the downside of living with that amazing intellect. Instead, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution gives us an early example of what I’ll call the Compulsive Detective, a take on the character that later film makers will return to with, well, eye-rolling regularity. This interpretation focuses on the character’s drug use and his flailing attempts to cope with life when not engaged in crime-solving.
With this in mind, Williamson’s Holmes is very interesting when in the throes of paranoia and addiction, but he becomes a bit bland when his health is restored.
Wait. Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson? Now, that should be interesting, right? Well, it should have been interesting. Better direction from Herbert Ross might have left us with a less stuffy, stuffed-up sounding Watson. That’s a fair distraction, given that he serves as our frame narrator. (Watch for the “cheating” point-of-view shots from points-of-view other than Watson’s. One wonders if the voice-over narration was needed at all — but, of course, omitting it would reduce Duvall’s presence even more. Oh, the complications of adapting to a new medium!)
Other than the choice of voice — and it’s the congested tone as well as the accent — Duvall gives one of his typically impressive and restrained performances. He has a fair amount to do, too, but the film offers little in regard to why he leaves his wife and practice to ensure that Holmes is cured beyond the fact that that’s he’s the detective’s best and only friend. (Well, unless that honor belongs to Toby, the bloodhound, who also appears in this film.)
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
In a way, there’s a more interesting doctor-assistant introduced in this film, one who is almost Holmes’s equal. And he’s none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud, wonderfully played by Alan Arkin. This is the real attraction of this movie: what would it be like to see Sherlock Holmes psychoanalyzed by Freud himself?
Unfortunately, this intriguing premise helps explain that disappointment I mention above. The premise takes up so much of the movie that the criminal mystery — as opposed to psychological one regarding what triggered Holmes’s breakdown — is pushed to the side. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill kidnapping that’s pretty easily solved, both by Holmes and by the audience, given that the culprits are loudly signaled ahead of time. Granted, this criminal mystery leads to a train-chase and a sword-fight, but both seem far more Hollywood’s Holmes than Doyle’s.
Though Holmes fans will appreciate the allusions to Doyle’s canonical cases, such as “The Speckled Band” and “The Red-Headed League,” they might not be as pleased with what Meyer does with Professor Moriarty. Personally, I usually enjoy a spin on a familiar character, but . . . well . . . spoilers.
On the positive side, there is a cleverness to this film as well as a parade of famous actors. It’s not hard to sense Meyer’s affection for and familiarity with the key characters and the Doyle canon overall. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is worth watching while keeping in mind that this is a new, less well-adjusted Holmes.
A haunted Holmes.