Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Although I’m a very keen Sherlock Holmes fan I’ve avoided the 1976 movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I’ve always been a little suspicious of tales that combine real characters (in this case Sigmund Freud) with fictional ones (in this case Sherlock Holmes). But in this particular example actually works.

I’m also a little wary of movies and books that focus too much on the flaws in Holmes’ character, and in particular on his cocaine addiction.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution works because the great detective’s drug habit isn’t just tossed in for purposes of sensationalism; it’s intricately woven into the plot which involves the kidnapping of a singer ho is also a cocaine addict. And it works because Holmes and Freud are not just thrown together because they were contemporaries. The movie shows us just how uncannily similar they were in their methods. Both investigated mysteries, both did this by spotting clues that a casual observer would overlook, both had trained themselves to see patterns and meanings where others saw only chaos and confusion, and both men had faith in the power of reason to triumph over the darkness.

As the movie opens Holmes’ addiction is spiralling out of control, as is his obsession with his one-time mathematics tutor, a certain Professor Moriarty. Dr Watson has read an article in The Lancet that gives him cause to hope than an obscure Viennese physician named Freud may be the one person able to break this cycle of drug dependence. He lures Holmes to Vienna, where Freud uses hypnosis in his experimental treatment. Holmes soon finds himself drawn reluctantly into taking on a case, a case in which the celebrated singer and one-time courtesan Lola Devereaux (who had been cured of her own addiction by Freud) has been kidnapped. Both Holmes and Freud will need to draw on their special areas of expertise and will also have to learn to work together in order to crack this case.

The movie does have one or two problems. Robert Duvall is adequate as Watson, but his English accent is abominable! The other cast members are mostly reasonably good. Even Vanessa Redgrave manages not to be overly annoying as Lola. Of course no-one can compare to Jeremy Brett in the role, but Nicol Williamson makes an interestingly strung-out and hysterical Holmes. Alan Arkin is, surprisingly, extremely good as the young Freud. There are some familiar faces in minor roles, including some chap named Laurence Olivier as Moriarty, and look our for Joel Gray from Cabaret as a fiendish villain.

Director Herbert Ross keeps things moving along at breakneck speed and there’s plenty of excitement including a train chase that owes almost everything to the Marx Brothers but is still highly entertaining. There’s drug addiction, white slavery and a duel by tennis.

Nicholas Meyer adapted the screenplay from his own novel. Anything Meyer is involved with seems to be end up being great fun - he also wrote the wonderful H. G. Wells time-travel romp Time After Time and the delightfully campy Invasion of the Bee Girls.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution might exasperate Sherlock Holmes purists but it’s exceptionally enjoyable. It’s the sort of tongue-in-cheek adventure romp that was done very well back in the 70s, very much in the stye of movies like Time After Time and Royal Flash - beautifully filmed, well-acted and made with skill and flair.


Ivan said...

Great write-up that makes me want to see 7% Solution again. I remember it much more fondly than Billy Wilder's overrated (IMO) Sherlock Holmes movie.

It's too bad 7% is unavailable on DVD (or at least unavailable through Netflix); I remember it being fun--although even when I was a kid, I thought the revelation about Moriarity to be a tad too Freudian.

dfordoom said...

I was also disappointed by Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.