Monday, November 7, 2011

Mystery Mondays: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Since I seem to be on a roll with Peter Cushing movies, I thought that this week, instead of mystery novels, I would feature a film based on a Sherlock Holmes tale.  "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959) is the only Sherlock Holmes movie made by Hammer Films, but it is one of the best.  It is also the first version to be filmed in color.  While some of the characters and plot lines in the story have been changed, the basic premise is still the same.

A Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) pays a call on Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (André Morell) at their rooms in London asking for their help with a mystery concerning the death of Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall in Grimpen.  He tells them the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, the cruel ancestor of Sir Charles who kills a manservant and imprisons his daughter with evil intent.  When the girl escapes, Sir Hugo pursues her over the surrounding moors and stabs her to death, only to be killed himself by a giant hound rumored to be an emissary from hell itself.  Thus begins the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which brings death to each Baskerville who becomes lord of the manor.  The death of Sir Charles results in the imminent arrival of Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee), who is the new lord of Baskerville Hall, and Dr. Mortimer asks for Sherlock Holmes' help in ensuring that Sir Henry does not meet the same fate as Sir Charles.

Holmes agrees to meet with Sir Henry, who is initially skeptical that his life is in danger, and is more concerned about the loss of one boot at his hotel.  However, when a tarantula emerges from the other boot and nearly bites him, a shaken Sir Henry agrees to let Dr. Watson accompany him to Baskerville Hall, since Holmes cannot get away from London for a few days.  Holmes warns Sir Henry not to go out on the moors alone after dark, and asks Watson to make sure that this does not happen.  On their way to the manor, the men are informed by their coach driver that a dangerous prisoner named Seldon has escaped from nearby Dartmoor Prison, and that it is not safe to roam the moors.

At Baskerville Hall Sir Henry meets the manservant Barrymore and his wife, as well as the local bishop, who arrives the next day asking for contributions for the upcoming jumble sale. Dr. Watson is saved from drowning in the Grimpen Mire by a farmer named Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his daughter Cecile (Marla Landi), who take him back to the Hall in their farm cart.  The men go inside to see Sir Henry, but he is out.  Sir Henry returns in time to come upon Cecile alone in the cart, and is startled when she darts away.  He goes after her to find out why, and is startled again when she suddenly kisses him before running back to the cart.  Her father then appears and they drive off, leaving behind a very confused Sir Henry.

At night Dr. Watson sees a strange light out on the moors, and he and Sir Henry go out to investigate.  They find the light and see a strange man, but when they pursue him they hear the ominous sound of a howling hound.  Sir Henry, who has a weak heart, has a mild attack and they are forced to give up the chase, but after seeing Sir Henry safely home Watson returns to the moors to search for the man.  To his surprise the man he finds is Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes explains that he has been in the area almost as long as Watson, and has been out on the moors, where he met and talked with the convict Seldon.  Suddenly the two men hear the hound again, and the sound of a man being mortally attacked.  They fear it is Sir Henry, but once back at the manor discover that the victim was Seldon.  Holmes deduces that Seldon was the sister of Barrymore's wife, and that the couple had been helping the convict survive on the moors.  He also surmises that Seldon was killed because he was wearing some of Sir Henry's clothes and was mistaken for the other man by the hound.

After paying a visit to the bishop, Holmes solves the mystery of the tarantula.  Meanwhile, Sir Henry visits the Seldon farm and becomes even more infatuated with Cecile.  Her father invites Sir Henry and his guests to dinner the next night and Sir Henry asks Cecile to meet him at Baskerville Hall so that they can walk back together.  This turns out to be a bad idea, especially since Holmes, while investigating an old mine earlier in the day, injured his leg and does not feel fit to accompany them.  Dr. Watson stays behind with Holmes, and only then does Holmes let him know that the Stapletons are responsible for the recent deadly events.  The two set off after Sir Henry and Cecile, who end up at the old ruins where Sir Hugo murdered the young servant girl decades ago.  There Cecile turns viciously upon Sir Henry and informs him that she and her father are illegitimate descendants of Sir Hugo, and will inherit the Baskerville fortune once Sir Henry is dead.  Fortunately Holmes and Watson arrive in time to stop Stapleton and the giant hound, which is a real dog after all.  Cecile runs off but ends up drowning in the Grimpen Mire, thus ending the saga of the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Although there are a number of plot changes from the original story, the movie is well made and the acting is excellent.  Apparently the initial reaction to Peter Cushing's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes was mixed, but his interpretation of Holmes as abrupt and eccentric but brilliant is right in line with modern interpretations of the role, and in my opinion Cushing does a fine job.  The character of Watson is also spot on -- he is solid and dependable but not a fool.  A young Christopher Lee is dashing and handsome as Sir Henry.  The hound is not especially scary, but it is not prominently featured and only makes a brief appearance near the end of the film.  Other than this minor criticism, this version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is quite decent and well worth watching.

Interesting Facts:  Poor Christopher Lee had a rough time making this movie.  The dog used to play the hound was reluctant to jump on him at first, so the crew tried to prod him into action.  Just as the actor was about to give up, the dog decided to lunge and ended up biting through one of his arms.  Also, the actor has a phobia about spiders, and the fear on his face when the tarantula is crawling up his arm in the movie has nothing to do with acting!

Tarantula scene from "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (from Las Cronicas de Tino)

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