Peter Cushing gets his pipe and deerstalker for The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Peter Cushing takes the role of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), a gothic, horror film from Hammer that tries to give as many shocks and screams as possible. The Hammer regulars are all here for this one, which is the first Sherlock Holmes movie made in color, a story that is quite possibly one of the most famous Holmes stories ever written. The Hound of the Baskervilles was a Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1901, long after Sherlock Holmes was established and popular. I think this movie does justice to the source material.
The problem with this story is that Sherlock Holmes is missing from a great chunk of it. Therefore, Watson better be a good actor in whatever adaptation it is, because he is left to watch over Henry Baskerville so the infamous hound doesn’t kill him on the moor. Sir Henry taking over Baskerville Hall is essentially what the novel is about and the Hammer movie follows this basic outline, except that it skips over the parts without Sherlock Holmes. It substitutes other scenes and events with plenty of horror into the movie to keep it moving, but Holmes is never absent.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) is the first Sherlock Holmes movie shot in color and it shows. The camera zooms in on a bloody knife, candle-lights flicker, and the mood is set by green, red, or yellow. The backdrops and sets are especially well-done. A gothic tone is what Hammer is known for, and it works pretty well in this movie, if you don’t mind your Sherlock Holmes patterned after Dark Shadows or something.
The performances are fairly good, barring a few exceptions. Of course, I’ll take my Jeremy Brett any day of the week over anyone else, but this story needs a little life to supplement the events, as it’s not the most riveting novel ever written. Hammer streamlines it though, and I think Christopher Lee does the best job out of all the cast as Sir Henry Baskerville. He is very tall and imposing, towering over everyone, even Peter Cushing.
The movie begins with the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, played by David Oxley. He really goes over-the-top with his performance, but it’s mostly the script that goes to extremes. Sir Hugo tortures a man for looking at his daughter wrong and he has her under lock and key. When he learns his daughter has run away, he calls her a bitch and yells for the Hounds of Hell to hunt her down. Holy cow, this guy is insane. How did he become knighted?
This is a perfectly good origin for the legend of the Hound however. Sir Hugo stabs and kills his daughter, but the Hound jumps out and eats him. It is obscured and the audience is never shown what it looks like. Later, Sherlock Holmes hears the relevant facts about the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who has also been killed by the Hell Hound, a victim of the curse brought on by Sir Hugo.
Peter Cushing plays Sherlock Holmes aggressively, impolite one moment and logical the next. He throws around the Holmes clichés casually in every scene, which was a little tiresome after a while. Still, his acting is not bad for a Hammer film, but it’s a literal interpretation of Holmes and uses some influence of Basil Rathbone. He has the deerstalker hat, he smokes a pipe, and says “Elementary, my dear Watson.” .
The tension is palpable. There really are some good scenes of excitement, even by Hammer’s standards. The scene with the tarantula is an especially good one, and the camera zooms in as it crawls up Sir Henry’s arm while he is frozen in fear. I like the part when the Hound attacks Sir Henry as well. It has some good stunts and reveals the Hound as an oversized Great Dane, not a supernatural spirit, which is a good way of doing it, I think.
The performance of Andre Morell is not one of a bumbling Watson like Nigel Bruce, which is good, but it lacks the intelligence and other ingredients from David Burke or Edward Hardwicke in Grenada’s Sherlock Holmes production on TV. Clearly, Morell’s Watson is a step behind Holmes in every scene, but he’s not played for laughs, which I like. He’s just mostly there standing around.
All in all, this is not a bad production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is kinda short at 87 minutes, but I don’t think it’s boring, and each scene moves along at a good pace. Christopher Lee has a strong presence in the movie and puts on a good performance, although not as good as in Dracula (1958). However, Peter Cushing’s performance is a superficial interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, which is unfortunate, but he shares equal time with Christopher Lee and Andre Morell, which is good, otherwise all the clichés would become tiresome quickly. Most people don’t notice the weaknesses because this movie was made for a general audience, however even a Sherlock Holmes fan might get some enjoyment out of it, for its color, vividness, and drama.