In the Shadow of Rathbone: Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958)

holmes-basil-rathboneDressed to Kill, the last of the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes films, was released in 1946. Not until 1959 did another major film featuring Holmes appear (though a few actors played the part on radio and TV in the interim). The movie was an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and André Morell as Watson. It was produced by Hammer Films, and along with Cushing, it features that other Hammer great, Christopher Lee.

This version of Hound is well acted and makes some interesting changes to the classic mystery novel, such as giving Holmes a more prominent role and playing with viewers who think they know whodunit because they read that novel.

Cusing as HolmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Probably more than any other actor, Peter Cushing stood in the shadow of Rathbone, since no other Holmes films had been made since 1946. Cushing certainly fits the popular image of Holmes. It might have been too daring to attempt to “re-image” Holmes. But Cushing does a fine job with the role: meditative, aloof, good-spirited, abrasive (when it gets results), and even self-effacing (when he hasn’t been a genius quite quickly enough).

Still, it might be that Cushing isn’t daring enough. His Sherlock seems routine and “by the book” (though we’ll see that the script isn’t). This didn’t prevent him from inheriting the Holmes role from Douglas Wilmer on BBC TV in 1968. Cushing’s surviving episodes are now available on DVD. It’s tougher to find a quality recording of his return to Baker Street in the BBC TV movie The Masks of Death (1984), but it’s worth investigating this fun outing featuring Holmes in his retirement years. John Mills is a very charming Watson.

Morell as WatsonWatching Watson

Perhaps the most daring decision made for this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was to reject the doofus-Watson character that Nigel Bruce had perfected in the Rathbone series. Instead, André Morell’s Watson is far more competent — if a bit invisible.

An odd thing about this the original novel is how little we see of the brainy guy in the cap and cape. Since Holmes spends so much time secretly patrolling the moors, it’s largely Watson’s story. Not so much in this film adaptation. Holmes is given a far more visible role.

Also in the novel, Holmes sends Watson off to keep Henry Baskerville safe with the order: “Keep your revolver near you night and day, and never relax your precautions.” In this film, though, Holmes carries his own revolver. Watson simply isn’t given much to do, and except for a few glimpses, the friendship he shares with Holmes is similarly left in the background.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s tricky to try to adapt what is probably the most popular Holmes story. Should one be stringently faithful to the novel, knowing that a significant portion of the audience already knows who the culprit is? Or should the filmmakers play with the audience? It seems that screenwriter Peter Bryan and director Terence Fisher attempted the latter — but did they go far enough?

In the novel, the investigation’s very first suspect rushes by in a cab, revealing only his piercing eyes and his black beard. It becomes significant, then, when Watson later describes the butler of Baskerville Hall as “a remarkable-looking man, tall, handsome, with a square black beard. . . .” In the 1959 adaptation, this butler has no beard at all. However, Dr. Mortimer does! In addition, he’s a formidably large man with a bit of a temper. (In the novel, this character is described as being a lanky, poorly dressed man with glasses and a slouch.) Since Mortimer introduces Holmes to the case, right from the start, audience members who have read the novel are given an extra challenge: since the filmmakers are clearly altering the story, should we suspect Mortimer?

A man on the moor
Look! Up on the moor! Is it a hound? Is it a–well, okay, it’s a man. But he’s in a cape!

There are other changes in the film, too, from tarantulas to cave-ins. The novel’s entomologist is now a comic-relief vicar. The late Charles Baskerville goes out on the moor at night, not to offer help, but because he’s a cad. The two suffering female characters are now one feisty female character. All of these are nice ways to keep well-read Holmes fans guessing how things will work out . . .

I wish, though, that the film had taken this even a bit further when arriving at the end. Granted, it’s not quite the same ending as the novel’s, but it almost comes too close. Almost too close.

Perhaps it was too soon to deviate too much from the source material.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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