[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon, and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick), blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.
Let’s transfer that “adventurous” inside quotation marks, because it’s when the film takes on stylistic airs that Ross demonstrates his continuing inability to develop any solidly based notion of what cinema is and how it works. The picture begins in a selfconsciously quaint mode, with turn-of-the-century brochure illustrations (and sometimes fulsome, footnote-laden character descriptions) to introduce the various players; John Addison’s score supports this tone entertainingly enough, and the performers (surely with Ross’s assistance) manage to maintain a nicely judged attitude of self-importance and overdeliberateness that permits the audience to be comfortable about these anachronistic types without going so far as to guy the whole notion of recreating Conan Doyle affectionately and respectfully. So far, so good. But about the time Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) has managed, with the reluctant connivance of the harmless Prof. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), to trick the paranoiac Holmes (Nicol Williamson) into the consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud of Vienna (Alan Arkin), we’re supposed to be sneaked up on so that we don’t notice the tone has changed to this-man-whom-you-know-as-one-of-the-great-heroes-of-fiction-really-has-a-problem-and-it’s-pretty-dramatic-stuff-isn’t-it?
Well, it doesn’t work—which is less the players’ fault than that of the thinly conceived scenario. And it especially doesn’t work because Ross reaches into what he understands to be the currently acceptable cinematic bag-of-tricks and pulls out the most mechanical and self-advertising and narrative-interrupting kind of delayed-revelation cutaway—occasional not-quite-subliminal glimpses of the juvenile Sherlock mounting a wheezingly distorted stairway toward The Great Trauma of His Youth—to be seen on screen this year. Well, not quite: the ones in Schlesinger’s Marathon Man are almost as bad (though at least Schlesinger attempts to carry the idea through, however academically, by staging one of the present-day climaxes in the same leached-out color he employs in the flashbacks). In both cases—and this also goes for Schlesinger’s gratuitous, utterly redundant, and distracting insistence on paralleling Babe Levy’s marathon run for life-or-death with grainy monochrome footage of an Olympic runner in action—the director seems less bent on expressing something than in giving the contemporary viewer the sort of “clever” cinematic idea he’s supposed to appreciate. Ross goes on to reduce Holmes’ hallucinations while undergoing cocaine withdrawal to so much mumbo-jumbo, with a wishfully Serpent in Eden–like “speckled band” adder subliminally merging visually with the demonic visage of Moriarty; Nicol Williamson, understandably, climbs the walls.
From this sort of would-be intensity, Ross proceeds to try another segue, this time into larky Ruritanian adventure story, with the father of modern criminal detection and the father of psychoanalysis chasing a nasty pre-Nazi (Jeremy Kemp) across Austria by steam locomotive. Through all this, the idea is to celebrate the wondrous storytelling atmosphere of the Holmes tales and to trace a primer-Freudian analysis of the very kinds of psychic impulse that lie at the basis of Holmes’ character—as a make-believe human being—and the whole spirit of romantic adventure. The kicker, of course, is that, pseudo-Freudianism aside, this is precisely what Billy Wilder’s increasingly indispensable latterday masterpiece did, and did beautifully and oh so evocatively. That one Panavision shot of Watson drying his Loch Ness–soaked tush in front of the fireplace, the mysterious damsel-in-distress watching from the fourposter, and Holmes describing a meditative diagonal across the room while whistling the theme from Swan Lake succinctly and movingly defined the peculiar passion for narrative consummation that both Conan Doyle and Wilder customarily concealed behind their respective false fronts of stuffy old-school unemotionality and wisecracking cynicism. It is one of the great chest-filling moments in the cinema, and there is nothing remotely like it in either Meyer’s or Ross’s Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
But there is one triumphant achievement: Robert Duvall’s astonishingly fine interpretation of Watson. Beyond the actor’s considerable technical skill—the unimpeachable bread-pudding accent, the Jezail bullet–induced limp, the gently contained discreet bluster—he comes closer than any other performer in my experience to realizing the good doctor as Conan Doyle created him: absolutely foursquare , so personally and professionally conscientious that he doesn’t permit himself the leeway of a sense of humor, and so discreetly tender that he himself would be appalled to recognize the intensity of his devotion to the man whose singular being he has generously shared with the world.
THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION
Direction: Herbert Ross. Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer, after his novel. Cinematography: Oswald Morris; Second Unit: Alex Thomson. Production design: Ken Adam. Music: John Addison. Production: Ross.
The players (in order of appearance): Robert Duvall, Nicol Williamson, Samantha Eggar, Laurence Olivier, Charles Gray, Alan Arkin, Georgia Brown, Jeremy Kemp, Vanessa Redgrave, Joel Grey, Regine.
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson