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The popularity of Sherlock Holmes has if anything expanded in recent years, especially with that new TV series that has charmed a new generation of fans. Arthur Conan Doyle's consulting detective has been in the movies since the start of the medium, with more individual productions than one can name. Back in 1974, future director Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., a playfully revisionist novel that grabbed the attention of Holmes-o-philes everywhere by reinterpreting key events in the fictional character's timeline. It seems that Dr. Watson falsified a few stories to protect his best friend's reputation during a period in which Sherlock recovered from his severe cocaine addiction, and spent an extended holiday abroad. Meyer went so far in his book, and in two follow-up novels, as to suggest that Holmes' arch-villain Moriarty was nothing more than the detective's paranoid delusion while under the influence of the drug.
Several books and at least one movie have invented new storylines in which Sherlock Holmes traces the infamous Jack the Ripper in London's Whitechapel district. Nicholas Meyer went a different direction with his 'alternate fictional history' idea, and put Sherlock in contact with the famous Viennese Doctor Freud. The author/screenwriter/director would save Jack the Ripper for an encounter with H.G. Wells, in his subsequent movie Time After Time.
The 1976 movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a glorious throwback to quality English filmmaking at a time when the Brit industry was at low ebb. It's probably director-producer Herbert Ross's best all-round film, with Steel Magnolias a close second. The beautiful London and Austrian locations are dazzling and the casting makes excellent use of key star talent: Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall and Laurence Olivier shine in unexpected, unusual roles. Nicholas Meyer's intelligent and witty script seems to have energized everyone involved.
Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) needs help. Seriously in danger of losing his mind to his cocaine habit, he is convinced that his childhood tutor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) is at the center of a diabolical conspiracy with worldwide implications. Sherlock's best friend and collaborator Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall) takes action. Tricking Holmes into thinking that Moriarty has fled to the Continent, Watson accompanies the detective to Vienna, bringing with them a trusted bloodhound to trace the nefarious villain. But it's a ruse: Watson instead delivers Holmes to the consulting rooms of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). The detective tries to excuse himself, but the equally brilliant Freud easily cuts through his defenses and gets him to admit that he has a serious problem. This being 1891 drug cures are virtually unknown, and Freud uses experimental hypnosis to help Holmes withstand the shock of withdrawal. Even before the regimen takes full effect, Sherlock insists on helping Sigmund rescue a patient, famous actress Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave). The dastardly Karl von Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp) spirits Lola from her hospital bed, and Sigmund, John and Sherlock must pursue her kidnappers on a train bound for Constantinople.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution has everything that Holmes fans love, and more: mysterious adventures, spirited characters and clever dialogue. Meyer's screenplay makes the most of Sherlock's eccentric grandstanding when demonstrating the logic behind his wild deductions. Nicol Williamson captures both the enthusiasm and the anguish of Holmes, knowing he's become enslaved to a base addiction and humbling himself to accept the fact that he needs professional help. During his recovery Holmes is tormented by visions of snakes. These meld with his demented visions of Moriarty as a menacing face in the dark.
Alan Arkin found himself in far too many clownish roles around this time, but Seven-Per-Cent allows him to give Dr. Sigmund Freud a truly interesting interpretation. Arkin's Freud is a pleasant intellectual coping well with the fact that he's been all but drummed out of the medical profession for his belief in the unconscious mind. He's aware of the anti-Semitism behind the jeering but doesn't let that get him down either -- when the pompous Baron Leinsdorf challenges him to a duel, Freud chooses a game of Real Tennis rather than agreeing to some kind of violent conflict. The idea of an athletic Freud makes the famous man seem even more human. Best of all, Sigmund matches Holmes argument for argument when it comes to logical deduction and ratiocination. The unlikely men form an intellectual bond because they are both experts at analyzing apparently unrelated events and evidence. Using hypnosis, Freud eventually gets at the root of Holmes' anxieties, which may lie behind his susceptibility to drug addiction. They involve an incident in the past between Holmes' mother (Jill Townsend, Nicol Williamson's spouse) and his father -- and the younger Moriarty. Readers of the book will find that a few key plot points have been changed for the film.
Back in London, Charles Gray plays Sherlock's older brother, Mycroft. The oddest casting is of course Robert Duvall as Watson. For a while we're not certain that it's Duvall's voice that we're hearing, as he seems to be swallowing his own words to hide his iffy English accent. The mustache and mopey face change Duvall's appearance as well. But his slightly bowed legs give him away in long shots!
The film's exciting final act pits our heroes against Leinsdorf's scoundrel and a depraved Turkish Pasha, who intends to add the helpless Lola to his retinue of concubines. Joel Grey is a rat-like operative for Leinsdorf, while Régine is a madam of a brothel that the red-faced investigators must enter to trace the purloined lady. The madam is given a song to sing, written by none other than Stephen Sondheim: "I Never Do Anything Twice".
Staying true to its Victorian origins, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution doesn't offer major parts for women. The men talk about Lola's history as an addict previously cured by Freud, but the second-billed Vanessa Redgrave functions mainly as a beautiful captive to be carted about hospitals and trains. We see that the beautiful Samantha Eggar is Dr. Watson's devoted wife; the most she gets to do is serve tea. Georgia Brown is charming as Sigmund's hausfrau with her young family, and favorite Anna Quayle makes a brief appearance.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a different 'creative' take on Sherlock Holmes than the more comedic Billy Wilder masterpiece The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes -- fewer jokes but just as many amusing situations. Holmes fans that raise an eyebrow at the final reel's train chase, which plays like a condensed version of Buster Keaton's The General, should remember that before Basil Rathbone's films relegated Sherlock to the conservatory with Colonel Mustard, the character was an out-and-out action hero, especially in silent serials. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution doesn't dumb down a great pulp hero.
Shout Factory's Blu-ray + DVD of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a beautiful HD rendering of this handsomely filmed period picture, with its moody London street scenes, Viennese locations and exciting train chase conclusion. Designer Ken Adam reworked a locomotive and rolling stock to give the appearance of a brightly painted vintage train. The image is colorful & sharp and untroubled by defects. John Addison's music score is particularly noticeable in transition scenes.
An interview extra gives us input from writer Nicholas Meyer. He should be very proud of this picture, as it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as for its costumes. Shout Factory's dual release includes a standard DVD disc. The show was apparently licensed from Universal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.