Movies We Like
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
The opening title card of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution reads: “In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years. This is the true story of that disappearance. Only the facts are made up.”
This clever welcoming very much sums up the kitschy and revisionist way the story of literature’s greatest detective is treated. One-time dance choreographer turned director Herbert Ross created a near-brand for himself in the '70s with his theatrical adaptations, with films like Funny Lady and Play It Again, Sam, and Neil Simon scripts including The Goodbye Girl, California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. But it is with this adaptation from the popular novel by Nicholas Meyer that Ross really gets to break away from his more stagebound roots, taking advantage of actual European locations and a very exciting cast to tell this tale of Holmes being treated by Sigmund Freud. (Later he would have success going back to his dancy roots with films like The Turning Point and Footloose.)
Interesting side note: novelist Meyer would next direct his own script, Time After Time, which again playfully mixed up history as author H.G. Wells chases Jack The Ripper to the modern day in his own time machine. And of course Trekkies are very aware of Meyer as a future writer and director associated with many Star Trek films. But The Seven-Per-Cent Solution proves to be much more than a footnote for Meyer’s literary imagination. It has lots of competition, but this film is the best non-Arthur Conan Doyle-penned Holmes tale and it manages to turn the whole canon inside out.
In this one, cocaine addiction has almost destroyed Sherlock Holmes (played wonderfully by the underrated Nicol Williamson, so great later as Merlin in Excalibur and in one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Venom). It makes him a shell of his former self and completely obsessed with kindly old Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), who was Holmes' family tutor as a child, but whom is now constantly harassed by the detective, who thinks he is some kind of super criminal. In an effort to save his best pal, Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall, sporting a believable hairpiece, but a questionable English accent) uses Moriarty to lure Holmes to Vienna where he can be treated by the radical Freud (Alan Arkin, on the waning edge of his leading man days). The two make progress, digging deep to dissect Holmes using hypnosis, a wet dream for fans of the detective as it’s full of clues and references to past stories, revealing a traumatic childhood that set up Moriarty as his mortal enemy in his mind. And in the meantime, while Holmes recovers, going cold-turkey, and Freud deals with an anti-Semitic creep, the three wind up in an adventure, as one of Freud’s clients, actress Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave) goes missing. This all has something to do with a Turkish Sultan and his weaselly toady (Joel Grey, fairly fresh off winning an Oscar for Cabaret) which leads to a big exciting train chase across Europe.
Cinema in the '60s and '70s became a revisionist paradise. Sergio Leone turned the Western on its head with his so-called Spaghetti Westerns. Robert Altman personally re-fangled the war film (M*A*S*H*) and noir (The Long Goodbye). The Godfather was a new kind of gangster picture, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a new kind of sex comedy, and Mel Brooks gave us a new take on Universal Horror movies (Young Frankenstein). The examples go on and on. And this new take on all things cinema also included Sherlock Holmes. For most of the century, the dignified Basil Rathbone and the bumbling Nigel Bruce have been most identified as Holmes and Watson and to some degree still are. But the '70s did see some new and radical takes on the subject; the great Billy Wilder made the criminally under-appreciated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Holmes vs. The Loch Ness Monster), Canadian Bob Clark made the entertaining Murder By Decree (Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper) and even Gene Wilder had a go with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (with mixed results). It could be argued that the mild success of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution showed you could branch from the original Holmes roots and find fresh new angles. It helped open the door to reexamining these enduring characters. In the decades since, Holmes and Watson have lived on in all forms of media, film, television, stage and literature. Meyer himself wrote two follow-up books, The West End Horror (1976) and The Canary Trainer (1993), that still haven’t been brought to the screen. (Producers take note.) There doesn’t seem to be any end to the life and adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and though The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is not the best in terms of mystery (it’s very secondary), in terms of a psychological character study and even pure entertainment, it’s elementary that no other film comes close to this clever and witty little gem.