The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) – A Curious Case For Sherlock Fans…

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The Great Detective was a drug addict. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote him that way, and it is a fact central to Sherlock Holmes lore, which has created a thorny issue for many a filmmaker in adapting Doyle’s canonical series of stories. It is a fact that cannot be ignored – The Sign of Four opens with a lengthy scene of Holmes shooting up morphine. Even Basil Rathbone, the first truly iconic portrayal of Holmes, found the subject a bit sticky – his triumphant call for the needle at the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles invoked the wrath of the draconian Hays Code.

Even the most recent adaptation, Mark Gatiss’ shit hot BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which so successfully brought Holmes into the 21st century with its seamless appropriation of smartphones and blogging, was notably coy about the issue until the third series. It took until the third episode of the third series for the creators to fully acknowledge Holmes’ dabbling with hard drugs, with Watson accidentally rumbling Holmes in a shooting gallery. Then screenwriters and actors bashfully tip-toed around the subject for five minutes, treating it as a comic episode, then the issue was forgotten as the plot hastily resumed.

The greatest era for Holmes adaptations was the Seventies. It was a decade when young fearless auteurs such as Scorsese, Coppola, Polanski, Spielberg, Malick, Altman and Freeman managed to wrestle creative control away from the studios, giving the film going public a darker, more cynical, open-ended view of reality.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period also included several post-modern re-imaginings of Doyle’s famous detective – Billy Wilder’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, They Might Be Giants, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe also got a revamp in the form of Robert Altman’s deadpan The Long Goodbye in 1973, even though the original novel was published only twenty years earlier.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a curious film, because on one hand it is the first and only film to date to focus purely on Holmes’ drug addiction, while tacking on a bizarre pastiche of a Boy’s Own adventure as a conclusion, as if Disney took over production two-thirds of the way through, and finished the film in the manner of its cheerfully ridiculous One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) is having a psychotic episode due to his addiction to cocaine. One of his paranoid fantasies is that his tutor, Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) is a criminal mastermind. His faithful friend Watson (Robert Duvall) gets together with Moriarty to conjure up a scheme to help Holmes, which will lead him to Vienna, where he will receive treatment from none other than Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).

This is not the first time the lines between the fictional detective and reality have become blurred. A Study in Terror pitted him against Jack the Ripper; several wartime adventures had Holmes battling the Nazis. For many years, the occupants of 221B Baker Street received letters from all over the world, asking the non-existent detective to solve various real life mysteries.

The most intriguing aspect of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is how a physically incapacitated, mentally fragile Holmes interacts with the acute mind of Freud, himself a former coke addict. The scenes play beautifully, as one might imagine a meaty two-hander of a stage production, generating a real sense of friction, as it is never quite certain whether Freud takes Holmes’ deductions seriously, or product of a drug-addled mind.

It took me a little while to fall into the groove of Williamson’s performance, as he is perhaps the least Holmes-looking screen portrayal of Holmes, and the early scenes are annoyingly antic. About halfway through, however, I began to think that he is perhaps the finest Holmes of all.

There is a brilliant scene where Holmes, nervous and self-doubting, breathlessly analyses the contents of Freud’s office – at a time of extreme stress, he falls back on his powers of deduction as a self-defence mechanism, a comfort blanket. I believed Williamson’s Holmes’ as a mentally anomalous human being, whose great intellect couldn’t grasp the implications of substance abuse when the time came to pay the piper.

Later, there is a cold turkey scene so surreal, nightmarish and frightening it puts to shame a similar episode in Trainspotting, made twenty years later. It is uncomfortable to see Holmes as weak and doubting at first, so when he is finally presented with a case to solve, it is hard not to root for him as he launches himself into the investigation.

Arkin does a tremendous job with Freud, a role that could fall into parody. Handsome, grave, dignified and quietly dashing, he uses his intellect to conquer anti-semitic sentiment directed his way by the film’s inconsequential villain.

Robert Duvall makes up the final point of the triumvirate as Watson – not a dunce by any means, as some earlier adaptations have made him. He is perhaps the closest portrayal of Watson to the Watson of Doyle’s stories – a staunch, reserved, loyal friend, always a little behind the plot, not because he is stupid, but because he finds himself surrounded by intellects far greater than his own.

Spielberg’s Jaws came out the year before The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and I read a Freudian take on the film, claiming that Brody, Hooper and Quint represented the Id, Super Id, and Ego, not necessarily in that order. For the sake of facetiousness, we can say The Seven-Per-Cent Solution charts similar waters, with Holmes, Freud and Watson as the same facets of the human mind, although not necessarily in that order, with Holmes’ drug addiction as the shark circling beneath…

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution does not read anything into the relationship between Holmes and Watson, other than loyal friends. That was all I got from reading Doyle’s stories, although it has become fashionable to read a homo-erotic subtext into their friendship. I couldn’t quite tell who the butch and the bitch in Guy Ritchie’s big budget, two-fisted, steam punk blockbuster reboot, while Gatiss cosily evoked a “Bromance” between Holmes and Watson, which shifted his adaptation into sitcom territory come the third series.

And then, the final reel. I hated and loved the final reel of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in roughly equal measure. It features an impressively staged steam train chase, where the heroes chop up a carriage to use as fuel, and sword-fighting duellists who abandon the confines of another carriage to conduct their life-or-death struggle on top of a moving train.

I hated it because it comprehensively pissed away all the subtle intellect of everything that went before, although there is a deathless early line that hints toward the story’s inclination towards silliness: Watson, in voiceover is discussing Holmes’ faithful bloodhound – “More recently, Holmes had employed Toby to trace an orangutan through the sewers of Marseilles; it was a case which, though I omitted to set down, was not without features of interest.”

I loved it because it was more akin to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories; slightly xenophobic though they are in portraying China as the “Yellow Peril”, are nevertheless a thrilling, breathtaking, jaw dropping catalogue of pitfalls, deadly creatures, nefarious villains, cunning traps and cliffhangers. I love that stuff, especially combined with Victorian era, stiff-upper-lipped gentlemen, who handle every unlikely plot turn with a barely raised eyebrow.

One of my favourite TV adverts of all time featured a Phileas Fogg-like character and sidekick in a hot air balloon, rapidly losing altitude over the Alps. Having dispensed with their outer clothing (but not top hats), the heroes realise there is only one thing for it – pop a Trebor’s Extra Strong Mint into their mouths, and use their breath to reinflate the balloon.

This is the territory The Seven-Per-Cent Solution ends up in, and entertaining though it is, there is a nagging sense of disappointment and anti-climax, that if the screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, adapting his own novel for the screen, had the courage to stick to his earlier convictions, we would have a masterpiece on our hands. It daringly suggests that Holmes’ obsession with Moriarty is a result of buried childhood trauma, and puts the Great Detective on the couch. It is an adult appraisal of Holmes’ drug addiction, something that has been so distasteful to filmmakers before and since.

Why do people have a problem with the drug aspect of Holmes? Consider Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’ popular supervillain who is very similar in character to Holmes. It is easier for people to accept Lecter’s cannibalism as the esoteric fine dining choice of an intellectual sociopath than it is to accept Holmes, on the side of good, spiking a vein occasionally as an intellectual reprieve from his ennui between cases. In Doyles’ stories, there is no suggestion that Holmes’ drug use is an addiction or has any debilitating effect on the detective – so why do people get so queasy on the subject? If Holmes had followed a different path, he might have resorted to frying up another man’s brain and eating it in front of them, a la Lecter…but that would be OK, because it isn’t drugs.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 25/01/2014, in Adventure, Comedy, Detective, Film, Movies, Reviews, S, Thriller and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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