Tuesday, May 28, 2013

PETER CUSHING CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON / Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Christopher Lee

It's a combo Tuesday again, the day I usually post about movies for Todd's blog, which today means I'm talking about the 1959 version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES - my entry in the much anticipated Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon:

To learn more about the Blogathon and the one and only Peter Cushing (1913 - 1994), British actor and gentleman extraordinaire, please use the link labeled above as 'source'.


THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) is a film directed by Terence Fisher with a screenplay by Peter Bryan based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it stars the splendid Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, Andre Morell as Dr. Watson and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville.

For me it's always seemed a slam dunk: Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, I mean. First things first, doesn't he just look the part? Those chiseled cheekbones, that gorgeous nose, the clipped, superior way of speaking, the intense gleam of intelligence shining in his eagle-eyes, that high forehead. Who would ever doubt that he was Sherlock Holmes?

Andre Morell as Dr. Watson, I'm not so crazy about. Though there is one comy-cozy scene at the end when he and Holmes sit down to tea which leaves one with a very nice feeling of shared camaraderie. And he does get to wear a very fetching herringbone cape while traipsing on the moors.

But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Since this is a 1950's production from Hammer Films, we get the usual harsh (and often garish) color of the time. It was the kind of film color that came as close to being 'film noir' as color would get - perhaps unintentionally. This was brazen color with no subtlety, no softly rounded edges, if you know what I mean. The film was also the first HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES shot in color.

And of course, being a Hammer Films Production, the movie begins with a story of crazed blood lust. The legend of the Baskervilles (as recounted by Dr. Mortimer) is fully visualized with proper over-the-top details, starring an overwrought David Oxley as Sir Hugo Baskerville run amok, complete with curved, bloody dagger and murderous soul. Not to mention, a dead virgin.

This sequence takes up about ten or fifteen minutes of the film, but immediately thereafter we're transported to Holmes' Baker Street rooms where Dr. Mortimer has arrived to try and interest the famed consulting detective in the details of the fantastic Baskerville case.

The current Sir Hugo has died in a rather bizarre way, obviously a victim of the notorious family legend, and now his heir, Sir Henry is in deadly peril. Having just arrived from Johannesburg ready to take control of his fortune, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) comes complete with a heart ailment which makes him susceptible to stress. Uh-oh.

I love the early scenes in which Peter Cushing so ably establishes Holmes as a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly (but really, when did he ever?) as he slices and dices Dr. Mortimer's pomposity down to size. Mortimer, as played by David de Wolff, is a gruff, unusually quarrelsome gent, so much so, that one wonders why he's appealed to Holmes for help in the first place.

But Holmes isn't having any of of his guff.

If you've read the Doyle story and/or seen the other films based on the book, you'll notice that there are two points missing from this first, all important meeting: 1) the walking stick deduction and 2) the incredible oversight of the best piece of dialogue from the written story: "Mr. Holmes they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

The screenwriter saw fit to leave that out. If you can believe it.

At any rate, on we go with the story: Once Holmes hears the legend out, he poo-poos it to Mortimer, as only Peter Cushing as Holmes could poo-poo it, lounging in a comfy chair wearing what looks like a silk robe (or smoking jacket) all the while puffing on a long stemmed pipe. He owns the part right there. Mortimer, of course, is nearly apoplectic. He is not a man used to disrespect.

Holmes accepts the case and shows up, with Watson in tow, at the heir's hotel room where they find Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) bemoaning the loss of a brand new boot. Minutes later the heir has an unfriendly encounter with a large tarantula spider (not in the original story) and from then on, things move along mighty quickly. It is agreed that Sir Henry needs looking after.

Holmes, citing other pressing duties, chooses 'to stay behind in London' but sends Watson in his place to guard over Sir Henry. Watson, Mortimer and Sir Henry then travel to Dartmoor and sinister Baskerville Hall, Holmes's dire warning ringing in their ears: under no circumstances must Sir Henry be allowed to walk about the moor at night when the 'forces of evil are exalted'. 

Well, we all know that where mysterious doings go, there must also go Holmes, so it's no surprise when he turns up having gone to Dartmoor incognito to get the lay of the land, as it were, without interference and without letting Watson know. In this behind the scenes investigation, Holmes has already gotten friendly with Selden, the escaped lunatic murderer who has escaped from Dartmoor Prison and who has sworn never to be re-taken alive.

From Selden, Holmes has apparently gotten the background dope on all of Dartmoor's dark doings. It is obvious from the very beginning whom Holmes suspects may be behind the very darkest of those doings.

Note: Many of the plot points we know and remember from Doyle's story are given short shrift in this movie version - set aside, I suppose, in order to keep things moving ever more swiftly.

Stapleton, Holmes and Mortimer looking for trouble and finding it.

Enter Stapleton the butterfly collector (though I believe in this version of the story he is a farmer), here played most grimly by Ewen Solon, with a congenital deformity of the hand. That tells you right away that he bears watching if you didn't know immediately by the perpetual scowl on his face.

Senorita 'Stapleton'

On Dartmoor, Sir Henry (who seems to have a lascivious eye for the ladies) then meets the puzzling Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi in true Spanish spitfire form), here described as Stapleton's daughter. One thing will lead to another as these things always do and Sir Henry is soon besotted with the mysterious dark-haired beauty.

Admittedly Christopher Lee makes for a rather more dashing Sir Henry than other actors in the part before or since though here he is called upon to make some absurd 'scary' faces when under duress. Christopher Lee afraid? I don't think so.

The Bishop and his nifty bike.

Almost stealing the movie from under every one's noses is Miles Malleson as the short-sighted, absent-minded and rather endearingly bumbling, Bishop Frankland who keeps a nice collection of spiders.

'To a great mind, nothing is little.'  Not a quote from this story, but it seems apt.

When one evening Holmes reveals himself to Watson and apologizes for having kept him in the dark, the game is afoot as the Hound makes himself heard on the moors and Holmes and Watson give chase.

In the end everyone gets their more-or-less just desserts, the wretched hound is vanquished, the great Grimpen Mire claims another victim and all is right with the world.

What I like most about Sherlock Holmes as a character (besides his brilliant deducing) is that he assumes he is the star of any room he enters, the master of any situation he encounters and yet, somehow, he always remains likable. In Peter Cushing's hands, he is gracefully, delightfully eccentric and has a very nice wardrobe.

I've mentioned before how the story of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES has never received any real justice on screen. The main reason is that screenwriters are forever tinkering with the original plot for one reason or another and always mucking it up.

In one case, that of the excellent Jeremy Brett in the PBS Hound of the Baskerville adaptation, the disastrous casting of Kristopher Tabori (for whatever reason, an unlikeable actor) as Sir Henry Baskerville ruins the film for me and renders it unwatchable. (Everyone forgets that Sir Henry MUST be likable in some small way or else we won't care what happens to him.) The Basil Rathbone version has very good casting but leaves enough holes in the plot as to make it mostly non-sensical.

This version of Doyle's classic (though it too leaves many holes in the plot) works best if you don't pay much attention to cohesion and just sit back and enjoy Peter Cushing and Miles Malleson as they do their stuff. A terrific film for a dark and stormy night.

Afternoon tea with Holmes and Watson.

I hope you'll link on over to Pierre's The Frankentenia Blog hosting the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon and check out all the links to all the participating bloggers, all film mavens, all Peter Cushing aficionados.

Also don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films other bloggers are talking about today.

Please note that all the photos on my post were culled from various film blogs on the internet and meant purely for entertainment purposes. If you own a pix and would like it removed just let me know and it will be done.


  1. Actually, Cushing did play Holmes in a television series. However, only 5 episodes survive. They are available on dvd.

  2. Oh, good to know. Thanks. And didn't Christopher Lee play Holmes once upon a time?

  3. Well Patti, you know how I like to get carried away. :)

  4. Terrific stuff Yvette - I'd been planning to do a post on this one as I'm a fan of Hammer movies but you know what, I'd rather re-read yours instead so I'll let that slide on to the slush pile! I don't think Lee is actually particularly well cast in it and emphasis on gore is just a distraction but I agree that getting the roles right is really important and Morell and Cushing make for a great Holmes and Watson.. Great review - cheers.


  5. Thanks, Sergio. You like Morell more than I do, but basically we agree about Lee. He is too overwhelming a screen presence to play second fiddle.:)

  6. Yvette -- wonderful post. "What I like most about Sherlock Holmes as a character (besides his brilliant deducing) is that he assumes he is the star of any room he enters, the master of any situation he encounters and yet, somehow, he always remains likable." You capture the movie perfectly. I have always loved Peter Cushing's interpretation of Holmes. I haven't seen the surviving television episodes yet, but I'm sure they are great. And yes, Christoper Lee did play Holmes, but I haven't see it. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  7. Yvette, this has always been my favourite Sherlock Holmes mystery, perhaps because I studied it in school and it has stayed with me ever since. Cushing looks every bit the Holmes I'd expect him to look like and you brought that out very well in your review. Also, your view about Christopher Lee, in your reply to Sergio's comment, is precisely what I was thinking while reading your post. He has been such an amazing actor. Thanks for an excellent review, Yvette. I haven't seen this version. In fact, I'll have to find out which versions I've seen!

  8. Yvette,

    Great review of my favorite Holmes tale--the Hound.....

    In Tucson, the local mystery bookstore at one time was called "The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound." Unfortunately the new owners changed it to "Clues Unlimited."

    Lee is a great Holmes and what you say about him also fits Basil Rathbone. What turns me off of the Rathbone films is the treatment of Watson as a bumbling fool--definitely not Doyle's presentation of him.

    The Jeremy Brett versions are my favorite though because Brett also makes a superb Holmes, Watson is portrayed as Doyle has him, and the dramatizations are much closer to Doyle's tales than the others I have seen.

    Your review reminded me that it's been awhile since I've seen any of the Holmes films--hmmmmm.

  9. You're welcome, Joe, and thank you for the kind words. I loved viewing this film after so many years. I believe that once upon a time I saw this in the theater - back in the days of black and white TV.

    I didn't even know about the television series or at least, I don't remember knowing. :)

  10. Thanks, Prashant, you've given me a good idea for a post when I have more time. Comparing all the Hound of the Baskervilles I've seen over the years. I'll have to rewatch them first though.

    It might be fun. ;)

  11. Luckily, Fred, there are plenty of Holmes tales available for viewing on Netflix
    and youtube.

    Thanks, Fred. I'm thinking of doing a post comparing the different treatments. But it would be the kind of work I'm not prepared to do right now. Maybe in a few weeks...

    The only disastrous Holmes I can ever remember off the top of my head (though there have been several) was the one in which Stewart Granger played the part. SO NOT HOLMES!

  12. Yvette, this is a grand look at the Hammer film. Miles Malleson does indeed steal the picture away. What a hoot! It is from his turn as Sir Henry that my daughter and I nicknamed Christopher Lee "Dreamboat". We get the giggles watching Saruman or Count Dooku.

    I so agree that casting Cushing as Holmes seems like a no-brainer. It is one of Cushing's traits as an actor that he seems so perfectly suited to so many varied roles.

  13. Yvette, it's Hammer Time! :-D But seriously, I totally enjoyed your review of the Peter Cushing Hammer version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES! Your affection for the story and your renowned cheeky wit made this a must-read, as always!

  14. I watched this for the first time late last year, and I loved it.

  15. I loved him in STAR WARS too, Pat. Even when he was bad he was good. :)

    Christopher Lee: Dreamboat. I like it.

  16. Hammer time! How could I miss using that????? Oh Dorian, you're always a quip ahead of me. :)

    This film was so much fun to write about.
    Thanks for the kind words, kiddo. :)

  17. Good for you, Ryan! I loved it too. :)


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