“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

There have been countless number of plays, movie and television productions based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” novels and short stories. Some of these productions have touched upon or portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict. Only two have actually explored this topic. And one of them was the 1976 film, “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”

Film director and novelist Nicholas Meyer had written his first novel – a Sherlock Holmes tale – called “The Seven-Percent Solution” – and it was published in 1974. A year or two later, Meyer adapted the novel as a movie. Directed by Herbert Ross, the film starred Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. John Watson and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud. “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” began when Army veteran Dr. John Watson becomes convinced that his close friend and colleague, private detective Sherlock Holmes, has developed a drug-induced obsession with proving that a professor named James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind. After Moriarty complains to Watson that he is being harassed by Holmes, the good doctor enlists the aid of Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, to trick Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where he can be treated by a clinical neurologist named Dr. Sigmund Freud. While being treated by Freud for his cocaine addiction, Holmes becomes involved with a kidnapping case involving an actress, who happens to be another patient of Dr. Freud’s.

It is quite obvious that “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” is a mystery . . . like any other Sherlock Holmes tale. Only, Holmes is not the person who solves the film’s major mystery. It is Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Wait a minute . . . “ many of you might say. Holmes is the main character in this tale. And the film’s narrative includes the famous detective being forced to solve a kidnapping. But the kidnapping of Lola Devereaux seemed to be the movie’s B-plot. The real mystery seemed to be the reasons behind Holmes’ addiction . . . and his harassment of Professor Moriarty. And that mystery remained unsolved – by Dr. Freud – until the film’s final ten to fifteen minutes. Sherlock Holmes might be the film’s main character, but the main investigator in this tale is none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud. This is one of the reasons why I still find “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” so fascinating. For once, Sherlock Holmes is not the main investigator in one of his tales . . . he is the mystery. No wonder this film is so rare among the many works of fiction – on screen or off – about the famous detective. Not only did I find it rare, but also very interesting.

Since the real mystery behind “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was about Sherlock Holmes’ personal demons and his drug use, I also have to give kudos to Nicholas Meyer in the manner in which he structured the narrative. He must have realized that he could not simply present a story about Holmes’ demons and his drug addiction and keep movie audiences interested. Especially since Holmes is the main character. Meyer had to include an adventure for the fictional detective, Dr. Watson and Dr. Freud. And I believe that Meyer was very smart to first center the story around Holmes’ addiction and his harassment of James Moriarty. Yet, at the same time, Meyer injected small clues that foreshadowed the trio’s adventures surrounding Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. By the time Freud managed to “dry out” Holmes’ drug addiction, the story finally shifted full time to the kidnapping. I also thought Meyer was very clever to portray her as another one of Freud’s patients, in order to include the neurologist into the adventure. And yet, the rescue of Miss Devereaux was not the end of the story, for the real mystery had yet to be solved – namely what traumatic event led Holmes to his drug use and his harassment of Moriarty. Like I said . . . very clever. Meyer’s story was basically a character study of Sherlock Holmes, yet he included an exciting adventure into the narrative in order to maintain the audience’s interest.

Another aspect of “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” that I truly enjoyed was its production values. It is a very beautiful looking film. I believe the three people responsible for the movie’s visual style were cinematographer Oswald Morris, costume designer Alan Barrett and two veterans of the James Bond franchise – art director Peter Lamont and the legendary production designer Ken Adams. One of the aspects that I enjoyed about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was Morris’ beautiful and colorful photography of England and Austria, especially Vienna. I have only one complaint about Morris’ photography was the hazy sheen that seemed to indicate that the film is a period drama. I found that unnecessary. I was very impressed with Barrett’s costumes – for both the men and women characters. I thought he did an excellent job in creating exquisite costumes for a story set in the early 1890s. As much as I admire most of Morris’ photography for its sheer visual beauty, I also admire it for enhancing both Ken Adams’ production designs and Peter Lamont’s art designs. And I have to say . . . both did a great job in re-creating both late Victorian England and Vienna during the middle period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The performances featured in “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” were pretty solid, with perhaps a few outstanding ones. Would I regard Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes outstanding? I am not sure. I have to admit that I was impressed by his performance in many scenes – especially those that featured Holmes’ investigation of Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. However, there were a good number of moments when I found Williamson’s performance a bit theatrical – especially in those scenes when Holmes’ obsession of Moriarty seemed to be overwhelming or when the character was in the throes of cocaine withdrawal. Many filmgoers and critics have claimed that Robert Duvall was miscast as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ closest friend and chronicler. Perhaps. I suspect that this belief is solely based upon the British accent that Duvall had utilized for the role. It was not impressive. In fact, I found it lumbering and somewhat wince-inducing. However . . . a bad accent does not exactly mean a bad performance. Despite his inability to get a handle on a decent British accent, I cannot deny that Duvall gave a classy and first-rate performance as the loyal and intelligent Watson.

Vanessa Redgrave gave an exquisite performance as Lola Devereaux, the sensuous, yet intelligent actress, who becomes the target of kidnappers. Jeremy Kemp was marvelous as the arrogant and bigoted Baron Karl von Leinsdorf, who also could be rather dashing . . . at least to women like Miss Deveareaux. Joel Grey gave an interesting performance as a mysterious figure named Lowenstein, who played a prominent role in Miss Devereaux’s kidnapping. The movie also benefited from solid performances from Samantha Eggar, Charles Gray, Anna Quayle, Georgia Brown, Régine and John Hill. Jill Townsend, who was married to Williamson at the time, made a very effective cameo as the Holmes brothers’ mother in a flashback.

But for me, the two best performances came from Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Laurence Olivier as Professor James Moriarty. Arkin was superb as the brilliant neurologist, whose cool demeanor is constantly tested by Holmes’ abrasive personality, Baron von Leinsdorf’s bigotry and the adventure that he, Holmes and Watson are drawn into. I believe the other great performance came from Laurence Olivier, who gave a fascinating performance as the target of Holmes’ ire, Professor James Moriarty. What I found fascinating about Olivier’s performance is that he managed to not only convey Moriarty’s obsequious behavior, but also a hint that the character was hiding a pretty awful secret.

I realized that I only had a few quibbles about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”. I did not care for the hazy sheen that layered an otherwise excellent photography by Oswald Morris. There were times when lead actor Nicol Williamson seemed a bit hammy and if I must be honest, Robert Duvall’s English accent was rather ponderous and fake. But overall, both actors and the rest of the cast provided some pretty good performances, especially Alan Arkin and Laurence Olivier. But I was especially impressed by the narrative for “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”, a unique Sherlock Holmes tale in which the main mystery was focused on the detective’s own psyche.

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