Seven Per-Cent Solution (Shout! Factory Blu-Ray)
Directors - Herbert Ross
Cast - Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall
Country of Origin - USA, China
Discs - 2
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 03/10/13
The Film: 4/5
The year is 1891. Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall) has been pulled from his life of domestic bliss and a successful private practice and summoned to the home of his dear friend, the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson). To the consternation of his housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Alison Leggatt) Holmes has barricaded himself in his room because he is convinced that his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty, the so-called "Napoleon of Crime", is out to destroy him. But the truth is Holmes has developed a addiction to the cocaine he started taking during the dry spells between cases and at the rate he is going he will be dead within a year. Watson and Holmes' brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) convince the real Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), who was the Holmes brothers mathematics tutor when they were children, to take a leave of absence and travel abroad so they will be able to convince Holmes to depart his comfort zone of London and follow his imagined enemy to Vienna. The plot is a ruse to get Holmes to Vienna so his addiction can be treated by the pioneering psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Freud convinces a reluctant Holmes to submit himself to hypnotherapy and over the course of several days the detective goes through a harrowing period of withdrawal. Seemingly broken of his cocaine codependency, Holmes recovers in time to become involved in the case of Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave), a famous actress and former patient of Freud's who was admitted to a local hospital after what appeared to be a suicide attempt. But upon examining her scarred body Holmes deduces that she was kidnapped and had to suffer severe wounds in order to escape captivity. After leaving the hospital to follow a suspicious-looking chemist (Joel Grey) who matches the description of the man Lola claimed kidnapped her the lady's lover Baron Karl Von Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp) has her taken again. The stage is set for Holmes, Watson, and Dr. Freud to pursue Lola's captors in a high-speed locomotive chase across Europe, but for Holmes the case could be his ultimate undoing.
"The story is true. Only the facts have been made up."
Handsome, witty, and enthralling, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - the title refers to the dosage of cocaine Holmes prefers - is a real treat. I've always been more of a casual admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories than a serious fan, though I could easily profess to loving many of the films adapted from those classic literary mysteries. The Holmes stories always appealed to me as a person who thinks that the mind is the best weapon we human beings have at our disposal because the legendary detective prized the use of logic and intuition over brutal strength and firearms in the resolution of his cases. But it wasn't like some of those tales weren't afraid to inject some rousing action into the proceedings and it was usually when such beats were warranted. Nicholas Meyer - best known to sci-fi fans as the writer (sometimes uncredited) and director of Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - adapted his own 1974 novel, a labor of love born out of a lifelong passion for the Holmes stories and a lot of free time, for the screen and maintains the book's crucial plot engine while making some modest alterations to the narrative. The heart of the story has always been the professional relationship between Holmes, Watson, and Freud and Holmes' redemption from the cocaine addiction that threatens to completely destroy him. Though Watson takes a backseat to Holmes and Freud's intellectual gamesmanship most of the time he's still one of the most integral characters in the story. The case the intrepid trio has to solve and the villains they face are secondary elements this time around. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution acknowledges that Sherlock Holmes is usually the most interesting character in any of Doyle's stories and he's certainly the character at the center of Meyer's take on the beloved sleuth and his literary legacy. It's a very deconstructionist narrative since the author digs into the fractured psyche of Holmes and turns his well-established universe inside out to reveal that most of what we were lead to assume about his lifestyle and adventures could possibly have been the product of a drug-addled imagination.
Meyer's script was brought to thrilling life under the direction of Herbert Ross, a veteran Broadway choreographer and director who knows all too well how to handle potentially weighty material with just the proper deftness of touch. Prior to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution Ross had directed light-hearted films like The Sunshine Boys, The Owl and the Pussycat, and Funny Lady. Before the end of his career he would also call the shots on some of the biggest hits of his professional career - Footloose and Steel Magnolias. Ross and Meyer found creative kindred spirits in each other because they both understood that the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not meant to be dark and gritty, lurid and violent exercises in grim exploitation. Nor are they meant to be frivolous laugh riots impossible to take the slightest bit seriously for a moment. The key to successfully telling a Holmes story as Doyle understood it was to arrange a stalemate between those combative tones. The darkness of the material is elevated by the strength of the well-developed relationships, the depth of the characterizations, and the humor that emerges unforced from their interplay. Ross stages every scene without needless visual distraction and allows the actors and the script to take center stage. The sets are sumptuous but given a sense of lived-in realism thanks to the gaslight cinematography that enhances their authenticity. Though the story is driven by shrewd detective work and enraptured character beats Ross and Meyer find the time to toss in some welcome action set pieces that feel like natural progressions of the plot, like one scene where Holmes, Watson, and Freud find themselves trapped inside an arena and having to dodge stampeding horses. The majority of the third act is devoted to an extended train chase that finds the trio forced to chop up a caboose for wood to keep the fires burning during the pursuit. Holmes has a saber fight on top of one of the cars while Freud gets to pack heat in the most gentlemanly manner.
Ultimately it is the star trio of Nicol Williamson, Alan Arkin, and Robert Duvall that provides the soul and beating heart of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Williamson is by far the best actor to ever play the role of Sherlock Holmes in my opinion. The notoriously difficult actor was one of the true shining lights of the British stage in the latter half of the 20th century but he rarely was afforded the chance for the success in film that he had achieved in the theater. Best known for playing the definitive Merlin in perhaps the finest movie ever made about the legend of King Arthur - John Boorman's Excalibur - Williamson's performance as Holmes is one of the finest of his distinguished career. In many ways the actor and character are just made for each other, both possessed of great genius is their chosen profession but plagued by demons and dominated by eccentricities that made it extremely difficult for them to productively work with others. But Williamson takes on the part of Holmes with magnificent theatrical gusto like wearing the character as a second skin; so great is the actor's performance that by the end it is hard to separate Williamson from Holmes and vice versa. This is one of those rare moments when you get to see Holmes in the process of completely unraveling and more unsure of himself and his abilities as a detective than he likely has ever been. Williamson's performance never goes over the top even though at times it looks as if Holmes could certainly do just that. It's a daring high wire act to attempt, turning the greatest crime-solving intellect in the world of fiction into a proverbial mental case trying to rebuild his entire persona and regain the trust of his closest compatriots, but Williamson pulls it off in a performance that is as dynamic as it is haunting.
He is matched in every regard by Alan Arkin giving a performance as Dr. Sigmund Freud that avoids the clichés that torpedoed portrayals other actors of the past and future gave of the great psychiatric pioneer and finds the warmth and gentle humor inherent in a man whose name has become synonymous with the discovery of the darker aspects of our personalities. Arkin is at his best when he shows us a Freud dedicated to helping his patients, most prominently in this case being Holmes, conquer their demons who also gets a huge thrill at using his own kind understanding of the human mind to help Holmes and Watson in their investigation. After all, what kid who grew up valuing brains over brawn in resolving conflicts because they also had more of the former than the latter didn’t imagine themselves playing sidekick to their favorite heroes of literature, film, television, or comic books? Though Freud isn’t exactly a Holmes fan boy you get a sense of pure joy and adulation from Arkin’s performance. Plus his accent isn’t half bad either. Completing the trifecta is Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson. Despite the plot of the movie often seeing his cast to the sidelines in favor of the relationship between Holmes and Freud, Watson is possibly the most important character in the story. He initiates getting Holmes to Vienna to be examined by Freud and through it all gives his friend and colleague the strength to carry on and be the great detective he was born to become. Duvall sidesteps previous incarnations of Watson that saw the character portrayed as a bumbling fool and shows us the man who provided the balance and structure that kept Sherlock Holmes honest and not completely disconnected from his humanity. It’s a fine bit of professional acting that tends to get overlooked but really shouldn’t.
Vanessa Redgrave’s performance is mostly thankless as she serves mostly as a plot device, but she is very lovely to look at and her presence in the story does pay off in the final moments. The rest of the cast including Charles Gray, Jeremy Kemp, Joel Grey, and Samantha Eggar all give solid turns in roles that are not as flashy or developed as the three leads. Some of them would have benefited greatly from an increase in screen time but with the narrative already busy enough being devoted to Holmes’ personal and professional redemption and the kidnapping case he takes on along with Watson and Freud that wasn’t going to be possible, and the movie is all the better for it.
Shout! has done a superior job in bringing The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to Blu-ray. The movie had been previously issued on DVD by Image Entertainment in 1998 in a cruddy full frame transfer and in 2011 by original distributor Universal as part of their online exclusive "Universal Vault Series" line. Shout has restored the film to its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and presented it in a stunning HD transfer. The gorgeous cinematography by Oswald Morris - whose previous credits include Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, and The Dark Crystal - is rich with warm Victorian-era colors and the hazy look of most of the scenes reminded me of Vilmos Zsigmond's dreamy photography on Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The dense dialogue and the playful music score by John Addison come out sounding the strongest in the robust English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. English subtitles are included.
The only extra feature is "When Sherlock Met Sigmund", an 18-minute interview with author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer produced by Michael Felsher and Red Shirt Pictures. The writer discusses the origins of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution beginning with his introduction to the Sherlock Holmes stories by his psychiatrist father and how his father's profession inspired the inclusion of Freud in the novel and subsequent screenplay adaptation. Meyer had been a writer for film and television exclusively until a Writer's Guild of America strike gave him the excuse and time he needed to write the novel, which went on to become a nationwide bestseller. His warm sense of humor purveys when he tells the story about how wanted to structure the screenplay differently and leave out crucial dialogue scenes to keep the action flowing but director Ross convinced him to keep those moments in the script because fans of the novel would want to see them on the big screen. The story about the casting of Robert Duvall as Watson is a particular highlight; both Ross and Meyer jumped at the chance to have Duvall in the role because of a mutual loathing for the buffoonish portrayal of the character by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes films. Meyer, who teases the possibility of another Holmes novel at the end, is a great storyteller whose fond remembrances of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution make this featurette an invaluable watch for fans of the book and film. I only wish he had recorded an audio commentary because something tells me there is a lot more of the story to be told.
Shout! Factory has also included a DVD copy containing a standard-definition widescreen transfer of the movie as well as the Meyer interview. I must commend the company for using Drew Struzan's beautiful original poster art as the cover to this new Blu-ray instead of going for a hack cut and paste job most studios would gladly resort to for the sake of saving a buck.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is by far the best Sherlock Holmes story I have ever seen as a film. Nicholas Meyer’s witty screenplay, Herbert Ross’ astute direction, and the stunning performances from Nicol Williamson, Alan Arkin, and Robert Duvall all combine forces to create a classic mystery-adventure frontloaded with action, intrigue, and terrific character beats. This is one of the most honestly enjoyable movies I have seen in years and it has been given the first-rate treatment on Blu-ray by the good people at Shout! Factory.