Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles

By Steve Herte

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hammer Film Productions, 1959) – Director: Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushington, Andre Morell, and Christopher Lee.

Channel 13, public broadcasting station in New York City, is often my haven for entertainment when the other network stations offer very little beyond American football. Seeing that this movie was being re-aired and offering me two of my favorite actors, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I tuned to it directly.

The back story is that Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) was a boorish master of Baskerville Hall and a cruel task master to those below him. When it came time for him to debase a servant girl at one of his drunken parties, the girl (Judy Moyens) escapes. In a rage he sets his foxhounds on her and chases her on horseback to the old ruined Abbey on the Moors, where he kills her with ornate silver dagger. However, the Hound of the Baskervilles howls, scaring his dogs back to their kennels, nearly throwing him from his horse, and attacks and tears him apart.

We then see Doctor Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) enlisting the services of Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and Doctor Watson (André Morell) to protect the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Lee) from the same fate. Of course, Sherlock is dubious of the legend and curious as to why a doctor should believe in it at all. Nevertheless, Watson accompanies Mortimer to Baskerville Hall while Holmes has business in London.

While at Baskerville Hall, Watson meets the strange Bishop Frankland (Miles Malleson), a pre-eminent entomologist who keeps live tarantulas and scorpions in his home (one of the tarantulas turns up in one of Sir Henry’s boots and crawls up to his shoulder before Sherlock flicks it away with his cane and kills it). He also meets the caretakers of Baskerville Hall, Barrymore (John Le Mesurier) and his wife (Helen Goss) who have been with the family for a long time, even inheriting money from Sir Hugo. Lastly, he meets Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his daughter Cecil (Maria Landi) when he’s trying to take the short cut through the moors and they have to fish him out of Grimpen mire.

Upon learning that the Baskerville men all suffered from atherosclerosis and thus had weak hearts, Watson and Holmes conclude that this made them easy targets for fearsome legends. But all is not what it seems. There is also a convict named Selden (Michael Mulcaster) loose on the moors, who becomes a victim of The Hound when he unfortunately wears hand-me-downs from Sir Henry. The clues pile up. Mrs. Barrymore’s maiden name was Selden and she’s the sister of the convict. Stapleton and his daughter are really related to the Baskervilles but were ignored by them and left in an impoverished state on their own lands.

It’s not until Holmes enters the abandoned mine and injures his leg in a cave-in caused by a runaway mine car (which was supposedly held in check by Stapleton and Mortimer) that we learn the true nature of the doings at the Abbey on the Moors. The Hound is a Great Dane wearing a fearsome mask which was kept starving in the mine until given the scent of a Baskerville by Stapleton (who himself was the last casualty of the beast before Watson shoots it).

In this day of high tech graphics, elaborate stage sets and costumes, it’s refreshing to watch a movie with limited staging, green lighting to indicate a deadly atmosphere, a main character who wears the same dress throughout the movie while Holmes and Watson change repeatedly but carry no luggage. Most of all, it was good to see Cushing and Lee together. And none of that “Hello, what’s this?” from Sherlock.

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