The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988)

The Elusive Core of the Genre

If you want to understand film, you need to understand the three main narrative types: noir, that genre derived from the musical, and the detective story.

While the detective story in film essentially means Agatha Christie, you can’t understand that unless you understand Holmes. And the “Hound“, my friends is the only long form we have of the Holmes stories.

Further, if you are looking for a version that is true to the source (more or less) plus being slightly engaging, this is your station for the evening.

There are lots of problems, not the least of which is the material. The Holmes stories are impossibly unfilmable: it is “precinematic“ literature that imagines engravings first (a severed engineer’s thumb for instance) and then spins an intellectual universe around that. Within this is the yeoman reportage of Watson which is distinctly journalistic.

This only works well on the short form. “Hound” was a failure even by Victorian pulp standards, because it attempted subplots and parallel threads and succeeded imperfectly. So in “Hound” we start with a poorly crafted story that is also inherently uncinematic.

But what a story! Doyle was by this time just entering his own belief that the supernatural did exist. In fact, he became the leading figure in the world-wide spiritualist movement. After this period he would famously play the “modern” scientist to the debunking Houdini an amazing reversal of roles: Conan Doyle invented the “thinking machine” human rooted in logic and Houdini made a living fostering the illusion of hidden powers. Doyle‘s struggle with the two sides mirrors that of the story.

Add to that the production values of this series. Of all attempts, this has the best depiction of Holmes, or at least it started out that way. Brett’s Holmes is full of private and explosive thoughts. His character is bipolar and attracted to drugs.

True to the established BBC model, the producers shifted the creative team around for each episode so the quality varies. The director this time, Mills, takes a Sherlockian perspective himself. When the story starts and before we get banished to the moor, he establishes the detective’s eye. His camera swoops about, examining details of the situation as if it were our eye and we were Holmes.

As an example, there’s a great scene with the doctor from the moors (“Mortimer,” get it?), the new Sir Baskerville, Holmes and Watson having breakfast in a fancy hotel. While another TeeVee director would give us two alternating over the shoulder shots with an establishing one, Mills swoops all about the whole room then after a 180 degree swing settling on the threatening letter. It is dePalma drawn smallish for the little screen, but its nice.

And overlain on all this is Brett’s second edition of Holmes. It is after his breakdown and first institutionalisation. After he has disfigured his hair, after the lithium has added 40-50 pounds and drained all the life from his face and spirit. To get the value of this we need to remember his previous Holmes version from the motions he copies from that time.

And so we have the rule of twos set in discovery: an author casting reason against magic and personally deciding on magic; his character casting the same and deciding the opposite; the filmmaker (such as they are in TeeVee projects) casting the alert eye against an uncinematic vision and personally winning; and the actor casting the same and personally losing.

Along the way the adapter forgets the brutish, wifebeating artist, the one concession Doyle made to reflection.

Posted in 2005

Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.


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