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    Elementary Choices

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Early in his 2014 Chicago Times article Snooping Out the Best Portrayal of Sherlock Holmes? Elementary!, columnist John Kass consulted an expert. “‘Trying to judge the best Holmes is rather like trying to judge the best pizza,’ said Donald J. Terras, a retired professor of anthropology and leader of The Hounds of the Baskerville, a prominent group of Sherlockians. ‘Tastes vary,’ said the head hound. ‘But there are certain traits, a certain quirkiness, that audiences expect from Holmes.’” The piece singled out Hollywood’s Basil Rathbone, Granada TV’s Jeremy Brett and even BBC TV’s Benedict Cumberbatch as the most superior of the sleuth’s embodiers. But later on, Kass reports: “Most of us mention Rathbone, Brett and Cumberbatch, but Terras tossed out one I hadn't considered: Peter Cushing, famous as Professor Van Helsing in the vampire movies, playing Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). ‘That is my favorite Hound of the Baskervilles,’ said Terras. ‘The characters are similar. Holmes and Van Helsing are men of science. And Cushing's Sherlock Holmes has an edginess to it that the others do not have.’” Edginess is definitely the word for the alert and dedicated detective offered by the late and mightily missed Cushing (who would have been 103 years old today), just as edginess can define Hammer Studios’ atmospheric mastery of screen horror, floridly lurid deployment of Technicolor and propulsive sense of pace and excitement in the intrepid investigator’s first color screen outing. With the formidable Terence Fisher in the director’s chair (just as he so spectacularly served The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy), the house of Hammer also provides two of its reliable mainstays in key co-starring roles: André Morell as an avuncular and steady Dr. John Watson and Cushing pal and frequent screen partner Christopher Lee, Dracula himself, playing the good-guy role of the jeopardized Sir Henry Baskerville with sparks of the character’s not-so-good family traits that belie the reason for his clan’s accursed state. 

    Alas, Kass’s article did not take into account the portrayal of Holmes by one of its greatest early embodiers: legendary actor-manager William Gillette, who with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consent and input wrote the play Sherlock Holmes (1899) and played the immortal detective on stage some 1,300 times across his wide-ranging, world-touring career. He earned this assessment from historian S.E. Dahlinger: “Without seeming to raise his voice or ever to force an emotion, he could be thrilling without bombast or infinitely touching without descending to sentimentality. One of his greatest strengths as an actor was the ability to say nothing at all on the stage, relying instead on an involved, inner contemplation of an emotional or comic crisis to hold the audience silent, waiting for the moment when he would speak again.” Midway through his long-running association with the role, Gillette consigned his memorable play and iconic performance to film with Sherlock Holmes (1916), a 116-minute silent feature long thought lost but recently recovered, lovingly restored, newly rescored and dazzlingly presented in Flicker Alley’s new Combo hi-def Blu-ray/DVD edition available here at and loaded with a superb assortment of fascinating archival extras. Twilight Time’s imminent hi-def Blu-ray of The Hound of the Baskervilles boasts interviews with Lee and Hound mask creator Margaret Robinson, plus two new Audio Commentaries with a host of Hammer and Holmes aficionados. The game is afoot June 14. Preorders open June 1.