Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

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"The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much skepticism as surprise," Nicholas Meyer wrote in his introduction to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, his mock Sherlock Holmes adventure that shot up the best seller charts in fall 1974. The book is beautifully done, nicely re-creating the Victorian prose of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories but bending it to a wacky narrative in which Dr. Watson, fearing Holmes's cocaine addiction is about to take him over the edge, delivers him to the care of Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna. After Holmes throws off his cursed habit, there's a kidnapping and, wouldn't you know it, the game is afoot.

When the novel appeared, I was 11 and deep into the Conan Doyle stories and Basil Rathbone movies, so I ate it up. Soon there was a screen adaptation directed by Herbert Ross, which disappointed me then and did again recently, courtesy of a dual DVD and Blu-Ray edition from Shout! Factory. The set does have a good interview with Meyer, though, who went on to become a filmmaker himself with Time After Time (1979) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Meyer was about the same age as I was when he first read Conan Doyle, but in his case there was a striking personal connection that eventually inspired the book. Meyer's father was a psychoanalyst, and when Nicholas, who had just learned the name Sigmund Freud, asked his father if he was a Freudian, his father parried the question, saying he used many ideas but that his job was mostly observation. "When a patient comes to me, I listen to what they say, I listen to how they say it. I'm especially interested in what they don't say. I'm curious about their body language: how do they sit, how do they comport themselves, what kind of clothes they're wearing, are they on time for the appointment. I am, in short, searching for clues from them." Of course, this sounded like nothing so much as Holmes explaining his method to Watson.

Robert Duvall as Watson, Alan Arkin as Freud, Nicol Williamson as Holmes
  • Robert Duvall as Watson, Alan Arkin as Freud, Nicol Williamson as Holmes
By the time Meyer finally got around to writing his book about Holmes and Freud, he was in his late 20s and a moderately successful screenwriter; The Night That Panicked America, his nifty little TV movie about Orson Welles's 1939 War of the Worlds scare, had been nominated for an Emmy. Sidelined for several months by a writer's strike, he set to work on the novel, which was published by E.P. Dutton, spent 40 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, and was quickly bought by Ross and Universal Pictures, with Meyer as screenwriter. The book is so grandly entertaining that you can understand why so many talented actors climbed aboard: Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier as the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, and Robert Duvall in the unlikely role of Dr. Watson. For Holmes the producers chose Nicol Williamson, little known to moviegoers but acclaimed for his performances as Hamlet on the London and New York stage.

To hear Meyer tell it, he was constantly pushing Ross (who died in 2001) to change the story and cut more dialogue, but Ross fought him, wanting a faithful version of the book. In any case, the movie is way too long, and it deflates badly in the second half, when Holmes, Watson, and Freud try to unravel an international mystery involving a kidnapped woman. There's a weird chase sequence, reminiscent of Buster Keaton's The General (1925) and the Marx Brothers' Go West (1940), in which the three heroes, chasing an evil baron by train engine, are forced to chop up a car for firewood. (It goes down easier on the printed page.) Watching the movie again, I was most struck by Duvall's performance: his English accent is pretty bad, but he invests Watson with some of the gravity and masculinity of the doctor who narrates many of the stories, a necessary corrective (as Meyer points out) to the soft dunderhead portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone movies.

Whatever its flaws, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is still more satisfying than the recent slam-bang franchise with Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. Like Billy Wilder's more impressive The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), it comes from an era when people were rediscovering the Sherlock Holmes mysteries but also digging into some of their buried themes, rather than turning them into modern, globally homogenized entertainment. The people shepherding Holmes to the screen now clearly have no clue.

J.R. Jones writes about DVD releases on Tuesdays.

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