For those old enough to remember the beginnings of the DVD Boom (I’m capitalizing because, yes, it is an actual era in the history of film distribution), it’s safe to say that there was only one label to turn to for solid genre output: Anchor Bay. When they weren’t churning out their 9,000,000th release of an EVIL DEAD franchise entry, the Bay were putting out titles that made die hard horror fans salivate. Whether your tastes leaned toward Argento (their 3-Disc SUSPIRIA release is still busted out several times a year in my house), or you wanted to revisit some seriously schlocky VHS slasher with significantly better picture quality and no pesky “tracking” issues (how many times have they reissued that SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT twofer pack?), Anchor Bay was your label of choice.
Sadly, as the years went on and the company grew (and was bought out by Starz Entertainment in 2006, renamed Starz Home Entertainment in 2007 and then subsequently reverted back to Anchor Bay in 2008), their interests and business model shifted toward acquiring and releasing new low-budget genre fare to theaters/DVD/VOD instead of generating catalog titles; a shame since they helped set the gold standard for home entertainment. A few other companies have matched or exceeded Anchor Bay in terms of quality cult, horror and exploitation fare (Bill Lustig’s Blue Underground label is my favorite of all time) but, to many, their name still represents a historical landmark in terms of niche market home entertainment.
These days, Shout! Factory (and their genre arm Scream Factory) have picked up right where Anchor Bay left off. For the last two years, the company has specialized in genre releases that put the old dogs to shame. “From the Factory Floor” will be a chronicling of the best of the best of these titles (which, believe you me, will be hard to distinguish at times), as both Shout! and Scream Factory continue to blow minds with such under-appreciated and, in some cases, flat out forgotten gems as HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH and FUTUREWORLD. These are the movies that make serious genre fans like myself happy, and their 2013 lineup looks to be nothing less than amazing (ROLLING THUNDER! THE BURNING! LIFEFORCE!).
Now, without futher ado, I give you the Factory Floor’s inaugural title, perhaps the best version of Sherlock Holmes ever put to screen, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION…
Director Herbert Ross’ filmography is “classical” in a way that modern audiences rarely see anymore. While there are anomalies on his reume (he did direct the original FOOTLOOSE after all), many of his films consisted of the director gathering a group of talented actors and putting them to use in the service of simply telling a great story. While praising a director for this may seem inane to some (it could be argued that this is the basic goal of ALL directors), Ross did so in a way that felt classy at all costs. Whether he was casting Barbara Streisand as Fanny Rose in FUNNY GIRL, or wrangling a gaggle of great actresses young and old for STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Ross had an eye for placing adroit thespians in key roles to elevate somewhat shoddy material (perhaps the best example of this is Michael J. Fox in THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS). With THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, Ross demonstrates this vital skill once again, namely by putting a reserved Robert Duvall (who was on an unprecedented tear of quality roles by 1976) in the role of John Watson, while having a manic, wild-eyed Nicol Williamson bounce off of him as the cocaine addicted investigative legend, Sherlock Holmes. What comes of this dual casting coup isn’t your usual Arthur Conan Doyle adpatation, but rather an odd character study about a once fabled detective who has hit a point where his dirty habits have made him a shell of his former self.
The key to enjoying THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is to contantly remind oneself that it is not a “Sherlock Holmes” film, strictly speaking. Modern audiences expecting bare knuckle brawling and the “INDIANA JONES by way of Jerry Bruckheimer” tone that the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. films brought to the character are going to leave supremely disappointed. No, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is a movie ABOUT Sherlock Holmes the man, and how he struggled not only with his substance addiction, but how to rid his mind of the horrible scars left from witnessing a tragedy that befell his parents when he was a child. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who adapted his own bestselling novel), isn’t interested so much in the swashbuckling serials that Doyle cooked up, but instead is focused on the psychological motivations that would drive a common Englishman to become the world’s greatest detective.
It is truly John Watson’s picture as we first fade-in, struggling to motivate a paranoid and delusional Holmes to leave his home office. Coming face to face with the pistol wielding maniac he used to call his best friend, Watson is forced to deceive Holmes into following him to Vienna, where he believes one man can help rid the detective of his self-inflicted ailment. That man: Sigmund Freud, who is portrayed by a brilliant and bearded Alan Arkin.
While THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION maintains a rather dour tone until Holmes and Watson reach Vienna (including a nebbish, brooding Laurence Olivier as Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarity), once Arkin enters the picture as a young Dr. Freud, the fantastical elements of the movie take off and it becomes quite a joy to behold. Much of this is due to Arkin’s performance, as he plays Freud as a brash, compassionate man at war with the anti-semetic intellectual establishment. Lending the good doctor a goofy, almost cartoonish accent, it’s clear that Arkin is having an absolute ball, and that please is infectious not just for his compatriots, but for the audience as well.
There’s almost a Polanski quality to the withdrawal sequences Holmes endures as he detoxes at Freud’s estate, as Ross goes completely handheld with his camera, using multiple fish eye lenses to distort the detective’s reality. Snakes are thrown into the bed and Holmes almost eats a bowl of worms as he convulses and sweats every last ounce of the “seven-per-cent solution” from his system. This segment stands out against the rest of the film, as Ross abandons soft focus photography in favor of a more hallucinogenic, leering eye. It shows that the director isn’t just interested in guiding his superb cast to performing perfection, but also has a few stylized bones in his usually austere body. It also lends an almost “horror film” feel to the proceedings, as Holmes’ hallucinations become truly terrifying to behold.
Holmes’ recovery from addiction at Freud’s Vienna estate makes up the majority of the movie. In fact, it isn’t until we’re over an hour into the movie’s 113 minute run-time that any semblance of a mystery reveals itself. After Holmes is able to peel himself off of his sweat stained sheets, Freud introduces him to Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave), a patient of his who has just escaped from a gang of kidnappers. The woman’s ordeal rouses Holmes’ curious mind, of course, sends the three men off to solve the mystery of Fraulein Deveraux’s botched abduction. Keeping in spirit with the legendary detective’s other adventures, their pursuit leads them to a plot that involves launching a war against all of Europe, in hopes of leading to the continent’s downfall as a civilized society.
The film kicks into “high adventure” mode once the men embark on their mission, crashing parties and even hopping onto the Orient Express. And just as Holmes is influenced and cured by Freud’s methods, Freud takes to detective work as if it were a second nature. There’s a “buddy comedy” aspect to the movie that pervades the final third that keeps the film feeling light and fun. Holmes, Watson and Freud become almost like a late 1800s Mystery Team, as they trek across Europe in search of the answers to the central conspiracy. Sword fights, gun battles, and even a life and death struggle atop a speeding train ensue, and Ross captures the action in brilliant, thrilling fashion.
But while it’s a blast to watch the director juggle tone with reckless bandon, neither the mystery nor the adventure is the point. What Ross, Meyer and THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION are interested in is demythologizing a literary icon. Holmes’ investigations into Fraulein Deveraux’s ordeal act as a way for him to rehabilitate his broken mind and regain the faith he once had in his deductive abilities. While it is never really overtly stated, Holmes is experiencing a crisis of confidence in his powers, and as the story unfolds, he regains his grasp on what once made him great. It’s a cheeky bit of deconstruction that Ross creates through coaxing a career best performance out of lifer character actor, Nicol Williamson. Williamson is all shifty eyes and nervous tics here, but watching him slowly shift back into the poised detective Holmes once was is nothing short of miraculous. It makes you look at a character you thought you knew everything about in an entirely different light, and that alone justifies the existence of THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION.
Shout! Factory has done a damn good job with most of the transfer, but there are a few moments of wonky coloring (including one split second where it looked like a projector bulb was burning out), but that standard of picture quality is to be expected from the label at this point. I hadn’t seen the movie since the days of VHS, and I’d venture to say that this is the best THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION has ever looked. Make sure you watch it on the largest TV you have in the house, as you’ll be blown away by DP Oswald Morris (whose career included Kubrick’s LOLITA, THE GUNS OF THE NAVARONE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) and his commitment to some seriously gorgeous soft focus photography. Surround sound would also be a plus, as John Addison’s classical score shifts from brooding to bombastic with ease.
Special Feature: Notice I said “Feature”, as the only Extra included on the DVD/Blu combo set is an interview with screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay here, but is mostly known for directing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) entitled When Sherlock Met Sigmund. Running at a scant eighteen minutes, there isn’t a whole lot that Meyer adds to the proceedings and, quite frankly, he comes off as kind of a self-obsessed blowhard, speaking almost contentiously about Herbert Ross. Most of the interview is his ramblings about “really loving Arthur Conan Doyle growing up” (who didn’t?), but there are a few neat casting stories thrown in for good measure (his tale about writing a letter to Laurence Olivier professing his love for his Shespearian work only to be forgotten by the legendary actor on set made me laugh pretty hard). The dearth of features here is an anomoly for Shout! Factory, but I’m more than happy to have this forgotten classic on my shelf, bare bones or not. It’s an amazing movie, and should be seen by as many eyes as possible.