Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Film: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Format: DVD from Oregon Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I can’t call myself the world’s biggest Sherlock Holmes fan, although I did name my dog after one of Doyle’s books. (My dog’s name is Baskerville if you’re playing the home version of my trivia game.) I feel about Holmes roughly the way I feel about, say, Star Trek. I’m enough of a fan to follow it and know the main players, but it’s nothing I particularly seek out. I was interested in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution mainly for the cast, which includes Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin. Now that I have a little time away from work (first time in months), I can work a little more with interlibrary loan, which is why I ordered this one for today.

This, it should be noted, is not a story by Arthur Conan Doyle, but Nicholas Meyer using Doyle’s characters. It’s kind of a two-part story. The first half deals entirely with Holmes and the second half with a case that arises suddenly. Despite this, the film doesn’t feel disjointed. Events of the first half creep into the second, and the narrative actually works despite there being two legitimate conclusions.

The issue with Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) is that he has succumbed more and more to his cocaine addiction, the eponymous seven percent solution of cocaine to saline. During his cocaine rampages, he fulminates against Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), who Holmes believes is a criminal mastermind. Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall) learns that the problem is truly serious when Moriarty shows up at his house. It seems that many years ago, Professor Moriarty was the math tutor of Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft (Charles Gray). For some reason, Sherlock has determined that the man is a criminal genius despite the man’s evident innocence of anything.

Desperate to get treatment for Holmes, Mycroft and Watson arrange for Moriarty to vacation on the continent. Through all manner of trickery, they conspire to get Holmes to the residence and offices of one Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Yes, that Sigmund Freud. The next chunk of the film consists of Holmes making a couple of his famous deductions, being hypnotized, and going through terrible withdrawal symptoms. Once completely off the cocaine, Holmes becomes despondent and close to catatonic. It is only by sheerest luck that a case falls into his lap and gives us the second half of the film.

Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave), a former cocaine addict patient of Freud’s, has escaped a kidnapping. She had been held for days and dosed with cocaine, renewing her addiction. She remembers a few details, which set Holmes, Watson, and Freud, who is Holmes’s match in deduction skills, off on the chase of her ultimate captor. In truth, since we’re really only given one potential adversary, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the bad buy is Baron Karl von Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp), assisted by his kidnapper Lowenstein (Joel Grey). It all concludes with a pretty entertaining train chase (that’s two days in a row for me), a duel between Holmes and the Baron on top of a train and—for me this is worth the price of admission on its own—Sigmund Freud playing the part of an action hero.

Sound ridiculous? It kind of is, but it all works. And despite what it sounds like at the end, it’s not a comedy. There are certainly some comedic moments, but most of this is played straight, including Freud jumping from train car to train car near the end. Because so much time is spent on Holmes’s cocaine addiction, the mystery part of the story is given short shrift, which is too bad because it could make a movie on its own. Sherlock Holmes fans show up for the deductive brilliance, and all of this is spun through a short cut to get us to the ending. It’s a little disappointing in that respect.

In another mild disappointment, Robert Duvall is here almost strictly as window dressing. Watson has very little to do in this story. In most of the Holmes novels, Watson is there to make really bad guesses and assumptions and do some of the heavy physical work. Here, we don’t even get that, and Watson is just there to guarantee that this is a Sherlock Holmes story. No, all of the action and most of the mental gymnastics come from Nicol Williamson (who makes a very good Holmes) and Alan Arkin (who makes an awesome Freud).

This is a difficult film to recommend. I enjoyed watching it quite a bit, but it’s also a film that I can easily see others finding dull or simply tonally weird.

Why to watch The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Sigmund Freud as an action hero. You need more?
Why not to watch: The tone is weird at times.


  1. I read your review and was like, "Nicol Williamson... Nicol Williamson... that name sure rings a bell..." and after an online search I realized, "Holy shit—that's the bizarre dude who put his stamp on the character of Merlin in 'Excalibur'!"

    A dream to some... a nightmare to others!

    I would kill to see him as Holmes. Williamson was out there, even for an actor.

    1. Yep--same guy. He makes a hell of a good Sherlock Holmes. I think you'd enjoy it.

    2. I remember reading this book (of course there's a book version) as a lad. I remember enjoying it despite (or maybe because of) the little patience I have for the traditional Holmes-as-Victorian-Superman routine.

      Which reminds me: I really need to revisit "Without a Clue."

      - Nolahn

    3. Nicol Williamson also played Hamlet in a late 1960s film that also features Anthony Hopkins as the king and Marianne Faithful as Ophelia. It's not my favorite version of Hamlet but it is very interesting and well worth the trouble to track down.

    4. I can only take so much Hamlet in a given lifetime. I like Hamlet, but I'm pretty happy with the Branagh version. If there's another one that I'll watch, it's probably the Ethan Hawke one.

    5. The Nicol Williamson version is a very "bare bones" version of Hamlet. It's less than two hours and moves along very swiftly.

      I'm not a fan of the Branagh version. A full-text version of Hamlet sounds good on paper but I thought the execution left a lot to be desired. I especially hated Ophelia's madness, with Kate Winslett in a strait jacket, utterly obliterating so much of what Winslett could have done with that scene if she had been allowed to move.

      My favorite is the Mel Gibson version. Which is strange because I'm not usually a big fan of Gibson. But he's a perfectly passable Hamlet and everyone else is superb.

    6. I've seen the Mel Gibson Hamlet and thought it was decent, but not anything terribly great. It felt like Hamlet-lite.

  2. I both saw this movie and read the book way back when I was a kid or maybe a teen. I still own the book. I did remember the basic plot you described, but at the time I saw the movie I wouldn't have recognized any of the actors/actresses, so I didn't remember who was in it.

    I've read all the Conan Doyle Holmes stories, both novels and shorts, and I've read many other authors' takes on them, including some science fiction ones. Strangely, this book may have been the first Holmes story I ever read. I have a solid memory of reading The Speckled Band as a Freshman in high school (meaning I was 14) and then seeking out more Holmes stories in the school library. I had liked reading mysteries before that, though, including Encyclopedia Brown when I was little and the entire Hardy Boys series leading up to my teen years.

    1. I sometimes go through periods where I do a lot of mystery audio books. I've found that my tastes tend to be more Hercule Poirot, who is sort of Holmes with less action.