May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 4, 2011
The Hound of the Baskervilles was Basil Rathbone’s first turn as Sherlock Holmes—and one of only two Rathbone Holmes movies set in the Victorian era. The casting is perfect; Rathbone has all the lean intensity of the original Sidney Paget illustrations, and his cool acting style embodies the man Watson once described as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” It’s a wise novel to adapt, too; The Hound of the Baskervilles is easily the most famous Holmes story. It has everything: a dripping Gothic setting, populated by ghosts and madmen; a love story; and, of course, Holmes himself—although the novel, at least, pushes him offstage for a long period (Doyle did this often with Holmes—fully half of both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear take place in America, far away from the detective. Of the novels, only The Sign of Four consistently keeps Holmes close—and that novel feels padded!) It also sets Holmes up against his most tenacious adversary. No, not Moriarty; this time, Holmes grapples with the Prince of Darkness himself.
Well—not really. This is, after all, a detective story, and one of the cardinal rules of detective stories (even before Van Dine articulated them) has always been that if something looks supernatural, it probably isn’t. Thus, when we encounter the legend of the spectral hound of hell, it’s a fair bet that the end of the story will reveal that the evil has a much more human side. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is something diabolical at work, even if (as Holmes observes in the novel) “The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood”. Some critics might call this a capitulation to bourgeois rationalism; some might say that Holmes rejects the supernatural out of hand, relying on hard facts—and so de-sacrilizes the world. But this isn’t quite true in the novel, and it certainly isn’t true in this adaptation.
For this adaptation places emphasis—far more than I recall the novel doing, and certainly more than any other version I’ve seen—on imagination. At one point, Holmes says that “there’s no doubt about [the killer’s identity] in my mind—or perhaps I should say, in my imagination.” Here, imagination must be understood as an intuitive leap beyond circumstances. In the same scene, Holmes observes that “if we go beyond facts […] imagine what would have happened […] we will find ourselves justified.” Merely knowing the facts—the data, data, data, which Holmes elsewhere characterizes as mud to make bricks—cannot help the investigator.
This is an interesting assertion, because on the face of it Holmes is the one with no imagination. He is not in the least perturbed by the legend of the hound; it exercises no hold on his mind. Where Watson, Sir Henry, and Dr. Mortimer are easily lead to fear the moor, Holmes trots around it in disguise, playing tricks on his old friend and apparently never once giving a thought to the possibility that the hound could come after him. Holmes is a hard-headed rationalist; no ghosts need apply.
But what the exchange on imagination implies is that it is not Holmes who has no feel for the supernatural, but Dr. Mortimer and anyone else who allows themselves to be gulled by ghost-hounds and ancestral curses. It takes no imagination to imagine that a moor is a spooky place at night, just as it takes no imagination to imagine that a large dog is ferocious or that a darkened alleyway is a bad place for a picnic. These are obvious facts, and as Holmes observes elsewhere, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” On the other hand, to see a spectral hound and perceive that it is in fact just a very large and hungry dog takes a great deal of imagination.
This idea reminds me of what Warren French, in his book The Thirties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama (Deland, Fla: Everett, 1967) has to say about William Faulkner’s use of the detective story. In the essay “William Faulkner and the Art of the Detective Story,” French argues that depth is not a matter of seeing the obscure, but of discerning the obvious:
Depth is commonly confused with the ability to perceive obscure, cabalistic secrets rather than to perceive undistorted a natural sequence of events […] the mind that is not superficial does not necessarily know anything that is above or beyond nature and inaccessible to the rational mind; rather, it has the comprehensive knowledge of nature that eludes those who can’t see the forest for the trees and cannot escape a self-imposed preoccupation with trivia. (60)
What Holmes illustrates here, in his discussion of “imagination” is precisely this kind of depth.
Now, as I say, I do not recall such an emphasis on imagination existing in the novel—but it does exist in another Holmes story (one that was, bizarrely, wedded to Hound in a little movie called Murder at the Baskervilles): “Silver Blaze.” Speaking of Holmes’ methods there, critic Alexander N. Howe suggests that there is something about them that is less than scientific:
Naturally, the “causal” chain described by Holmes is a brilliant series that dazzles the reader. However, to arrive at this point Holmes begins with possibilities—not with certainties. Though Holmes is quick to criticize Watson’s penchant for literature when chronicling their adventures, it seems that there is an element of fiction in Holmes’ own “science” of deduction. (26)
Even so. But I would suggest that this “element of fiction” is precisely what makes Holmes able to see past appearances. It is not so much that he discounts the supernatural; he simply has far too much respect for the natural to discount it.
This habit of valuing the natural–of holding common sense in high enough regard not to reject it out of hand–is, I think, part of what makes detective novels (and the movies based on them) so interesting. To cite another famous detective, attacking reason isn’t just a bad idea–it’s bad theology. And Holmes is here too good a theologian for that. He recognizes that, even if the truth wears a mask, there is some sort of truth there to be unmasked. What is needed is the ability to imagine what that truth might look like; and this process of imagination is what we call reason.
This idea of things not aligning with their face-value is played with in both the novel and this adaptation. The escaped convict is Mrs. Barryman’s brother; he is killed by the hound because he is wearing Baskerville’s old clothes. At two points, Holmes is impersonated: once by the villainous Stapleton and once by Watson—who is himself confronting a disguised Holmes. Stapleton, the murderer, is a Baskerville. (The one bit that is in the novel that could not make it to the screen is the most interesting in some ways: in the novel, Stapleton’s “sister” is really his wife). Holmes, through his imaginative method, is able to put all this to right.
The Hound of the Baskervilles may be one of the greatest big-screen adaptations of a Holmes story. The plot diverges from the book in several spots (and adds a séance, which underlines the supernatural themes) , but most of the changes make it a better movie. At 80 minutes, its pace is brisk without giving up characterization (it’s populated by wonderful Universal contract actors) or mood. And, best of all, it gives us as much of Rathbone’s Holmes as it can, trimming the long middle section where Holmes is absent. It’s not the first Holmes movie, but it’s perhaps the first that can legitimately be called great in itself.