The 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles brings all of the novel’s mystery and suspense to the screen intact in a colorful and excellently acted and directed adaptation of one of the premiere novels of detective fiction.
The Production: 4/5
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of those literary classics like The Three Musketeers or Dracula that filmmakers in each generation feel compelled to adapt for their own time. In the case of The Hound, it’s probably been adapted for the movies and television more often than any other fictional tale, and the 1959 Hammer Studios adaptation directed by Terence Fisher, its first in color, is certainly one of the best. Atmospheric, vividly paced, and faithful more or less to the original mystery story, The Hound of the Baskervilles makes a most welcome addition to the Blu-ray realm.
Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) comes into his family’s inheritance of over a million pounds after the mysterious death of his uncle Sir Charles. It seems the family curse from more than a century prior when the immoral Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) was responsible for the death of an innocent young girl has been passed along the line and now rests on Sir Henry’s shoulders, a legend regarding a monstrous hound of hell that will eventually corner the heir on the moor when he’s most defenseless. Urged by Charles’ friend Dr. Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) to help protect the young potential victim, Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing), busy with pressing matters in London, sends his friend Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) off to Devonshire with strict instructions not to let Sir Henry out of his sight. With a mysterious hound baying in the night on the moors, an escaped convict on the loose, and several residents of the region who might have their own motives to bring down the dashing Sir Henry, Dr. Watson has his hands full keeping the impetuous Sir Henry safe from harm.
Peter Bryan’s screenplay stays true to the basic folklore, characters, and mystery from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novella. Sure, occasional characters are either altered a bit (Franklin made a bishop, the Stapletons become father and daughter instead of brother and sister) or dropped (Laura Lyons, a frequently erased character from the original book), but in the main, it’s a faithful adaptation of the story in all important ways with the Gothic aspects heightened and a grisly circumstance or two added (a mutilation, a mine collapse) to make the story more attuned to the Hammer Studios sensibilities. None of the changes alter the strong basic mystery with Sir Henry at the mercy of an unknown villain from a handful of potential killers: the acerbic Dr. Mortimer, the scatty entomologist Bishop Franklin (Miles Malleson), the bitterly poor farmer Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his alluring daughter Cecile (Marla Landi), the circumspect servants the Barrymores (John Le Mesurier, Helen Goss), wild-eyed escaped convict Selden (Michael Mulcaster), and the surly carriage driver Perkins (Sam Kydd): someone’s up to no good, and it’s up to Holmes and Watson to sniff out the culprit and the motive before it’s too late. Director Terence Fisher smoothly guides the action from London to Devon with murder attempts and murky happenings sprinkled throughout to keep the sharp-eyed viewer on his toes collecting clues and sorting out their importance before the final solution is revealed, and while the abbey ruins set and the mine shaft are clearly of soundstage construction, technicians have rather skillfully blended outdoor photography of the moor and its deadly Grimpen Mire with their soundstage counterparts making for a wonderfully atmospheric suspense tale with tinges of Hammer horror.
Peter Cushing may not be the greatest of the screen’s Sherlock Holmeses, but he gives a starchly crisp and entertaining performance as the cerebral detective who is usually five steps ahead of everyone else and one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Andre Morell is an excellent, down-to-earth Dr. Watson, never able to put the pieces of the puzzle together on his own but not at all a bungling, slow-witted Holmes appendage. Christopher Lee gets the chance to play a romantic lead for a change and does well with it, shading his Sir Henry with bits of short temper and impetuousness. Francis de Wolff makes Dr. Mortimer an almost insufferable know-it-all while John Le Mesurier’s butler Barrymore and Miles Malleson’s Bishop Franklin both imbue their roles with endearing character traits that make them enjoyable whenever they share the screen with the stars. Ewen Solon’s Stapleton and Sam Kydd’s Perkins are a bit more one note, and the beautiful Marla Landi’s uneasiness with English makes her performance a bit stilted. David Oxley is simply superb as the cruel Sir Hugo in the film’s richly appointed prologue in which the story of the hound’s origins is recounted to get the film’s mystery underway.
3D Rating: NA
The film has been framed at 1.66:1 and is presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. By far the best the movie has ever looked on home video, memories of the old non-anamorphic DVD with its brownish, faded color and average sharpness are best forgotten with this crisp, colorful rendition of the original Technicolor printing. Contrast has been applied consistently, the fog-encased interior sets don’t pose any kind of a problem for the film’s transfer. There are occasional white speckles, and black levels are not always at their deepest, but these are quibbles. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The disc features a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix. Dialogue has been skillfully recorded and combines with James Bernard’s sometimes nerve-jangling music and the atmospheric effects to make an effective mono soundtrack. If the music and effects are a bit light on low end dynamics, that’s likely the fault of the original sound elements, and no age-related problems with hiss or crackle prevent the listener from enjoying this age-appropriate soundtrack.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentaries: two commentaries are offered, both somewhat overlapping in their focus on the Hammer films of the period and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s importance in their history. The first track features film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros with a great emphasis on the place the film occupies within the history of Hammer studios while the second track with Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer, and Hank Reineke features a more personal interpretation of the film’s strong points and its alterations from the original source novel.
Isolated Score and Effects Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.
Margaret Robinson Interview (14:52, HD): the artist responsible for the hound mask shares memories of working on the production.
Actor’s Notebook (13:00, SD): Christopher Lee posits fondly his opinions on Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle, director Terence Fisher, the character of Sir Henry, his memories of the spider sequence, and his dear friend Peter Cushing.
Christopher Lee Reads Excerpts from The Hound of the Baskervilles (14:35, 6:22, HD): the actor reads passages from the opening pages of the novel and from the finale with accompanying artwork from the film and from the Sidney Paget illustrations from the Strand Magazine.
Theatrical Trailer (2:07, HD)
MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (2:06, HD)
Six-Page Booklet: features some tinted stills, poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic appraisal of the movie.
The 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles brings all of the novel’s mystery and suspense to the screen intact in a colorful and excellently acted and directed adaptation of one of the premiere novels of detective fiction. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.