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Spotlight on: Jeremy Brett in The Hound of the Baskervilles

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The Hound of the Baskervilles DVD Cover Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. With all due respect to William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett is my generation's, as well as my personal favorite (though I must admit the radio series from the 1950s starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, with Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty, runs a close second). With his beak nose and piercing blue eyes, brimming with barely-restrained mania, he is the closest to the troubled detective as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Brett personifies the character who, when not on a case, was so starved for mental stimulation that he had to inject it intravenously, and who denigrated his adventures as set down by his friend and companion, John H. Watson, M.D., as "[tinged] with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid." (Conversely, Brett the actor was quite the humanitarian and, upon learning of Holmes' popularity with children, sought permission to have the character overcome his cocaine addiction.)

Similarly, Edward Hardwicke is closer to the canonical Watson than the bumbling doctor played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films and radio series. Hardwicke's eyes display a certain level of intelligence that not only makes him believable as a doctor, but also lets on that he is often both amused and frustrated by his brilliant friend's erratic behavior. This gives the audience its focus of identification as well as adding another layer to the relationship. The two have amazing chemistry onscreen, which belies the great difference in their personalities (as displayed in an interview with the two actors included in the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes DVD set).

If there is a story more popular than The Sign of Four, it would have to be The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the latter may in fact be the most read of the Holmes tales. Published after the "death" of Holmes and Moriarty on the Reichenbach Falls, but before Holmes' triumphant "resurrection", Watson labels it as a "reminiscence" that occurred years before.

In any case, it gets an exceptional treatment at the hands of the Granada crew (following the second season of The Return of Sherlock Holmes -- these installments have never been in the "right" order as regards the canon stories, and it is generally best to think of them as separate entities). Always one of the more horrific stories, previous adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles have been distinctly lacking in menace; I'm thinking of the 1939 Rathbone/Bruce outing in particular, which seems disappointingly safe in comparison.

Assuming the reader is familiar with the narrative concerning the strange titular canine that haunts the moors surrounding Baskerville Hall (including its current tenant, Sir Henry Baskerville), and the adjacent and treacherous Grimpen Mire, I'll simply go on to mention that, like the later "Case of Lady Frances Carfax" from Casebook, the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles is one in which Holmes' participation is seemingly less than usual. As such, any filmed adaptation is a showcase for the actor playing Watson. Edward Hardwicke steps up to the challenge and performs admirably, bringing steadfastness to his already intelligent portrayal. Hardwicke only gets better as the series progresses, even showing fine ability in taking up the slack created by colleage Jeremy Brett's illness, especially during the episodes of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

For the first time in my recollection, the actor portraying Henry Baskerville actually makes a memorable impression. Kristoffer Tabori (who went on to become a director in television) offers up a sympathetic rendition of the lord of the manor that actually makes the viewer care about his safety (and his heart). When the Hound finally does appear, glowing in the twilight, it is quite a frightening sight, surprising the viewer in the midst of an already tense conversation.

Predictability aside, especially for those who have read and seen Hound in its various manifestations numerous times, director Brian Mills (from a script by T.R. Bowen) has done a terrific job in making this classic story entertaining to modern audiences. Both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four are vital acquisitions for all fans of this series of Doyle adaptations. They streamline their respective novels' storylines down to the necessities, without having to stretch a plot out past its breaking point, a fault some of the later short-story features would be unable to shake. (Although completists are urged to seek out The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection, which also includes the three lesser films.)

Extras on The Hound of the Baskervilles DVD are limited to Sidney Paget's drawings that accompanied the original printing of the source story. Sadly, once again MPI's subtitles are consistently the worst I've ever encountered -- so bad, they border on the ridiculous. Someone deaf or hard-of-hearing would have little or no chance at actually understanding what was being said by the characters. Not only is the dialogue constantly mislabeled, often completely changing its meaning, but far too many easily discernible lines are marked "(unintelligible)." That marking should be a last resort in any case, but here it appears to have become a crutch for a lazy transcriber.

The film, however, has been digitally restored, and comes with a very informative booklet with fascinating tidbits about the film (some of which I have used in this review). The lack of extras (in comparison to the Casebook and Memoirs sets) and viable subtitles is disappointing, but those primarily interested in a bright clean picture and terrific sound will find that MPI has indeed delivered the goods yet again on that point.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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