Monday, April 15, 2013

"The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) Dir. Herbert Ross

What I remember:

It was quite a conceit, and quite an inspiration for the people behind this film to have two iconic turn of the century characters, one real and one fictional, meet and interact. The fact they they are two of my most studied characters during my teen years, made the movie irresistible.
      The Sherlock Holmes stories were one of the few series that I read cover to cover; they were my Harry Potter. The Freud texts were far too difficult to wade through as a teenager, but I did read some books and articles bout psycho-analysis, and was fascinated with the detective connection. 

The similarities found in the Freud/Holmes pairing are unmistakeable. Both characters use logic, deduction and intellect to decipher the clues at hand. Both are usually in life and death scenarios. Both spent a good deal of time fighting superstitious colleagues and religious mumbo-jumbo. Both doggedly knew they were right at all times, in spite of much evidence to the contrary. And, both had a history of drug usage; cocaine, to be exact. 

The fact that they never inhabited the same world really shouldn't be a big deal, now, should it?

Well, with me, usually it would be a HUGE deal. One of my major pet peeves is when a film violates the "suspension of disbelief" line. It's my personal DMZ. Time travel movies do it to me all the time. I enjoyed Rian Johnson's "Looper", but as soon as I started thinking about it, all the gigantic holes in the plot began to open, and suddenly I was annoyed. If something seems just impossible, I hate it. I know "Compliance" is supposed to be a real story, but I am sorry, NOBODY IS THAT STUPID. And if they are, I have no desire to know they exist, much less spend two hours with them. My friends and I used to call this "The Stupid Factor" . Your protagonist can't be stupider than you. Unless, of course, it's a comedy (e.g. " A Fish Called Wanda", "Burn After Reading"). 

No problem with the Stupid Factor in "Seven Percent Solution". These were two of history's/fiction's smartest people. But what of the Suspension of Disbelief?
 It should have kept me from the theater. But it's so well done, so beautifully acted by Alan Arkin as Freud and Nicole Williamson as Holmes that I was never pulled out of the film for a second. I guess you have to go into this thing buying the concept.

Up until this film, there had been many renditions of Sherlock Holmes, with Basil Rathbone's take being the best. It was those Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on Channel 9 that got me into the books to begin with. There had only been one major film representation of Freud, and that was the brilliant John Huston film that was marred by the poor casting of Montgomery Clift ( see my On Second Look on this one).
I recall that Williamson lived up to Rathbone in every way, and that Arkin was vastly superior to Clift. 

In my memory, this was an inventive, clever, funny and well-paced movie that has just within the last months or so finally received a DVD version. My only copy was a VHS off broadcast version with ads and parts chopped out. Because of this, I waited until it was released to rewatch it, but it was maybe one of the first films I wanted to write about. Why is it not considered one of the greats? It's in my top 25. Let's see if it stays up there!

After re-watching:

"Beyond the fact that you are a brilliant Jewish physician who was born in Hungary and studied for a while in Paris, and that certain radical theories of yours have alienated the respectable medical community so that you have severed your connections with various hospitals and branches of the medical fraternity, beyond this I can deduce little." --Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) and Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) have been out of touch with each other for months. Holmes has been in seclusion, but the pursuit of his arch-enemy Dr. Moriarty (Sir Laurence Olivier) has caused Holmes to summon Watson. Upon seeing his old friend, Watson immediately surmises that Holmes is in the throes of a deep addiction to cocaine. Watson and Holmes' brother Mycroft enlist the services of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) to help Sherlock overcome his addiction. They travel to Vienna, wherein Freud helps Holmes kick. In the process, Freud, Watson and Holmes become aware of a dastardly deed involving the abduction of world famous Soprano Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave). The solving of this case proves helpful in Holmes' rehabilitation.


Drugs are bad. Very, very bad. I find it fascinating that a film made in 1976 would be so obsessed with cocaine and its addictive qualities. The real spike in coke use was about 4 years later, when the Hippie generation started making money. 1976 was the beginning of the Disco era, and the drugs of choice were Marijuana, Quaaludes and pills. Not that I know anything about this type of recreational activity. I was a musician fresh out of college living in New York City. (Throat clearing sounds heard). 

That gifted people get involved in drug use is certainly no surprise. It is a theme found time and again in the creative arts. But in this story we have a fictional character who fights ennui with drugs, and a real person who also was addicted  thanks to his scientific curiosity. Both were gifted and creative people one might even refer to as geniuses. It seemed that in neither situation was their brilliance the cause of their addictions.

Whatever. They're users, you dig? This story hinges on the theory that Holmes' drug use, lack of interest in women, his OCD and his borderline paranoia all stem from a childhood trauma. 

Enter Dr. F! "Childhood trauma? Why, that's my BAG, baby!" With a lovely Viennese accent, of course. 

Truly, the concept is very high (like our protagonist), but the presentation is very much in the tradition of the Conan Doyle stories. Weirdly, Freud only hypnotizes Holmes throughout the film to help relieve the mental stress of withdrawal. Only near the very end does he actually attempt to discover the root of his mental imbalance, the traumatic occurrence with which he associates Moriarty. Well, duh! That had to be saved for the denouement, right? Or did it? Why couldn't this have been a more ongoing analysis, going hand in hand with the Devereaux case? Holmes solves the kidnapping, Freud solves the kid-snapping. I'd need to read the original book by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer to know if that was what the source material offered.


Herbert Ross was a curious choice to direct this film. He was known for his comedies, musicals and dance films. Actually, his dance films ("The Turning Point" and "Footloose") came after this picture, but he had done the horrendous musical version of "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and the equally nauseating "Funny Lady" beforehand. Ross had some fine comedies under his belt by 1976, in particular "Play It Again Sam", penned by Woody Allen, and "The Sunshine Boys", by Neil Simon. What a gift it must have been to direct films written by two of America's greatest comedy writers, both near or at their career peaks. Meyer's screenplay adaptation for "Seven-Per-Cent Solution" received an Oscar nomination. Plus, the cast was beyond stellar; in Duvall, Redgrave, Arkin, Olivier and Joel Grey, we have FIVE Oscar winners. Both Olivier and Williamson had played Hamlet in feature film versions, Olivier having won his only Lead Actor Oscar for that role (amazing, no?).  The film had a huge budget, and the sets and costumes were impressively accurate and stunning.

Ross---with all that going for you, you'd really have to be a talentless fool to mess it up. When I saw this in the theater, I was very impressed. Like I said, I was a fresh out of film school kid with an artsy fartsy chip on my shoulder, and I really loved this movie. I remember watching it once again on TV, and assumed that it was so chopped up and edited down to make 2 hours with commercial breaks, that the sketchiness of the plot seemed way too disjointed and flimsy.  

Now having finally re-watched the full unedited version I can report to you that....the sketchiness of the plot seems way too disjointed and flimsy. 

Just ONE of these stories would make an entire film. Holmes kicking drugs. Devereaux kidnapped. Freud analyzing Holmes' trauma. And yet it still works fairly well. The only problem for me is that most of the last 20 minutes are a wild train chase and sword fight that just doesn't do the rest of the film justice. It watches like a "Perils of Pauline" two-reeler. The only thing missing from the sequence is sped up camera work like a Keystone Cops short. Take that sequence down to 5 minutes (the way a Rathbone/Bruce film would have) and give us more mystery and solution, and the film becomes a classic, I think. Anyway, the image of Freud wielding a rifle rings ridiculous.

There are moments of sheer brilliance. The first time we see Holmes, it is through a crack of his door, outside of which Watson is awaiting entry. We see only Holmes' left eye, with a pupil that is clearly dilated almost to the rim of its iris. This is a beautiful touch. During Holmes' withdrawal delusions, we see brief glimpses of his most famous cases; the Red-Headed League, and of course, the Hound. 

The camera work reflected the style of the day in pop filmmaking. Soft focus and sepia tones were the norm, kind of the visual version of Phil Spector reverb. You can thank "The Sting", probably the biggest period piece of that era, for stylistically influencing a ton of films in the mid '70's. 

All of the sets, decor and location shots are on the highest level, not to mention the period costumes and makeup. The train chase, while tedious in length, is breathtaking to watch, particularly because of the aerial shots of the lush countryside and the antique locomotives. Sadly, the sword fight that takes place on top of the moving train between Holmes and the Viennese anti-Semitic prick who kidnapped Lola is poorly matted; the two stand out absurdly against the background. 

As for the music, it is appropriately melodramatic. There is a song, sung in the brothel wherein Lola is being held captive, entitled "I Never Do Anyhing Twice". Written by Steven Sondheim, it's racy lyrics and brashness have kept it in the cabaret singer songbooks throughout the years.


With a cast like this, it's hard to be critical. The temptation is to go overboard with praise, and I find it hard to resist. 

Williamson is phenomenal. He is the embodiment of freneticism throughout. The moment when Freud makes him own up to his addiction, is a miraculous representation of the manic retreating to the morose. I've never seen it done better. 

Duvall had yet to become the bombastic thespian we remember from "The Apostle" and "Apocalypse Now". He handles the Victorian accent pretty well, and does the narration with British restraint, Olivier has a small part, and since we know he absolutely KILLS as the heavy ("Marathon Man"), it's particularly ironic for him to play the evil Moriarty as a shy, pathetic school tutor. Redgrave has few moments, the part is quite small, but her presence is memorable. Joel Grey has a small weasel of a character to play, and does a fine job. 

The most interesting part and interpretation however is Arkin's take on Freud. The edgy, explosive comic presence we have come to love in "Little Murders", "The In-Laws", "Little Miss Sunshine" and most recently "Argo" is nowhere to be found. Instead we have a calm, intellectual and reflective take on Freud. Having also been the only Jewish actor of the three to portray Freud as a lead character in a major motion picture, (the other two being Montgomery Clift and Viggo Mortensen), he is the only one who gets that connection, and the importance of how it factored into Freud's personality, professional and personal life. It's a very different actor we watch here, one who has respect for the historical personage, but still plays him with humanity and pathos. 

The film is Williamson's, Arkin's and Duvall's to dominate, and they do a fantastic job. 


In trying to make an entertaining film, I feel that the filmmaker's Hollywood touch removes a lot of gravitas from the proceedings, leaving us with a movie that treats such serious considersations as kidnapping, drug addiction and childhood psychological trauma as bumps in the road towards a swashbuckling climax. Make no mistake, the film IS entertaining, and the performances and period trappings are first rate. Had I been in charge, I would have given Holmes and Freud more to do in the detective part, and much more analysis by Freud of Holmes' mental issues. Kudos for the great idea, and the successful casting. Too bad they felt it necessary to steal The Marx Brothers' chopping up a train for firewood stunt and some awful matte shots. Wasted footage, indeed, that would have been much better used on the personalities and mysteries. Top 25? Sorry, no. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭✭        On Second Look: ✭✭✭

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