In cinema I cherish two works of Sherlock Holmes pastiche above all else. WITHOUT A CLUE (1988) posits that it's Watson and not Holmes who is the brains of the outfit. And THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (1976) reimagines the Great Detective as a delusional addict and partners him with Sigmund Freud to solve a kidnapping case. About the latter, writer Nicholas Meyer does a great job of adapting his own novel - and I loved the novel! - to the big screen.
Backstory, have some: In 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle, chafing under Holmes' popularity and wanting to move on to other projects, opted to send his creation plunging off the Reichenbach Falls. Came then a ten-year hiatus in which the world believed the Great Detective dead until, in 1903, Doyle caved to relentless public demand and Holmes resurfaced in "The Adventure of the Empty House." For the purposes of in-narrative timeline, Holmes was only believed dead for three years, with "The Final Problem" taking place in 1891 and "The Adventure of the Empty House" set in 1894. Somewhere, Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard are sulking.
Nicholas Meyer, in two formats, posits a what if. What if Holmes' demise had been all along a subterfuge to explain away his three-year absence? What if, instead, Holmes' cocaine habit had grown so severe that he'd succumbed to wild delusions and acute paranoia? What then but for Watson to stage a trail of bread crumbs to lead his frenzied old friend to Vienna, home to Sigmund Freud - in hopes that the Father of Psychoanalysis can root out those deep, dark secrets lurking in the cellar of Holmes' mind, secrets that long ago dispatched Holmes down a path of self-destruction.
And, in Vienna, as Holmes laboriously sheds the ravages of cocaine addiction, perhaps he can solve a case concerning the abduction of a famous actress (Vanessa Redgrave).
Me, I regard THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION as a treasure from my childhood, movie and novel. I was a kid when I first saw this movie and had never before cared about Sherlock Holmes. After the movie, I suddenly developed a craving for Victorian-era mysteries and sought out Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical stuff and then the pastiches. THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is lavishly produced, from set to costume to atmosphere convincingly evoked. It presents authentic period color.
The three lead participants are masterful. I never would've pictured Robert Duvall as Holmes' steadfast companion, but here he is in what I consider to be the most human depiction ever of Dr. Watson. And his English accent seems spot-on. Alan Arkin as the celebrated Jewish psychoanalyst projects formidable intelligence and a serene bedrock presence, except every now and then he allows the man's natural instincts against injustice to surface (the scene with Freud's "duel" with the overbearing nobleman is utterly gratifying, his choice of weapons wickedly inspired).
To me, it's Nicol Williamson's live wire performance that charges the movie. I won't say that he's the best to play Holmes, but he surely captured the detective's signature characteristics. Williamson's Holmes, in thrall to cocaine, is even more neurotic, twitchy, mercurial, and now prone to distorted perceptions. The screen bristles when Holmes is on it, prowling about and about to jump out of his skin.
And, probably, you'd already been spoilered as to what's up with Holmes' great nemesis, that Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. On the off-chance that you haven't, I'll just mention that Sir Laurence Olivier turns in an effective yet unexpectedly meek performance.
There is humor. There is playfulness. There are moments of sheer showmanship. There are nods to the Holmesian mythos. Familiar catchphrases turn up ("You see, but you do not observe."). There is action and derring-do (the train race in the third act fairly howls Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL). But what drives the narrative is the engrossing interplay between Holmes and Freud. It's a pretty inspired pairing, really. These two icons take turns schooling each other in their respective trades and learning that there's an overlap between their provinces. Surprisingly, the real-life historical character proves himself equal to the fictional literary character. I'm so glad that Freud isn't marginalized as some person who merely stands there bedazzled by Holmes' sharp observations. In fact, there are moments in which Freud exhibits his own impressive knack for deductive analysis. And, in the end, turns out it may not be Holmes who is the greatest detective after all. This is such a captivating and endlessly rewarding watch.