Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Morrissey 1978)

As Paul Morrissey’s 1978 comic adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles comes to a close, the pianist (Dudley Moore, Arthur) who opened the film and played the score throughout is booed off the stage and pelted with fruit. As Moore leaves the stage, a charming grin crosses his face that almost makes me want to be more positive towards the film. Almost.

On paper, The Hound of the Baskervilles sounds like a sure fire hit: a comic parody of arguably the most famous (and perhaps most filmed) Sherlock Holmes story with the great comic duo of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively, backed by a cast of some of the best British character actors available. The actual film however is major miss fire which, while still providing a number of laughs, seems to have been written with little actual interest in parodying the supposed source material. What we end up with instead is a series of sketches loosely connected by the mystery of a seemingly supernatural dog that prowls the Baskerville estate.

The film begins promisingly enough with an pre-credits sequence involving Holmes and Watson being visited by three nuns desperately wishing to know the whereabouts of a missing relic. The sequence sets a crass tone with a tired, slightly degenerate Holmes and a bafflingly idiotic-yet-enthusiastic Watson displaying little of the class and sophistication of earlier interpretations. Everything is played broad, with Sherlock displaying simplistic logic and Watson no logic at all, but given that this is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before the 1980s, it is to be expected. More importantly, the material is mostly funny, with Moore and Cook in fine form as they play off of one another.

Things continue to look upward as the main mystery is introduced with Dr. Mortimer (Terry-Thomas) requesting the help of Sherlock, only to be stuck with Watson. Once Watson arrives at the Baskerville estate though, the film begins to go off the rails as the central mystery takes a backseat to scenes that are closer to unfocused sketches, featuring increasing amounts of gross out humour. While Moore and Cook’s involvement was pretty much a guarantee that the film was never going to be aiming for the more sophisticated humour of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), endlessly urinating dogs go a bit too far in the opposite direction. The film bares more than a passing resemblance to the chaotic and scatological humour of Mike Meyer’s Austin Power sequels, and while some of the gags work, more often than not they fall flat.

The resemblance to the mixed bag sequels to Austin Powers is furthered by the film’s increasingly unfocused targets for comedy The film takes a surprisingly lengthy jab at The Exorcist that tries to hard, while a bizarre subplot involving mediums, Sherlock Holmes’ mother, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken joke only work to give the impression that no one involved with the film was particularly familiar with Doyle’s creation. Again, I will be the first to admit some of the jokes work, but in a parody of such rich material, the whole endeavour comes across like a waste. If Moore and Cook were interested in doing a series of gross out gags, why bother with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at all? An original scenario would have invited less expectations on the part of the audience, and freed the film up to take as many pot shots at other works as Moore and Cook would have liked.

When the film does work however, it works marvellously. While the subplot of Holmes’ time alone in London eventually falls apart, the early sections involving Holmes attempting to relax at a brothel manages to generate a substantial number of laughs. Better yet are some of the film’s visual gags, including Holmes reading a book titled “Guilt Without Sex” and a scene involving the sending of a Morse Code signal. And while Moore’s portrayal of Watson as an idiot Welshman likely borders on being offensive, his interaction with Kenneth Williams’ equally idiotic (and borderline offensive) “young” Henry Baskerville often manages to overcome the obviousness of the material.

The best laugh tied to The Hound of the Baskervilles is not too be found in the film itself however, but in the film’s trailer. Playing off of the traditional trailer hyperbole for an actor’s performance and the manner in which the performers of John Watson historically tend to be ignored, the trailer’s narrator announces that “Peter Cook is unforgettable as Sherlock Holmes! Dudley Moore is forgettable as, um, what’s his name?” It is a gag that shows a keen understanding of the screen history of Holmes and Watson, an understanding that would have been nice in the film proper.

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