Settling into his nearly two-decade run at Hammer Studios, Peter Cushing would star in the Terence Fisher directed adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. He would step into the role of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and deliver one of his most memorable performances, perhaps not as memorable as that of Van Helsing, but fairly close. In fact, Hammer would produce one of the very best adaptations of the book with this film or of any Doyle-written property, most of that chalked up to the cast involved, some of it from writer Peter Bryan and of course, the expert direction of Fisher, a man who would direct some of Hammer’s biggest and best films. It would feature the story everyone is familiar with, that of the latest Baskerville nobleman who is being threatened by the centuries-long curse, a man who is fated to die either by knife or by the jaws of a hound from hell.
At the time of the film’s release, some doubted Cushing, not caring for the man’s performance or his competence in the role, yet he really was quite perfect as the daring detective. He was more matter-of-fact with his execution of the character than any other role he had had previously or even since, perhaps because Holmes was a very smart and clinical person, a man who examined the facts before coming to any rash decisions. Cushing also gave Holmes the look as if he was constantly thinking as well during the movie, trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle in his mind while his hands were always fumbling about with something whether it was his pipe or a paper or what have you. Watching Holmes is a lot of fun as he interacts with the rest of the cast, usually in a manner that is more than a little brusque, but when you are the smartest man in the room and you are usually a few steps ahead of everyone else, sometimes your patience runs a little thin. There were a couple of moments that might have seemed a little too exaggerated on Cushing’s part, but in all, the man did the best he could and it paid off with a very compelling performance.
The Watson to Cushing’s Holmes was played by André Morell, a man who was no stranger to Hammer Studios and his performance was almost as good if a little subdued. That could be chalked up to the fact that out of the two men, Watson was the more level-headed of the two and was himself, a pretty smart man. Watson keeps Holmes in check, whether Holmes knows it or not and though it seemed like Morell was simply part of the background at times, his role was essential and turned out to be one of the best actors to ever play the character. Balancing the picture out would be Cushing’s long-time friend and collaborator, Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, the latest ancestor to inherit the family grounds. Lee’s Sir Henry is a very interesting character, one who likes to put on a front of bravado and entitlement and for a good part of the film, he is not the most likeable of persons. Though Lee and Morell are consummate professionals and able to hold a picture on their own, this was Cushing’s show and all eyes are on him.
There is a nice atmosphere to the film, one not only of mystery but of tension that frays on everyone’s nerves and seems ready to burst at any moment. There is nothing that will make you jump out of your skin, but the movie keeps you on edge for most of its running time with the promise that something might. The titular hound of the film is just that and though it is a little spooky to hear it howling throughout the movie, once you actually see it, most of the fright is removed once it is made flesh and bone. The picture features some really good cinematography and the production is as lush as you know Hammer can make it while Fisher does a great job of bringing it all to life. There were differences to be found between book and movie as is always the case with every big-screen adaptation, but in the end, Hammer can lay claim to making one of the better pictures sourced from Doyle’s work. As for Cushing who would star as the great detective again further down the road, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the film where he did it best.