Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. This week I recommend one of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, namely the 1959 Hammer Films version.

The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.

The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. Terence Fisher, an old hand at Hammer, directs as deftly as ever.

Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.

You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.

Some other adaptations I would recommend:

The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes’ films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)”

  1. I’m very happy to see a new Humphreys movie review. I’m sure I’ve seen this film, but it was long in the past, and it deserves another viewing, so I appreciate the information on where it can be seen.

    On a side note, I may be the only person in the world who never really appreciated Brett’s Holmes. I liked Brett’s work in everything else I saw him in, but for some reason, his Holmes always seemed just a bit too strung out. The nervous energy, which is of course part of the character, crossed the line for me from believable to the point where “I can watch him doing the acting,” and that pretty much ruins it for me.

    1. De gustibus non est disputandum, but I consider Brett the definitive Holmes of his generation (and the other things I have seen him in, while fine, I didn’t find as memorable).

  2. I’m delighted to see the return of the Friday afternoon film recommendations — I’ve missed them.

    Is this the version you recommended, along with maybe one or two others by the same studio or director or same actors, all in the same Friday recommendations, shortly before the Friday movie recommendations shuttered their doors (so…maybe…18 months ago)? If so, I found it somewhere in the public domain and watched it, and indeed it’s quite good.

  3. Ha ha, yes, of course I read the canon as a boy, and even some of the dreadful theosophy. But it’s not a handle, it’s me real name. In Naval Intelligence before heading out to the Pacific Theater, me Da stayed at the original Watergate apartments, down the hall from Conan Doyle’s son (a British diplomatic attache), with a fair bit of mail mis-delivered. Some funny stories there.

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