When it comes to 19th century Britain – where Victorian mouths bite off more than they can chew (and so prudishly try to hide it – there is an undeniable element of humor and fantasy: adventure is as sophisticated and gentlemanly as croquet. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), Herbert Ross’ production of Nicholas Meyer’s book (who adapted it himself), is cinematically faithful to these stylistics. There are no coincidences in the movie: everything is planned out ahead of time. Dr. Watson, concerned about Sherlock Holmes’ increasing addiction to cocaine, plots to get Holmes the help that he denies needing. Using Holmes’ paranoia about his old professor against him, Watson convinces the professor to flee to Vienna, knowing in advance that Holmes, still the great detective, would follow him there. Waiting in Vienna is Sigmund Freud, ready to treat Holmes cocaine addiction.
Concurrently, some up-to-no-gooders have been planning to abduct one of Freud’s ex-patients. Once again, Holmes finds himself on the case. The atmosphere is all pre-conceived: much like Watson’s set-up in the first half of the film, the second half exhibits a chess-board like configuration, with Holmes’ incessant commentary analyzing the situation as though he had written it himself.
Nothing is left to chance in the film. There is a decided lack of naturalism: this deliberateness, however, is part of the stylistic conventions of Victorian literature, and by association, cinematic adaptations of Victorian literature. Fidelity, however, should not disguise the fact that the story and characters are highly artificial. Artificiality, however, is not a cause for condemnation, especially when it is used so effectively, such as in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Everything plays into the fantasy so well: like Clue or Murder On The Orient Express, there is no pretense about logicality.
The literariness of the plot is essential to the experience: everything is supposed to be “read.” After all, it is a mystery, and someone has to figure it out. The Victorian mannerisms, then, are very much part of the rules: they give the audience certain expectations. They know, for instance, that characters must never lose face, and have to preserve their dignity in public. This allows for characters indignant and coy. But it also pervades the atmosphere of the film: if there is something safe about public spaces, it is interminably a façade, obscuring the possibility for the perverse and malevolent.
Meyer’s script is aware of all these conventions, and this is why his film plays so well as an homage to Holmes: he is more aware of style than Doyle was. Holmes, coked out in ways that even the 1980s couldn’t live up to, is ever aware: his magnifying glass picks up on rug fabrics left from the killer’s shoes. Immediately, he knows they are from a Turkish rug. Holmes’ intellect is caricatured, but never treated with condescension.
The film is saved from absurdity by its literary writing, stylistic directing, and intelligent reading. The actors, ultimately, pull through. As outrageous as the story may be, or how super-human the characters might seem, they play it straight, as though unaware of the tributary nature of their roles. The irony, however, is that to be so convincing, they must have been aware.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.