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HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1978)
d. Paul Morrissey; pr. John Goldstone; scr. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Paul Morrissey; novel. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ph. Dick Bush, John Wilcox; m. Dudley Moore; ed. Glenn Hyde, Richard Marden; cast. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Kenneth Williams, Terry Thomas, Penelope Keith, Spike Milligan, Denholm Elliott, Joan Greenwood, Hugh Griffith, Irene Handl, Max Wall, Roy Kinnear, Dana Gillespie, Prunella Scales (85 mins)
Ex-Andy Warhol Factory Director Paul Morrissey Tackles Twin Traditions of British Comedy
The 1978 remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles is a curious amalgam of two quite different approaches to film.
Director Paul Morrissey was known for his semi-improvised work for Andy Warhol and for two grotesquely revisionist period horror movies when he came to England to work on a planned spoof of the classic Sherlock Holmes story. He was set to work with two revered comedians, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, whose Beyond the Fringe sketch comedy is now considered to have been the most important precursor to the later irreverence of Monty Python. Moore and Cook had previously dabbled in movies, notably in Bedazzled, and agreed to do the parody. However, the odd proviso of making it was that each comedian would separately script one section of the film, with Morrissey to contribute a third and ensure that there was some visual continuity and cohesion to the resultant project. Many subsequent reviewers have lamented this approach and the released film has often been dismissed as the worst film ever by the comedy duo, if not one of the worst comedies ever in British film. Indeed, Morrissey would later state that it was the one film that he did not have control over and his appraisers tend to gloss over it. On release, the film was further complicated when in an effort to make it funnier it was re-edited slightly for distribution in the USA, resulting in two different prints in circulation.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
AAfter dispensing with a former case involving the retrieval of a holy relic for a bunch of distraught nuns, Holmes (Peter Cook) and Watson (Dudley Moore) are approached by a representative (Terry Thomas) of Baskerville Hall.
He tells the duo of a family curse involving the death of male descendents by a mysterious hound, roaming the moors. Cook is too indifferent to care and assigns Moore to the case. Moore arrives to take care of the latest Baskerville heir (Kenneth Williams) whilst a very frugal Cook goes in search of a massage parlour / bordello that can relieve him of his tension. On the moors, Moore encounters a policeman (Spike Milligan) who is in search of an escaped axe murderer. Moore takes it upon himself to stay with Williams whilst Cook goes to visit his mother (played by Dudley Moore in drag), a fraudulent psychic prone to intermittent oedipal suggestions. Moore meanwhile explores the various people attendant to Baskerville Hall, discovering a multitude of barely suppressed resentments. He attempts to send an encrypted telegram to Cook who responds by trying to find another assistant. Moore runs into an annoyed Denholm Elliott as he tries to elicit further information, a run-in which leads to his encounter with a seemingly possessed woman (the great Joan Greenwood). Moore summons Cook to solve it all and Cook finally appears at an auction of cultural artefacts from the Hall.
Through American Eyes: The Amalgamation of British Comedy Traditions: from Music Hall to Carry On
The Hound of the Baskervilles is best considered an intriguing amalgam of a variety of British comedy traditions: thus it attempts to incorporate everything from the crude joviality of British Music Hall comedy to the irreverence of Beyond the Fringe to the camp innuendo of the Carry On series.
Indeed, for director Morrissey, the Carry On films seem to encapsulate the paradoxically innocent decadence he sees endemic in British culture. The characters in the film are thus all eccentrics, mannered and inherently perverse – including the corset-wearing Holmes – as Morrissey reveals the class distinctions held up by British society as a kind of hierarchy of imbecility. His systematic debunking of British cultural heritage is through the outright mockery of Holmes and Watson. Thus, Moore plays Watson as a bumbling idiot, completely overwhelmed by circumstances he cannot understand and finally driven to call upon the venerable Holmes to determine an explanation. However, Cook plays Holmes as an inherently disinterested man. He is not overwhelmed by circumstance because he has so detached himself from it that in his indifference his petty ego is all that sustains him. Hence, Morrissey and Cook seem determined to ridicule Holmes’ smug superiority and in the process thoroughly deflate the idea of the supremacy of the rational intellect so beloved of fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters: the triumph of infantilism over rationalism.
Morrissey apparently hopes that by playing off the various mannerisms of these actors he will create a cross-section of British comedy.
Although perhaps skewed in favour of the Carry On ethos, although much darker and deliberately drearier, his approach works remarkably well as a distillation of a culture almost blissfully unaware of its demented idiocy. Morrissey’s characters are trapped in bizarre, ornate rituals of conduct and are on the verge of total social collapse, perhaps with only the hypocritical propriety of Holmes to support them and put them in their place. The underlying futility to this depiction of eccentric imbecility makes this a rather sad and melancholic pastiche. The majority are old people and their manner suggests an underlying social desperation – indecipherably shallow fools unaware of how their own social heritage underlies their bizarre behaviour. Beneath its irreverent debunking of a literary classic, this film seems to suggest that the English are doomed. For Morrissey, Cook and Moore, the point is that the supposedly great Sherlock Holmes is in fact barely even cognizant of the tensions that define him as a person, let alone of whatever import lies behind his supposedly logical explanations of events. Within the film’s disrespectful sense of ridicule is an attempt to deconstruct and devalue Holmes and Watson as icons, much more subversive than parodies before or since have ever managed.
Morrissey's Comic Vision - Visual Style and UK region 2 DVD Transfer Analysis
There are two versions of the film on the DVD: the original theatrical release (reviewed above), offered in letterboxed widescreen, and a remaster of the edited version in 4:3 only.
The widescreen theatrical release is the prize here, preserving what is a decidedly gloomy, dreary film with a staid sense of composition – drawing attention to the idea of dull cultural artefact. The film is divided into chapter titles, providing an episodic continuity to many self-contained skits. It has a fine sense of period as background, but emphasises mannered, eccentric performances, a kind of gestured mugging dominating the film: perfectly realizing the stolid ornateness of a world inhabited by bumbling nitwits (with Holmes perhaps as King elect of these idiots). The actors’ comic styles and personas play off neatly against Cook and Moore and the sets often have a detailed but grotesque presence (the bedroom ankle-deep in fetid water). Visual puns feature throughout, often on English weather and mystery story convention, and there are parodies of popular cinema forms (the most notable being an elaborate vomit scene ala The Exorcist). Many skits are hilarious, the most psychologically telling being the encounter between Holmes and his mother – a sketch which emerges as an almost Freudian burlesque of the great detective’s underpinnings. There is even some use of speeded-up motion as an allusion to Benny Hill.
Sound Use, Comedic Enhancement and Monoaural Transfer Analysis
The widescreen theatrical release is in Dolby Digital mono only whilst the truncated restored version is in a remastered Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. As the fullscreen version butchers the film, it remains a mystery why this gets the remastered audio mix and not the original theatrical version.
Nevertheless, even in mono, the film’s aural design is nicely preserved. Moore’s peculiar piano music is used for the score, and it provides a decidedly odd complement, almost mocking of silent movie accompaniments, both melancholic and comical. It emerges as one of the most distinctive scores ever used in British comedy, hence the framing device of a piano recital by Moore (also a music-hall allusion). Voices are always deliberately exaggerated and played off against one another – but in accent and manner are very English, in fact caricaturishly so. The script is full of innuendo – hence the apt casting of Kenneth Williams – but perhaps more to the point is that when the dialogue emerges through such stylized vocal delivery it reveals an evident fascination with the absurd, endless and redundant complications of language. Communication is an impossible game here as the obfuscating quality of the English language is of primary concern, parodied most mercilessly in the post office scene. Otherwise, the film has an often aurally staid quality, another kind of formal rigidity, like the visuals, dank and mouldy.
USA DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: The Hound of the Baskervilles
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(UPDATED: January 15, 2013 10:57 )
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