Howard Jackson takes a look at Peter Cushing’s performance as Sherlock Homes in Hound of the Baskervilles…
Peter Cushing was 46 years old when he appeared in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. For a man of almost 50 he is both athletic and alert. Cushing had already proven in Dracula that he could dominate a living room. Somehow he always alters the place he inhabits. Cushing plays Holmes as a man who enjoys his comforts. All conquering Victorian Britain and in particular his coal fire and armchair are his privileged entitlement. There is no cocaine in the Hammer version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles but it is clear that neither Holmes nor Watson can function without tobacco and alcohol.
In his encounters with the supernatural Cushing despairs of the closed minds of fellow human beings. In The Hound Of The Baskervilles despair becomes impatience. Holmes knows he will win the argument and persuade. What irritates him is the inability of other people to match his speed of thought. The difference in his manner is subtle but consequential. BBC used Cushing in their 1968 Sherlock Holmes series. By then the actor was 55 years old. The series was a great success but Cushing claimed the episodes were rushed.
In the movie the athleticism of Cushing is effective when Holmes is supposedly bounding around Dartmoor. The outdoor scenes are filmed in Surrey. Nothing in the real landscape matches the gloomy purple tinted paintings that feature in the title sequence. The climax of the film is a race against time but the physical urgency not only helps the plot; it suits the character of Holmes. This is a man with a sharp mind and narrow focus who does not want to waste time. Conan Doyle thought these were the qualities that had helped win an empire. Of all the actors who have played the part of Holmes only Basil Rathbone matches the subtle urgency of Cushing. The modern adaptations, whilst entertaining, are more like comic strips and are not useful comparisons. Cushing, who was a fan of the original stories, is loyal to the vision of Doyle.
If playing Holmes was a labour of love for Cushing, he was unlucky. He had insufficient time to prepare his part on television, and his only cinematic incarnation is in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Cushing is cursed twice in the movie. Holmes disappears in the middle of the film which means that Andre Morell as Watson has more screen time. Morell is also a fine Watson. He looks perfect in his authentic Victorian walking gear, especially when he leaves the fake sets and steps into the real countryside. Whoever did the wardrobe on The Hound Of The Baskervilles deserved an award. We first see Christopher Lee in a green tiled bathroom. He wears a green patterned corduroy suit. It matches the tiles and lets us know that this aristocrat is both at ease with himself and the world. Lee is miscast as Sir Henry. He is too old and lacks the naivety of the character. Fortunately the film is dominated by Holmes and Watson. And nobody wore a deerstalker better than Cushing. He looks as comfortable as a warm pot of tea under a cosy.