The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first Sherlock Holmes mystery I read: an abridged version of the book was there in our home when I was a child, and since I was a voracious reader, always looking for ‘new’ books, I read it fairly early on. Later, I slowly made my way through whichever other Holmes stories I came across, and finally, in my twenties, I bought the complete Sherlock Holmes, the omnibus edition. There are many Holmes stories that I like a lot, but this one, I must admit to a special fondness for.

When Popka Superstar mentioned this film the other day (as part of a list of favourite Christopher Lee films), I decided it was high time I watched it.

The film begins with a voiceover, a narrator describing a scene set many years earlier. Near Dartmoor, abutting the Great Grimpen Mire, lives the dissolute, debauched Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley). On a dark night, he and his equally evil friends are whooping it up at Baskerville Hall; they’re drunk and in the mood for cruelty. Baskerville has forced his butler’s daughter upstairs and locked her in a room; when the butler protests, Baskerville thrashes him…

… and then heads upstairs to have his way with the girl.

But the girl proves to be rather more resourceful than Baskerville had imagined; she’s climbed down the ivy outside the window and run off.

Baskerville gathers his friends and calls for the hounds to be let loose, after the girl. He mounts up and gallops off in pursuit. The girl has fled into the depths of the moor beyond, towards some ruins. Baskervills and his hounds follow, but near the ruins, the hounds suddenly turn tail and retreat. His horse, too, shies and is reluctant to move forward. Eventually, though, Baskerville catches up with the girl and stabs her dead. Even as he’s doing so, he hears something, looks up—and horror fills his eyes.

That, says the narrator, was the start of the Curse of the Baskervilles. The Hound from Hell (though we, the audience, have not seen a hound, hellish or not, so far). This narrator is a Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff), who’s come to meet the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Holmes’s old friend and confidant, Dr Watson (André Morell).

Holmes is openly sceptical about the legend; it’s all superstition, is his belief. Dr Mortimer is affronted by Holmes’s manner, and gets up to go, but Holmes stops him: Dr Mortimer obviously has more to say. After all, he’s come all the way to London from the countryside, and as can be seen, sticking out from his pocket, he’s brought a local newspaper all the way with him; there’s news he needs to tell Holmes…?

Dr Mortimer agrees, and consents to say what it is: Sir Charles Baskerville, who was the owner of Baskerville Hall, was found dead on the moor some time back. There was nothing to show how and why he was on the moor in the dead of night, but there it is. Now the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry Baskerville, is coming (from South Africa) to claim his title and property at Baskerville Hall. Dr Mortimer is convinced that Sir Henry’s life is in danger, and he wants Holmes to take up the case: keep Sir Henry safe.

Holmes agrees, and Dr Mortimer arranges to meet Holmes and Watson the next morning at the London hotel where Sir Henry will be staying before he leaves for Baskerville Hall.

When Holmes and Watson arrive, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) mistakes them for hotel staff, and is very upset: he had put his boots outside his room to be cleaned, and this morning, he’s found that one of his boots is missing. Dr Mortimer arrives just then to introduce the visitors, and a repentant Sir Henry apologizes—but is still mystified: why would anybody steal just one boot? It doesn’t make sense.

As he’s speaking, he lifts up the remaining boot, and out of it crawls a huge, scary-looking tarantula. Holmes succeeds in killing it, but the episode leaves Sir Henry quite shaken. Shaken enough, in fact, to need to sit down and have a gulp of brandy (or whatever). He has a weak heart, it turns out.

This incident serves to convince Holmes that Sir Henry’s life is actually in danger. Since he cannot travel to Baskerville Hall right now (he has other work to attend to in London), Holmes asks Dr Watson to accompany Sir Henry. Watson can keep Holmes apprised of any developments, and Holmes will come down as soon as he can.

So Watson and Sir Henry travel to Baskerville Hall, along with Dr Mortimer. The man who comes in a pony cart to take them to the Hall mentions that there’s been a development: a criminal named Selden has escaped from the prison at Dartmoor and is believed to be on the moor.

Whether or not there’s Selden, a dangerous man, on the moor or not, Sir Henry and Dr Watson soon get acquainted with various other people in and around Baskerville Hall. There is, for instance, the couple, Mr (John le Mesurier) and Mrs (Helen Goss) Barrymore, who look after Baskerville Hall.

There’s a local bishop, the genial and somewhat absent-minded bishop (Miles Malleson), who comes by to introduce himself to Sir Henry Baskerville and to ask if he will donate some old clothes and such to a charity drive.

Then, Dr Watson is the one who meets the Stapletons: the gruff, brusque Mr Stapleton (Ewen Solon), whose right hand is oddly webbed. Stapleton lives nearby, and is the one who cautions Watson about walking on the moor: if you’re not careful, you can walk into all sorts of traps, or even fall into the treacherous Grimpen Mire.

Shortly after, Watson comes across Stapleton’s daughter Cecile (Marla Landi), a wild sort of girl who’s sitting out on the moor and takes to her heels when Watson tries to talk to her.

Watson falls into the mire in the process of following Cecile, and she helps her father fish Watson out. They take him to Baskerville Hall, and while Stapleton helps Watson in, Henry Baskerville, who’s emerged, is taken into the copse beside the house by Cecile. She is all nerves, and in a snappy sort of way: in a bitter fury, she urges him to leave Baskerville Hall and go. Go, go, go. She kisses him, too, much to Sir Henry’s surprise (but not, it seems, to his displeasure)—and then, her father having emerged, she goes off, all sullen and seething.

What is going on? Is the ‘Hound from Hell’ a figment of someone’s imagination, or is there something more to it? Who shines the light out on the lonely moor at night, and is Sir Henry really in any danger?

What I liked about this film:

The general Holmesian feel to it. Peter Cushing makes for a competent Holmes, and the way he arrives at his conclusions is (mostly) plausible. The atmosphere, too, builds up well. The darkness, the spookiness, the howling of the unearthly hound out on the moor… all of it is pretty creepy, and yet, because Holmes, hard-headed and practical, is in charge, you know it will turn out all right.

What I didn’t like:

The plot holes. I’m not even considering Holmes’s smug pronouncement about knowing the tarantula was planted by someone and didn’t accidentally come in Sir Henry’s luggage because “Tarantulas aren’t found in South Africa” (they are). This, after all, is something that most pre-Internet day viewers wouldn’t have known, so even though it indicates poorly researched writing, it is passable.

No. What I mean is stuff like

(Spoilers ahead)

The fact that it’s never explained what really happened to Hugo Baskerville, and Holmes never conjectures. It might have been interesting if, along with trying to figure out was happening in the then and now, Holmes had tried unravelling how Hugo Baskerville met his death, all those years ago.

Then, there’s the question of the dagger; I can guess that it being in Stapleton’s possession is further indication of his antecedents, but why he uses it to mutilate Selden is beyond me (anger at having killed the wrong man? Just pure madness? Or an attempt to make the film seem even more macabre?—which, given that the mutilated body is never shown, falls a bit flat anyway). Holmes’s deduction about the webbed hand appearing in the missing portrait seems to me more a stab in the dark than based on any solid fact, even if the nearby portrait of Hugo (hand discreetly gloved) indicates a family trait.

And, Cecile Stapleton. An odd character, and one I found difficult to understand. Why does she behave in this way, which would be considered downright improper in late 1800s-early 1900s England? Why does she sit about with her legs bare and go around her home barefoot? Why does she kiss Henry Baskerville though she doesn’t know why? Is she made half-Spanish to account for this wildness, and is this wildness supposed to account for her connivance in the crime?

Lastly, the hound. I can see why the director (Terence Fisher) might withhold a glimpse of the hound all through the film, bringing it in only in the climax to heighten the suspense of what this creature looks like. In that case, though, with the suspense building up throughout, what was needed at the end was something that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck (and, believably, give someone a heart attack by the mere sight of it). This didn’t; the dog just looked rather ugly in a deformed sort of way, not so very frightening.

(Spoilers over)

Comparisons, comparisons:

But all said and done, still a satisfying and entertaining film. So how does it compare with Conan Doyle’s novel? And how does it compare with the 1939 screen adaptation, which starred Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (and which I’ve reviewed here)?

The films have their own strengths and weaknesses. Where I think the 1939 film scores is in the very fact that it’s black and white: grayscale, to me, manages to convey the brooding gloom and menace of the moor much better than does colour. Even the hound in the 1939 film is much more frightening than the one twenty years later: when I watched this one attack Henry Baskerville, I actually felt scared.

Both films make deviations from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original storyline, while retaining the core idea. Of course, given that it’s difficult to adapt a full-length novel into a film, it’s to be expected that some elements will perforce be dropped.     

A lot of the more convoluted details of the plot (especially the Laura Lyons element) are completely dropped by both films; this doesn’t really impact the story much, so it doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is the omission of certain elements that do matter: most importantly, the one about Charles Baskerville’s family and how his black sheep of a brother, Rodger Baskerville, had looked uncannily like Hugo Baskerville, who had brought the curse down on them. This piece of information doesn’t take long to be divulged; there’s no prolonged thread leading up to it—but it’s vital to understanding how Holmes puts two and two together at the denouement.

Overall, the 1939 film remains more faithful to the original story: it retains elements like the anonymous note, Henry Baskerville being followed in London, the litigious Mr Frankland, Stapleton being a naturalist, and so on. Few of these are used in the way Conan Doyle intended: the anonymous note is never followed through to its logical end in the film; Mr Frankland’s lawsuit-loving nature does not arrive at the end it does in the story; and Stapleton’s interest in nature seems to be just by the way, not an integral part of the plot, with a bearing on what happens.

The 1959 film, on the other hand, makes more deviations from the story: it brings in the bishop who is the entomologist; it has the webbing on the hands of some of the Baskervilles, there is the tarantula unleashed on Henry Baskerville, and so on. In most cases, these (sort of) work, but some come across to me as a bit corny.

All said and done, I find the 1939 version more likeable: the atmosphere is more palpably eerie, the hound more scary. Also, perhaps given that I’m a bit of a purist, the very fact that it is closer to a story I like very much, means that it appeals to me more. That said, I would say that I like Christopher Lee’s Henry Baskerville more than Richard Greene’s, even though Greene’s Sir Henry—a pleasant, regular enough young man, not plagued by a weak heart or anything—is more true to Conan Doyle’s Henry. Lee’s Henry comes across as more tormented, more nuanced, and more the sort of man who might indeed be frightened to death by a great big hound.

16 thoughts on “The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

  1. An excellent review. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any other Hammer movies, but with what you said about Cecile you’ve hit exactly on what typifies them. It’s this balance between pushing at censorship rules with what was for the time a lot of sexually suggestive material, while also embracing conservative British values (partly to make the movies still acceptable to the censors, partly because they were the values of the filmmakers). This is what makes Hammer movies so campy and what makes them so attractive to people, because they undermine these conservative values and show their hypocrisy.

    To me, it’s an essential Christopher Lee movie because it’s the last one he did before Dracula, and the most screentime he ever got in a non-villain part before his acting persona got so set in stone he never deviated very far from it again. And it also has Peter Cushing.

    Anyway, I stand by my own review which focused on er, different aspects (“Peter Cushing is a good, though not top tier, Holmes. Lee is a prime slice of beefcake as Sir Henry Baskerville and looks like a romance novel hero. It’s too bad he didn’t get more roles where he had to be stupid and pretty because he’s great at it. A little bit of homoeroticism between Lee and Cushing and Holmes and Watson apparently in a sexless marriage”).

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    • I don’t think I’ve seen any Hammer movies. I have heard of some of them, but given that I have never been too keen on horror films (and all the ones I’ve watched have been relatively recent ones – can you imagine, the first time I watched The Omen was during the lockdown? – I guess it’s not surprising that I’ve never seen a Hammer production.

      But yes, I agree that Christopher Lee makes for a pleasant and attractive (and yes, fairly dumb) Henry Baskerville. The type of character, actually, whom I would never associate with Lee – goes to show just how stereotyped he became. :-(

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      • Oh you know I hardly ever watch recent horror movies but tons from the 70s and earlier. It’s been interesting the past ten-twenty years or so to see Americans discover Hammer movies and see their reactions, because Hammer were so European, and I’m always curious how they translate to other cultures- with difficulty, in my experience. Italian movies actually seem to come across better.

        Yeah he was actually really versatile. Later on everything he did was either to stereotype, or satirising that stereotype. I’ve only seen him fail in a few roles that truly didn’t suit him.

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          • Well, let me know if you need some recs. I can’t think of anything I think would immediately appeal to you besides Dracula (appeals to everyone) and The Mummy (anti-colonial themes, very odd choice for Hammer).

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                  • Haha, oh man, my taste is dubious in the extreme.

                    1. Taste of Fear: a genuinely great movie, made before Psycho (some slight scares)
                    2. Dracula: well it’s everyone’s favourite for a reason (not scary)
                    3. Scars of Dracula: nobody likes this but I love it
                    4. The Vampire Lovers: it’s lesbian
                    5. The Gorgon: it’s really stupid but Christopher Lee’s character makes me laugh so hard

                    Then there’s the big three (ie the three Hammer movies that had lasting impact on film history

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                    • Posted before I could finish.

                      Big three are: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy.

                      The Devil Rides Out is really beloved and had a big influence on among other things The Rocky Horror Picture Show but I thought it was too racist last time I watched it, so.

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                    • Thank you so much, and for the rest of the comment (WordPress isn’t allowing me to reply on that, so I’m putting in my reply here instead). Actually, I think I need to watch The Mummy too – I have seen the later ones, as well as the Boris Karloff version from the 30s, but not the Lee one.

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                    • Happy you find it useful. Actually out of all of those I think The Mummy, Taste of Fear and Dracula are the most likely to appeal to you. All very interesting movies, for sure. Watch out for Christopher Lee’s gold nail polish!

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  2. Liked the detailed and objective review presented by you alongwith the comparison of the two celluloid adaptations of the original written stuff. Since watching Bees Saal Baad (1962), I had been trying to put my hand on the famous novel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Finally I read it last year. I found the novel as quite good and gripping from start to finish. However, the denouement did not impress me much.

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  3. I remember reading the story a long time ago. Watched the Sherlock Holmes serial on doordarshan and Jremy Brett was the only Sherlock Holmes !! Basil Rathbone also did a good job. I did watch the earlier black and white movie, found it entertaining.

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