“I never guess,” the detective pronounces. “It is an appalling habit, destructive to the logical facility.” The detective is, of course, Sherlock Holmes (as personified, beautifully, by Nicol Williamson), and his unlikely conversational partner is the father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (as personified, with equal flair, by Alan Arkin). The meeting of these two great minds, one fictional and one historical, is the crux of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a lavish adaptation of the novel by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the screenplay. As directed by dancer-turned-filmmaker Herbert Ross, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution combines an ingenious premise with splendid production values and a remarkable cast. This is 19th-century adventure played across a glorious European canvas of opulent locations and sophisticated manners, a world of skullduggery committed and confounded by aristocrats and their fellows.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is refined on every level, from its elevated language to its meticulous acting, and for viewers of a cerebral bent, it’s a great pleasure to watch because of how deftly it mixes escapist thrills with psychological themes. The movie is far from perfect, and in fact it’s very slow to start, with a first half-hour that meanders turgidly until Freud appears to enliven the story. But when The Seven-Per-Cent Solution cooks, it’s quite something. The story begins in London, where Holmes is caught in the mania of a cocaine binge. His loyal friend/sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall), recognizes that Holmes needs help because Holmes is preoccupied with a conspiracy theory involving his boyhood tutor, Dr. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). Using clues related to Moriarty as bait, Watson tricks Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where Freud offers his services to cure Holmes of his drug addiction. In the course of Holmes’ treatment, the detective—as well as Freud and Watson—get pulled into a mystery involving a beautiful singer (Vanessa Redgrave) and a monstrous baron (Jeremy Kemp).
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution tries to do too much, presenting several intrigues simultaneously—as well as building a love story between Holmes and the singer and, of course, dramatizing Holmes’ horrific withdrawal from cocaine. Yet buried in the narrative sprawl is a wondrous buddy movie: Arkin’s dryly funny Freud and Williamson’s caustically insightful Holmes are terrifically entertaining partners. (Duvall, stretching way beyond his comfort zone to play a stiff-upper-lip Englishman, is very good as well, forming the glue between the wildly different tonalities of Arkin’s and Williamson’s performances.) In the movie’s best scenes, Freud and Holmes don’t so much match wits as merge wits, because Meyer’s amusing contrivance is that Freud’s inquiries into the subconscious are cousins to Holmes’ deductive-reasoning techniques. Thanks to Meyer’s elegant wordplay and the across-the-board great acting, moments in this movie soar so high that it’s easy to overlook sequences of lesser power. Ross’ contributions should not be underestimated, however, because the painterly frames and nimble camera moves that he conjures with veteran cinematographer Oswald Morris give the picture a graceful flow and ground the gleefully preposterous narrative in Old World splendor. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: GROOVY