I waited a long, long time to acquire a decent video copy of The Seven Per Cent Solution, Herbert Ross’s film based on Nicholas Meyer’s novel about a collaboration between Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. It has been on my “buy immediately” list for decades. Since I already knew I would enjoy the film, the only question was whether it would live up to my memory of it.
The fiction-and-reality masquerade is a tad lightweight to support such a lushly stuffed feature, but it provides a charming conceit, something like a bravura doodle. Freud (Alan Arkin) is enlisted by Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) to cure Holmes (Nicol Williamson) of his cocaine addiction. As Holmes recovers, the trio get embroiled in the attempted kidnapping of another of Freud’s patients, demimondaine Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave).
All concerned avoid outright parody with the skill of a tightrope walker. Williamson is a suitably manic, neurotic Holmes, Duvall is a convincingly stolid Watson and Redgrave is reliably gorgeous, vulnerable and flirtatious as Deveraux. But it is Arkin’s performance as Freud that makes the film. He is not just made up to look convincingly like the youngish Freud. He is Freud in a rare merger of an actor and a role based on a real person. Making the psychoanalyst into a kind of detective is central to the story’s charm, but it is Arkin’s ability to make us believe we are in Freud’s presence that brings the film to life.
The conceit does start to wear thin in the last half hour or so, however, as Holmes, Freud and Watson chase a train to rescue Deveraux. The chase, complete with a swashbuckling sword duel between Holmes and the villain, Baron Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp) is a touch too knowing and extended to be as effective as it could be. Focused largely on Holmes until nearly the end, Freud and Watson have little to do but cheer from the rear, stoking their locomotive. On the other hand, when Freud does get involved, it is a flourish too far to see the father of psychoanalysis threatening the bad guys with a rifle.
Herbert Ross’s skill with actors and interest in off-beat material more than compensate for his occasional clumsiness and questionable technical choices. Fortunately, most of Solution has a simple, playful, satisfying sentiment. Holmes’s withdrawal hallucinations are effective, if ham-fisted, and Ross gives the flashback that explains the detective’s obsession with Dr. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) a taut, nearly subliminal horror.
The results may not be as refined as we might like for Meyer’s graceful little grupetto, but they provide well-seasoned entertainment. With the help of veteran cinematographer Oswald Morris, sumptuous sets by the incomparable Ken Adam and the lovely Viennese backdrops, there is always something to look at even when the action wobbles.
Besides, movies do not have to be perfect to stake a claim to our affections. The video was, in other words, worth the wait.