The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Igor Maslennikov, 1981)

Eclipse LogoSherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson explore the return of a monstrous ghost dog that curses the Baskerville line and threatens its only heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, freshly returned from Canada to assume his inheritance.  The pair travel to Baskerville Hall on the Devonshire moors and seek out a logical explanation for this supernatural problem, only to find a series of suspicious characters and blind alleys complicating their investigation, each delay placing Sir Henry farther into the beast’s deadly maw.  This adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular work is often considered the best of Igor Maslennikov’s Sherlock Holmes cycle, notable for its ominous exterior settings and its strong comedic content.

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See the complete Episode 1 here, at Film Annex.

See the complete Episode 2 here, at Film Annex.

It seems almost unnecessary to summarize this faithful adaptation of Doyle’s most famous and appreciated novel.  Maslennikov’s film has everything one would expect in a good adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles – the reenactment of the legend, the barren, windswept marshland of Dartmoor, the gloomy, foreboding interiors of Baskerville Hall, the shadowy figures roaming the countryside, the ominous searches for the escaped convict, the suspicious behaviour of the Hall’s staff, the secretive natures of community’s residents, the hellish howls in the black night.  This Russian version adds a climactic chase and an exchange of gunfire with the plot’s mastermind, depicting his drowning rather than leaving it assumed as in the novel.  Overall, it is often considered the high watermark of Maslennikov’s Holmes cycle, managing to merge suspense, whimsy, and authenticity into a single, satisfying whole.

Glehn and Maarjamäe Castles, located in Tallinn, Estonia, reportedly stand-in for Baskerville Hall and do so effectively.  The episode also boasts an impressive cast of supporting actors, including the great Nikita Mikhalkov as Sir Henry Baskerville, Oleg Yankovsky as Stapleton, and Alla Demidova as Laura Lyons.  Mikhalkov is a member of a staggeringly prolific line of artists, a highly successful actor, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, and prominent political figure in his own right.  Yankovsky was a highly honoured actor, filmmaker, and festival organizer, with a career that spanned 40 years, best known for his work with Andrei Tarkovsky.  Demidova has been a central figure of Russian stage and screen for decades, still staging poetry recitals in her 70s.  The awards heaped on this trio is stunning.  Each have been named an official People’s Artist, have received the State Prize (more than once in some cases), and have been bestowed various classes of the Order of Merit for the Fatherland.  In many respects, their involvement in these episodes is a testament to the quality and respect garnered by Maslennikov’s cycle at this point.

While we’ve noted that the entire series is rooted in the camaraderie of its two stars, The Hound of the Baskervilles places particular emphasis on its humour.  This comedic prominence is declared at the outset of episode 1, where Holmes inexplicably deducts the identity of a cane’s owner, debunking Watson’s theories and engaging in a cheeky bit of fun at his friend’s expense.  From there, it is Sir Henry’s clash with the mannered customs of Baskerville Hall’s staff and guests that carries much of the film’s lighter side.  Surely Russian fans of the series must have had a touch of the anglophile in them, but seeing the rough and tumble Sir Henry’s tensions with English propriety must have amused domestic viewers and their own nationalism.  The hatred of Baskerville Hall’s heir for oatmeal, his assessment of his new home as gloomy, and his discomfort with English clothing and styles, all melted away by the film’s end where he is cared for by his staff like a child, fed oatmeal by the spoonful, provides a sense of play not entirely present in the other films of the cycle.  Further, it offers a reprieve from a narrative that is somewhat more languidly paced than other entries in the series.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only of Maslennikov’s adaptations to not blend multiple Doyle stories together, and so it becomes more expansive, less like a series of progressive deductions toward a conclusion and more of a contemplation on an uncertain and threatening context.  In fact, each episode in the cycle carries within its consistent aesthetic a particular emphasis, theme, and significance.  If the first film emphasizes the founding bond between Holmes and Watson and the second describes the depths of that bond and of the danger risked in their investigations, The Hound of the Baskervilles is grounded in the duo’s individual characters, separated and working largely independently for much of the film.  The fourth and fifth films respectively explore the desire for emotional connections beyond their friendship and the broad transition from one era to another, but we’ll get to those films later.  For now, we can appreciate The Hound of the Baskervilles as the convergence of Doyle’s most favoured story with Maslennikov’s franchise to produce the most fondly embraced of the 5 TV movies.

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