I never guess. It is an appalling habit.
The Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are enjoying a bit of renaissance at the moment, with modern takes on the character on television on both sides of the pond. This take, however, based on novel by Nicholas Meyer, is modernization of a different sort, inserting contemporary concerns into a thoroughly traditional Holmes story.
This movie comes with two irresistible conceits. One, that Prof. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) was only Sherlock (Nicol Williamson) and Mycroft (Charles Gray) Holmes’s mathematics tutor when they were children and that the great detective’s obsession with the “Napolean of crime” is a product of his dependency on cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” of the title). Two, under the pretense of pursuing Moriarty to Vienna, Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) tricks Holmes into seeking treatment for his addiction from no less a figure than Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).
The film really feels like two shorter Holmes stories cobbled into a longer piece. The first half deals with Holmes’s addiction, and as a result, is more of a dramatic piece than a classic detective story or adventure. This section is necessarily darker, but Williamson is electric as a man in the throes of the drug, while still mostly in possession of the faculties that make him Sherlock Holmes. Arkin portrays Freud as a detective of sorts himself, only in pursuit of he mysteries of mind, and every bit the equal of Holmes. Arkins performance is crucial to the success of this picture, especially in its first hour.
The second half feels like the filmmakers rewarding their viewers for sitting through the more demanding first part with a more conventional detective adventure, as Holmes assists Freud when one of his patients (Vanessa Redgrave), suddenly succumbs to her own addiction and then disappears mysteriously. The change in tone between the two subplots could be jarring, so it’s best to view The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as two stories with the Holmes/Freud partnership as the connective tissue. While the first half is intense and introspective, the second is lightweight fun, entirely dependent on your willingness to accept Herr Doctor Freud as an action hero.
Meyers, known these days for directing two of the best Star Trek movies, shows where he comes by the personality trait that aided him in those endeavors: his respect but not slavish reverence for a franchise with a rabid fan base. He would go to mash up historical figures, setting author H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, another film well worth seeking out.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, handsomely produced and energetically directed by Herbert Ross, is hard to fault on any level of film-making merit. It is, however, the product of Meyer’s intimate knowledge and abiding respect for Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, and Ross’s unyielding respect for Meyer’s novel. As a result, the film makes no compromise to the modern audience’s sensibilities, and plays out like someone would expect a Holmes film might, if one were made while Conan Doyle were still writing them. That may take some adjustment on your part, but its worth the effort.