from the archives: The Seven Per-Cent Solution

This movie review originally appeared on my LiveJournal blog on 26 February 2017. It also amused me to watch the film and see that three of the four big guest stars in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Family” had supporting roles in this film: Jeremy Kemp (Picard’s brother Robert) plays the bad guy, while Samantha Eggar (Robert’s wife Marie) and Georgia Brown (Worf’s adoptive mother Helena) play the wives of Drs. Watson and Freud, respectively.


TCM, as part of their 30 days of Oscar thingie, showed The Seven Per-Cent Solution recently, and we recorded it, as both Dale and I wanted to see it again. For my part, I only in the last few years seriously got into Holmes stuff (inspired at least in part by the three new interpretations of Holmes on screen by Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Johnny Lee Miller), and have written two Holmes pastiches of my own (which will be in next month’s anthology Baker Street Irregulars and the followup volume in 2018).

I kinda wish I’d watched this before I was at a convention with Nicholas Meyer — who wrote the screenplay for the film based on his novel of the same name — so I could ask him if it was inspired by the fact that “The Final Problem” is, quite possibly, the worst short story ever written in the English language.

When I did my deep dive through the Conan Doyle Holmes stories a bunch of years ago, I read “The Final Problem,” arguably the most influential Holmes story, as it’s the one that introduces Professor Moriarty as Holmes’s arch-nemesis. So fucking many screen adaptations of Holmes have used Moriarty as if he’s this major, critical, important character in the Holmes oeuvre.

The thing is, he really isn’t. He’s a cheap retcon, a desperate attempt on Conan Doyle’s part to rid himself of the albatross of his most popular character, and came up with a major criminal mastermind, hoping he would be considered worthy of killing the great detective.

But the actual story, and the actual character of Moriarty, is dreadful. The writing is subpar, the characterization is nonexistent, the shoehorning in of Moriarty into the London underworld is completely unconvincing. It’s a crap story and a crap character, and people keep coming back to it.

For all that The Seven Per-Cent Solution is mostly the grand team-up between Holmes and Dr. Sigmund Freud as they foil a kidnapping, what it mainly functions as is a glorious repudiation of “The Final Problem,” and a way to address that story’s shortcomings — it stands out among the Holmes stories as being particularly atrocious — and still account for Holmes’s several-year disappearance between “The Final Problem” and when Conan Doyle gave in to public pressure and brought Holmes back in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Because in the movie we find out that Moriarty was, in fact, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’s math tutor and he also had an affair with the Holmes boys’ mother, which led to their father murdering their mother. This was sufficiently traumatic that Sherlock repressed it, but later in life when he was overwhelmed by cocaine addiction (which is right out of Conan Doyle, and what the solution of the title is: what he injected himself with, a 7% solution of coke), he deluded himself into believing that Moriarty was a criminal mastermind that nobody knew about but him (which is also right out of “The Final Problem”).

Basically, Meyer came up with a brilliant solution to “The Final Problem” being such a piece of shit — it didn’t actually happen, it’s how Watson covered Holmes’s cocaine fever and subsequent recovery from addiction.

Watching the movie again after so long — I last saw it about 25 years ago or so — I am struck by how mannered Robert Duvall’s performance as Watson is. I love the emotion and devotion he brings to the role, but listening to him talk is difficult, as it’s obvious he’s trying very very hard to keep up his British accent. Although it does contrast nicely with Nicol Williamson’s perpetually over-the-top Holmes. The movie itself is much more interesting as a character study of Holmes, and using Freud to shine new light on the detective. The actual case is not that interesting, and the lengthy train ride and subsequent swordfight atop the moving train just feels like filler.

Still, it’s a nifty little Holmes story, a worthy addition to the extended story of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’d recommend it to any Holmes fan.

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