*. The idea was inspired: why not team up Sherlock Holmes with Sigmund Freud, two rough contemporaries, in a new adventure that has Holmes traveling to Vienna to get treatment for his cocaine addiction while solving the mystery of an abducted singer.
*. Nicholas Meyer had written the source novel and also did the screenplay, which got an Oscar nomination. Stephen Sondheim wrote a delightful song for the Madame at a brothel to sing (“I Never Do Anything Twice”). Ken Adam was in charge of production design and his Victorian interiors look great, showing he was a master of more than just those giganto-sized villain’s lairs in the Bond movies or the war room in Dr. Strangelove. And the cast is first rate, with Nicol Williamson and Alan Arkin in the leads and Robert Duvall surprisingly solid as Watson, Joel Grey as a creepy villain, and Laurence Olivier as the world’s most distinguished red herring. Vanessa Redgrave looks as though she doesn’t want to be here, but then she may have read the script and been wondering what exactly her role amounted to.
*. About that script. I’m afraid it’s part of the reason the movie dies. Meyer really wanted to do something quite different from the book, while director Herbert Ross kept pulling him back. This suggests they weren’t on the same page, and the results show. The story never comes together, feeling in the end like a couple of different movies pulling in different directions and never settling on a clear tone. A review in The Daily Telegraph opined that “the tale drags on for reel after reel before we cotton on to the fact that it is meant to be funny.” But is it meant to be funny? I’m not sure.
*. Meyer wanted it to be “not a Sherlock Holmes movie, [but] a movie about Sherlock Holmes. That’s different.” One thing this meant was rehabilitating Watson, who Meyer thought had been too much the buffoon made famous by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies. But enlarging Watson means diminishing Holmes, not to the extent here as would be done in Without a Clue to be sure, but this Holmes is still a wreck. Freud is very much the greater man, and the hero.
*. This is reflected even in the nuts-and-bolts of the crime story. I’m afraid there isn’t much in the way of clever detective work going on. Holmes’s deducing that Lola Deveraux (Redgrave) had been abducted is kind of obvious from the nature of her injuries, and following a trail of dropped lilies (really?) to where she’d been taken is very sub-Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Freud is way ahead of the legendary detective. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes you’re probably going to be disappointed at your hero’s performance.
*. Ross was probably a bad choice to direct as well. There’s no excitement on tap, even with a train chase and a sword fight to finish things off. This climax is then followed by a long and cringey denouement, as we learn the historical source of Holmes’s addiction problems and Moriarty fixation, which is both clichéd and wildly over-the-top. An epilogue then reintroduces Holmes to Ms. Deveraux, an even more cringe-inducing scene where the chanteuse seems anything but thrilled to be going on a cruise with the famous detective. But then he seems discomfited as well. Are we supposed to imagine this as a budding romance? Because there’d been little hint of that in the movie we’ve just seen. Which is just another way the pieces don’t come together.
*. In the brief interview featurette included with the DVD one gets the sense that Meyer himself didn’t think much of the film, and that’s understandable. Because of the credits this is a movie that still has a bit of a reputation today, and even some admirers, but despite all the talent assembled and the good use of locations it really is a stuffy and stiff piece with a stupid story that doesn’t make anything out of the intriguing pairing at its heart.