The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976)

Country: United Kingdom
Directors: Herbert Ross
Starring: Nicol Williamson, Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, Charles Gray, Jeremy Kemp
Music: John Addison
Based on the novel by Nicholas Meyer

For many years The Seven Per Cent Solution has been unavailable on DVD. You could pickup DVD-R and VHS copies on Ebay and other sources from the princely sum of $200, which was always out of my budget. But now, finally the film has been released by Fremantle Media in England and Umbrella Entertainment in Australia, which is fantastic news, and it’s a film that I believe that no Sherlock Holmes fan should be without.

The film opens with an intertitle that says:

‘In 1891 Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years. This is the true story of that disappearance. Only the facts have been made up.’

As the movie starts, Holmes (Nicol Williamson) has barricaded himself upstairs in his room at Baker Street and is in a manic, paranoid state. Mrs. Hudson (Holmes’ housekeeper) is concerned and asks Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) to pay a call on him. When Watson arrives, Holmes is raving about Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’. The world, other than Holmes, does not believe that there is an evil mastermind controlling crime throughout the city. Holmes suspects otherwise and believes that man to be Professor James Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). But as Holmes as acquired a cocaine addiction (a seven-per-cent solution), nobody pays much heed to his incessant ramblings.

After Holmes passes out, Watson leaves and heads to his medical practice and is surprised to find Moriarty, a mathematics teacher, is waiting to see him. Moriarty, who seems like a rather meek and mild chap, says he has come to see Watson, as he is Holmes’ oldest friend and he may be able to help avert a scandal. It appears that Holmes has been stalking Moriarty – watching his house and sending him threatening letters. Holmes continual assertion that Moriarty is a criminal mastermind is wearing thin. If Watson cannot intervene on Moriarty’s behalf, then the meek maths teacher will have no option but to consult his solicitor. Watson agrees to intervene.

Watson decides that Holmes must be cured of his cocaine addiction and secretly arranges for Holmes to travel to Vienna and meet a young doctor who has had some success in curing people of their drug dependencies. This doctors name is Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Of course, the hard part is to get Holmes to voluntarily leave London. To this end, Watson enlists the aid of Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft (Charles Gray). There appears to be a Holmes family secret concerning Professor Moriarty, and Mycroft uses this ‘unspoken’ piece of information to blackmail a measure of subterfuge from the Professor. Moriarty heads off on a whirlwind trip to Vienna. Naturally, the game is afoot, and Holmes follows accompanied by Watson.

Once in Vienna, Holmes follows the trail direct to Sigmund Freud’s door. There, Freud tries to cure Holmes of his addiction using hypnotism and other explorations of the great detective’s mind.

I must admit I am at an age where John Boorman’s sword and savagery epic, Excalibur came along at a time to be indelibly burnt into my brain forever. It is one of my favourite films. But Permission to Kill is not really the place for a discussion on that film, but Nicol Williamson’s performance as Merlin is a standout. Here, he may not seem like an obvious choice for Sherlock Holmes, but his performance perfectly catches the nuances as a drug addled and paranoid incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. His unusual vocal mannerisms convey Holmes mania and inner torment especially during the cold-turkey scenes.

Robert Duvall has always been a likable actor and his turn as Watson is measured and sympathetic; and most importantly of all, he does not portray him as a buffoon. Unfortunately though, Duvall’s English accent is all over the shop which undermines some scenes.

The Seven Per Cent Solution is a fantastic addition to the Holmes filmography. There are a few neat twists, and despite what starts out as a rather heavy plot – but is always enthralling – as the film progresses and Holmes recovers, we get a rip-roaring, vigorous Holmes adventure. I cannot recommend this film highly enough to Sherlock Holmes fans.


Nicol Williamson
– appeared in the film adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Human Factor
Robert Duvall – starred in The Killer Elite
Laurence Olivier – appeared in The Jigsaw Man and Marathon Man
Charles Gray – appeared in Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice
Jeremy Kemp – appeared in Operation Crossbow
John Addison – composed the music for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain

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