Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee: An Overview
Part One
By Charles Prepolec
While Sherlock Holmes has been immortalized on screen by a great many actors, only one can lay claim to portraying both Holmes brothers and Sir Henry Baskerville. That actor is none other than the extremely versatile Christopher Lee. While not as strongly associated with the Holmes character as his longtime friend and co-star Peter Cushing, Mr. Lee’s contributions are indeed uniquely significant. As with so many good things, it all started with Hammer Films…
In late 1956, Hammer had begun work on their newest and most important project to date; namely the groundbreaking colour film The Curse of Frankenstein. This film would set the mold for the face of the company for the next 20 years and result in one of the greatest pairings in film history. Peter Cushing had already been cast as the monster-making Baron Frankenstein, but the role of the monster called for someone with “…some knowledge and experience of movement and mime…” Enter Christopher Lee. While a radically different characterization was given from the old Karloff version of the monster, Lee managed to create, without a doubt, a remarkable creature, filled with a pathos that would never again be equalled by Hammer in their follow-up series. Christopher Lee certainly demonstrated a superior ability at movement and mime in his performance, excelling this performance only in the even more demanding role of “The Mummy”. An incredible achievement, especially when one considers that Lee was covered by a ton of ghastly make-up. The film was an immediate success and led to a number of classic film remakes of Universal's stable, including Dracula and The Mummy, both of which featured Lee in the title role. With the release of Dracula, or Horror of Dracula as it was called in the US, Christopher Lee had become an international film star! Unfortunately, the side effect was that he had become indelibly and unfairly associated with the horror roles that made him a star, and for the rest of his career he would have to expend a great deal of energy to shake off that stigma.
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
The Hound of Hell
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
An early opportunity to play against type came with Hammer’s 1958 remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Hammer Films would provide the world with the first Sherlock Holmes film to be shot in colour. The combo of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher, made for a first rate feature. In an excellent casting move against type, Lee was given the key role of Sir Henry Baskerville. In the book, The Films of Christopher Lee by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart, Lee comments: Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
“I think it was somebody’s idea that I should play Sir Henry Baskerville because it was a complete contrast from the rather upstanding, splendid schooling of Sir Henry to the Frankenstein creature…Anyway, it was a complete contrast for me…a rather romantic figure, not entirely Conan Doyle’s description of a burly, rather boorish, dull and bad-tempered Henry Baskerville, although I certainly played him as a short-tempered man with a heart condition…which indeed he had.”
Lee certainly cut a dashing figure, whether dressed in tweeds or riding gear, both at Baskerville Hall and out upon the Moors. The romantic element came in the generous form of newcomer Marla Landi, as Stapleton’s fiery daughter Cecile. In a serious divergence from Doyle’s text, Cecile uses her considerable charms to lead Baskerville nearly to his end. It is interesting to watch Lee and Landi interact on-screen as Baskerville has to deal with the girl’s switch from inviting and elusive sexuality to a harpy of vengeance. The character of Cecile is not the only departure from Doyle. Hammer had of course made their mark with strong horror elements in their films. Although Hound was really an adventure film, it was felt that the horror elements needed a “beefing up” to meet the audience expectations. This resulted in the insertion of a scene involving Sir Henry and a rather large Tarantula. The filming of the sequence caused no little concern to Christopher Lee, as he points out in the Pohle & Hart book:
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
“Now there is one thing I’m really scared of…spiders. In particular these ghastly bird-eating spiders from South America, with big, huge hairy legs as thick as my fingers. I hate these things, and there was a sequence in the film in which one of spiders comes out of a boot. I refused to let them place it on my neck, but I did have it on one of my shoulders and I was in such a state that I virtually went green, and sweat poured off my face. Everybody said what a brilliant performance I gave. All I can say was that it wasn’t acting at all. I was nearly sick with nausea and fear.”
As with every version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, there were certain difficulties in presenting “the hound of hell” itself. In this instance, a Great Dane answering to the name of Colonel played the hound. A sequence, which was filmed but later discarded, made use of children dressed as the leads being savaged by the dog to increase the sense of size in the film’s climax.  In the end, however, it was Christopher Lee who endured the encounter with Colonel. In his autobiography, Lee explains: Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
“The dog was not at all realistic. He was real, but his behaviour made a nonsense of the story. He was a Great Dane called Colonel. After he had been on the set six weeks, he was so acclimatized, so amiable and stuffed to the gunnels with chocolate, that he was a non-starter as a hound of Hell. When the time finally came for him to attack and savage me, the entire team had to get together to prod Colonel into action. He stood a great deal of vexatious treatment from everybody without a bleat until suddenly, when I’d relaxed and given up, he lost his cool and hurled himself on me. He bit me through the arm.”
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd 2000
All discomfort aside; Christopher Lee made a very good Sir Henry and complemented the performance of other cast members. The only odd result of the casting is that he towered over Peter Cushing, the film’s Sherlock Holmes. It is unfortunate that the film did not generate the necessary profit, as this pretty much scuppered any plans for sequels by Hammer. Surely the exposure in a Holmes film of this lean, 6’4” actor must have begged the question “Why hasn’t Christopher Lee himself played Holmes?” That question was dealt with in 1962…
The Teutonic Sherlock Holmes
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962 Picture if you will, in the year 1962, a film that is a combination of a script by Curt Siodmak (Donovan’s Brain), based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and direction from Terence Fisher and add Christopher Lee as the lead. Sounds good doesn’t it? Now make it a German, French and Italian co-production, throw in a co-director, as well as a heavily rewritten script by an unknown German reviser, and you end up with the stylistic silliness that is Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes or as it was released in English Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.   Lee comments in his autobiography:
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
“It was made in Spandau, with some location shots in Ireland, and it seemed fortune was smiling on our plans. Terence Fisher was over to direct, and a brilliant replica of 221B Baker Street was made on a German stage with everything so much in its place that Holmes’ redoubtable housekeeper wouldn’t have been able to fault it. Thorley Walters made an excellent Watson, and for Holmes there was me. I looked like him. And I was naturally brusque. We were backed by many eminent German actors. And the sum of it all was a mess.”
And also in “The Films of Christopher Lee”:
“The whole thing was a really classic example of having the right ingredients and coming up with a very unpalatable dish.”
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
In an effort to cash in on the German popularity of British crime thrillers by the likes of Edgar Wallace, it comes as no surprise that Sherlock Holmes ended up on German screens. The German film studio, Constantin Film Verlieh of Berlin, reputedly approached and was granted by the Doyle estate, the rights to make a film featuring Sherlock Holmes based on the novel The Valley of Fear. The plot, which resembles Valley of Fear in only the vaguest way concerns Moriarty and the theft, recovery, loss, and recovery again of a necklace described as Cleopatra’s Necklace. Christopher Lee comments in a 1968 interview, which was reprinted, but not credited (although I believe the original source was “Castle of Frankenstein Magazine”), in “Sherlock Holmes on Screen” by Pohle & Hart:
“It was not taken from any specific story. Although it was called “The Valley of Fear”, it was not taken from that story. It was a hodge-podge of stories put together by the German producers, which ruined it.”
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
To garner an international market, Christopher Lee was cast in the title role, with fellow ‘Brit’ Thorley Walters cast as Watson. The rest of the cast was made up of German actors, all of who gave fairly unremarkable performances with the exception of Hans Söhnker, who managed a deliciously sly turn as Moriarty. Interiors were shot on a stage in Berlin, with additional footage being shot in Spandau and Ireland. The time period looks to be vaguely set in the 1930s, but does have an odd Victorian feel to it. The Baker Street sitting rooms are very well executed and go a long way to adding a hint of authenticity. Mr. Lee looks perfectly ridiculous dressed in a large-check greatcoat and deerstalker, but very striking in all other scenes, including those that incorporate disguises. His Holmesian look is further enhanced by the use of a flawless false nose. In the unaccredited interview used above, Christopher Lee has this to say about his Holmes:
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
“My portrayal of Holmes is, I think, one of the best things I’ve ever done because I tried to play him really as he was written – as a very intolerant, argumentative, difficult man – and I looked extraordinarily like him with the make-up on…Everyone who’s seen it said I was as like Holmes as any actor they’ve ever seen – both in appearance and interpretation.”
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
On a recent viewing of the film, I found myself noticing similarities in structure to the Universal Films that had featured Basil Rathbone, as well as elements of the 1952 series featuring Ronald Howard. That would be fine and oddly charming had this film been made earlier, but not, unfortunately, in 1962. There are some amusingly broad characters that add an element of humour, including a sadly Nigel Bruce-like performance from Thorley Walters. Comedic turns abound in a pub sequence with Holmes in his thug disguise. There are some well played scenes between  Lee and Hans Söhnker, played out on a bench that echo the fantastic exchange between Holmes and Moriarty recorded in The Final Problem. Great stuff, but unfortunately not frequent enough in this film.
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
“What I found most unacceptable was the fact that, without my knowledge or permission, my voice was dubbed in English by another actor. The results were disastrous.”
Fortunately, he would rectify that situation some 25 years later. In the meantime he would tackle yet another Holmes, of a distinctly different type…
Continued in Part two...
In Part 2 Christopher Lee's involvement with Billy Wilder's
Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. In Part 3 his return to the role of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years.
References:
"Tall, Dark and Gruesome" by Christopher Lee. Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. 1999
"The Films of Christopher Lee" by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1983                  "Sherlock Holmes on the Screen" by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart. A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc. 1977
"Holmes of the Movies" by David Stuart Davies. Bramhall House. 1978
"The Films of Sherlock Holmes" by Chris Steinbrunner & Norman Michaels. Citadel Press. 1978
"Sherlock Holmes Screen and Sound Guide" by Gordon E. Kelley. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1994
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Hammer Film Productions Ltd.
Prod: Anthony Hinds
Dir: Terence Fisher
Writer: Peter Bryan

Cast:
Peter Cushing as Holmes
Andre Morell as Watson
Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville
Marla Landi as Cecile Stapleton
Ewen Solon as Stapleton
David Oxley as Sir Hugo Baskerville
Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland
Francis De Wolfe as Dr. Mortimer
John Le Mesurier as Barrymore
Helen Goss as Mrs. Barrymore
87 minutes
Copyright © Hammer Film Productions Ltd. 2000
Sherlock Holmes und Das Halsband des Todes (1962)
German Language with English subtitles
Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1968)
Dubbed Version
Constantin/ CCC/ Omnia/ Criterion/ INCEI Film (German)
Prod: Artur Brauner
Dir: Terence Fisher & Frank Witherstein
Writer: Curt Siodmak (and uncredited German reviser)

Cast:
Christopher Lee as Holmes
Thorley Walters as Watson
Hans Sohnker as Moriarty
Hans Neilson as Inspector Cooper
Senta Berger as Ellen Blackburn
Ian Desny as Paul King
Leon Askin as Charles
Wolfgang Lukschy as Peter Blackburn
Edith Schultze-Westrum as Mrs. Hudson
Bernard Lajarrige as Police Inspector
Bruna Pantel as Auctioneer
Heinrich Gies as American
Roland Armontel as Doctor
86 minutes
Copyright © Constantin Film Verlieh 1962
Original text content is copyright © 2000, 2001 Charles Prepolec. Images are used for review and publicity purposes only, no ownership is given nor implied. Any infringement of copyright is unintentional. Please email the webmaster for immediate removal of any infringing materials.
Return to Table of Contents
View article on Christopher Lee and The Man with the Golden Gun
Visit the Official Christopher Lee Web