The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Spicy Latinas, Class Exploitation and Excellent Steepling

by Mark Wallace

Fresh from their success with Dracula, England’s Hammer studios re-engaged the acting talents of Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville) in their take on Doyle’s classic tale.

It had been 20 years since Basil Rathbone had initiated his Holmes career in Hound of the Baskervilles, so the story was due a revisit. Cushing’s Hound would be of another genre to Rathbone’s. Hammer was a horror studio so an accentuation of the gothic horror elements of Hound was on the cards: more hellhound, more ruined churches, more direct evocations of the horror of being immersed in Grimpen Mire itself.

For openers, though, Hammer went with a longish prologue (about 9 minutes) recounting the legend of Sir Hugo and the Hound. Doyle, as was his custom, opened with a long and not unamusing dialogue between Holmes and Watson in Holmes’s quarters. Most adaptations, however, stay away from Doyle’s talky openings. This film simply lifts the legend recounted by Dr Mortimer in Chapter 2 of Hound and presents it directly at the beginning.

Placement in the narrative aside, the legend is lifted almost intact from Doyle. There are a couple of changes: the young village girl who the “wild, profane and godless” Sir Hugo pursues flees to a ruined abbey on the moor and it is caught and murdered there by Sir Hugo; in Doyle, there is no church, and the girl dies “of fear and of fatigue” on the moor before Hugo can catch her.

Village girl hides out in a ruined abbey while being sought by Sir Hugo

This prologue works thematically as it sets up the ideas of class relations that plays a surprisingly large role in this adaptation. This opening shows Sir Hugo treating the local peasantry as objects for his exploitation and enjoyment, and milder forms of this upper-class arrogance echo through the film.

Hugo himself, of course, quickly gets his comeuppance, when, the legend says, the Hound appears and rips his throat out. And, thereafter, the Baskervilles are prone to sudden and mysterious death, still paying for the sins of their ancestor.

Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed. Nor can it be denied that many of the family have been unhappy in their deaths, which have been sudden, bloody, and mysterious. Yet may we shelter ourselves in the infinite goodness of Providence, which would not forever punish the innocent beyond that third or fourth generation which is threatened in Holy Writ. To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted. – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 2

In the context of Sir Hugo’s actions, our first introduction to Sir Henry Baskerville is notable. In a key early scene of the film, H&W enter Sir Henry’s hotel room and greet him. He is fixing his tie in the mirror and doesn’t bother to look around to acknowledge them. Instead, assuming he is speaking to the hotel manager, he begins to complain in an overbearing and arrogant manner about his (the manager’s) tardy arrival and the disappearance of a boot.

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) fixes his tie.

The superciliousness of Sir Henry’s behavior is of course accentuated by the choice of actor to play him: Christopher Lee. Lee had just played the archetypal upper-class predator in Hammer’s Dracula, and another recent role was as the villainous Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the latter, indeed, his character rapes a peasant girl in scenes very reminiscent of this film’s opening. Lee’s characteristic lordliness was used to effect in villainous roles, but in this adaptation the same lordliness is an element of a benevolent character.

When he finally realizes that he is not speaking to a member of the serving classes, Henry is appropriately apologetic, and he soon builds a friendly relationship with H&W. This close relationship is only threatened late on when Holmes makes a jeering remark about Henry’s “peasant friends”. Holmes is here being rude with a strategic purpose rather than making a straightforward expression of class prejudice, but the form his remark takes is also important. It annoys Henry greatly, getting at the root of his class consciousness, and that of the film.

Peter Cushing is seen by many as one of the best Holmeses and physically he fits the role very well: tall, slim, grave expression, keen eyes, ghostly pallor, sharp features. Intelligent and alert but slightly otherworldly. He may also have been reading up on Holmes’ physical mannerisms, for he makes copious use of the steepled fingers pose, a favorite of Holmes and one in which he engages in Hound among other of Doyle’s works.

Sydney Paget illustration from Hound showing Sherlock Holmes in finger-steepling mode.

Cushing with steepled fingers, index of intellectual engagement.

If Cushing is a classical Sherlock Holmes, the most radical character change in the film is that of the novel’s Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest in novel and film. Her first name is now Cecile, she is Stapleton’s daughter, and the central emphasis is on her having Spanish blood and being a variation on the spicy Latina/Latina spitfire stereotype. (Doyle mentions at the end of HOTB that she has Costa Rican blood.) As such, she is deeply sexualized but emotionally volatile, and ultimately as dangerous as the murderous Stapleton himself. It is his lust for her that brings Henry into danger, and it is implied by Cecile herself that lust has been the curse of all the Baskervilles, from Sir Hugo onwards.

Sir Hugo died here. His throat was torn out because of a girl. And Sir Charles, your dear uncle. He died here, didn’t he? Died because he wanted me, like you!

Cecile mocks Henry as she waits for the hound to tear his throat out. Her triumph, alas, is short lived.

Cecile is a product of the prurient, even perverse, attitude to sexuality in Hammer films: these films are predicated on the indulgence followed by the harsh punishment of sexual impulses. The viewer can watch with voyeuristic enjoyment, then join the gentlemanly protagonists in condemning with puritanical vigor.

Our first glimpse of Cecile Stapleton, a sullen yet passionate young lady of Spanish extraction.

Somewhat in line with this Puritanism, perhaps, is the portrayal of Bishop Frankland (Mr Frankland in the novel). The Bishop is an eccentric, treated with amused indulgence in the film, which thus answers to Žižek’s definition of cynical ideology, wherein the dominant ideology is reinforced not by strict enforcement of strict obedience, but by toleration of and encouragement of an attitude of cynical but resigned distance to it. In this context, the real political danger is the true believer, the one who takes it all too seriously. (I also discuss this here with regard to Joseph Conrad’s Chance.) Holmes is more straightforwardly ideologically aligned to Frankland when he asks him:

Will it help if I tell you I am fighting evil? Fighting it as surely as you do.

Holmes and Bishop Frankland have an important conversation.

Organized religion and its representatives, then, can’t always be taken seriously, but must be respected at moments of crisis. (The 1954 War of the Worlds also performs an interesting ideological repositioning of H.G. Wells’ text.) Hammer thus perform a delicate maneuver in tapping into a conservative strain of their audience while also being purveyors of horror and sex. They foreground sex in the story, but make it Spanish. They foreground class tension, too, and hint at a regret for the loss of the old days of aristocratic domination. But even here, perhaps rather than adding their own spin, they are picking up on a thread from Doyle. Recall Watson’s reflections as he gazed upon the visage of Sir Henry:

[A]s I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (HOTB, Ch. 6)

It would take Hammer to take this strain of the original and run with it, turning it into an intriguing addition to the extended Holmesian corpus.