The year is 1891 and the famed detective Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) is believed dead by the public, but in fact he has suffered a complete breakdown. His concerned and loyal friend Doctor John Watson (Robert Duvall) calls at Holmes' place in Baker Street to be greeted by a worried Mrs Hudson (Alison Leggatt) who tells him that the sleuth is in the grip of a cocaine induced mania, and is even refusing to eat the meals she prepares for him. Watson ventures upstairs and manages to persuade Holmes to let him in whereupon he is subjected to paranoid ravings about his supposed nemesis Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) who Holmes believes is out to get him and has been spying on to work out his next move. But all is not what it seems, and Watson draws the conclusion that his old friend needs help, and badly.
It's a very "Hollywood in the seventies" conceit that what Sherlock Holmes really needed in his life was therapy, but that's what The Seven-Per-Cent Solution proposed, the title referring to the solution of cocaine the detective took rather than an answer to any mystery he might have been investigating. A mystery does arrive, rest assured, but you have to sit through almost an hour of buildup to reach it and even then you may think it wasn't worth the bother. The film was based on a bestselling novel by Nicholas Meyer, who adapted his own work here, and if it was intended as a spoof, it's not a particularly funny one, whereas if it was intended as a serious tribute, it's simply silly.
The inclusion of cocaine in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories has latterly been a cause for a reaction approximating tittering stricture, or an example of a more daring aspect to the fiction than such family friendly fare would be expected to include. Here it's emphasised fully, but only as a symptom of a more deeply rooted psychological issue for Sherlock to grapple with, although by the end he has still not fully come to terms with it. Watson decides, when he finds out that Moriarty is not a criminal mastermind but a meek former tutor of the young Holmes who is baffled at the attention he is receiving, that Holmes must be tricked into visiting Vienna.
And why Vienna? Because that's where famed shrink Sigmund Freud lives, here played by Alan Arkin under a large beard. Moriarty is sent there so the obsessed Holmes will surely follow, and so he does, with the trail ending in Freud's house. Holmes soon realises he has been tricked and is reluctant to stay, but Freud offers him the chance to show off his mental abilities when, in the film's best scene, he shows how he has understood and deduced the nature of Freud's profession, background and character. This part seems more faithful to the character than the giddy runaround that the narrative develops into.
As with all drugs-based films, there has to be a cold turkey sequence, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is no exception with Sherlock writhing around in bed hallucinating snakes and Williamson going even further over the top, if that's possible. Once all that's disposed of, the mystery commences as Holmes and Watson accompany Freud to visit a patient with similar addiction, but Holmes realises that the woman, Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave), has been drugged against her will. What it all ends up with is something sadly inauthentic, with Arkin frustratingly muted and struggling with a thick accent, something which also afflicts Duvall - his version of English tones is kind of strange. The whole affair diminishes the world of Holmes, with recognisable characters wheeled on like guest stars and the great detective's intellect reduced to a selection of quirks and insecurities. It doesn't do much for Freud, either. Music by John Addison.