by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Sign of Four — rather awkwardly subtitled Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Case (a judgment I don’t think most Holmes fans would agree with — I suspect The Hound of the Baskervilles would get the most honors in that regard, though “The Final Problem” and “Silver Blaze” would also probably rate above this one) — made by a British studio called Associated Talking Pictures in 1932 and starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Hunter (who later came to the U.S. and co-starred with Bette Davis and Colin Clive in a weird little Warners programmer from 1935 called The Girl from Tenth Avenue, which I described when Charles and I watched it as “basically a Cinderella story, though it begins as The Lost Weekend, then takes on overtones of Shaw’s Pygmalion and ends up remarkably close to Pretty Woman” — certainly a weird assemblage of plot devices!) as Watson.
Wontner played Holmes five times in all, though his other four Holmes vehicles were made by a different studio (Twickenham) and featured a different actor as Watson (Ian Fleming — not the later author of that name who created James Bond). One of these films, The Missing Rembrandt, is apparently lost, but I’ve seen the other three — The Sleeping Cardinal, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (based on Conan Doyle’s novel The Valley of Fear, and copying its annoying structure of a long second-half flashback in which Holmes does not appear) and Silver Blaze a.k.a. Murder at the Baskervilles — and The Sign of Four is better than all of them. That seems partly due to the fact that Associated Talking Pictures was a larger and bigger-budgeted company than Twickenham (I don’t know for sure that this film had a bigger budget that the Wontner Holmes films from Twickenham, but it certainly looked like a more elaborate production) and also because they hired much more competent help than the rather lame directors and writers who worked for Twickenham.
The producers included Hollywood veteran Rowland V. Lee (who never personally directed a Holmes film but worked with the greatest Holmes of all, Basil Rathbone, on Son of Frankenstein and Tower of London) and British director Basil Dean, who’d been in the U.S. in 1929 and got to direct the first Holmes talkie (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Clive Brook, at Paramount). The director was Graham “Jack” Cutts, whom I’d heard of before only in John Russell Taylor’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock; when Michael Balcon first started producing movies in Britain in the early 1920’s, Cutts was his star director and Hitchcock his assistant. Taylor wrote off Cutts as a mediocrity who drank and womanized his way out of a major career he didn’t really deserve anyway — he included some funny scenes of the people working on Cutts’ films being drafted to keep his various girlfriends from meeting and confronting each other — but judging from this film it seems as if members of the Hitchcock cult should be considering Cutts as an influence on the Master instead of essentially turning Cutts into Watson to Hitchcock’s Holmes.
Based on how good The Sign of Four is — it’s well-paced (which the preceding Wontner Holmes film from Twickenham, The Sleeping Cardinal, hadn’t been), it’s effectively edited for suspense and thrills, it’s got a big climactic fight scene between Holmes and the principal villain (though Wontner is all too obviously doubled throughout it, and one imdb.com commentator said Rowland V. Lee had directed that scene himself) and it’s full of oblique camera angles, including more overhead shots than you’re likely to see in any other movie that isn’t a Busby Berkeley musical — it’s clear that Cutts was a major talent with a flair for just the sort of film his former assistant specialized in. It’s hard to believe Taylor’s story that within three years of making The Sign of Four Cutts was so desperate and so broke he pleaded with Hitchcock for a job (and Hitchcock supposedly gave him a day’s work shooting inserts for The 39 Steps just out of pity). Cutts’ direction here aces Leslie Hiscott’s dull work in The Sleeping Cardinal — though he had the advantage of a far better script as well; while screenwriter W. P. Lipscomb made some of the usual changes in the source (as Charles pointed out, in the novel Mary Morstan receives one pearl each year from the fabulous horde of jewels her grandfather’s partner stole, then killed her grandfather over, decades before; in the film she receives the whole pearl necklace all at once) but took advantage of one of Conan Doyle’s most viscerally exciting stories to create a script with plenty of opportunities for a talented director to create suspense and action.
The story deals with Jonathan Small (Graham Soutten), one of the prisoners on a tropical island prison colony and a man with only one leg — one of Cutts’ most effective devices throughout the film is to use the sound of Small’s peg leg tapping the ground as a scary herald of his coming, at a time when American directors were routinely suggesting off-screen events with sound but almost no British directors were bothering to do so — who alerts two of the guards to a stash of jewels he and a fellow inmate left on the island before they were arrested. The idea is that Small and one of his fellow prisoners will share in the revenue from the stolen jewels with the two guards, and the guards will use the money from the jewels to help the prisoners escape — only one of the guards, Major John Sholto (Herbert Lomas), kills the other and keeps the entire treasure for himself. Once that’s established, the film cuts to “London — Years Later” (the title doesn’t tell us how many years later), and Sholto is an old, dying man with two incredibly queeny middle-aged sons, Thaddeus (Miles Malleson) and Bartholomew (Kynaston Reeves). Seeking to make amends for his own crime before he dies, Major Sholto instructs his son that Mary Morstan (Isla Bevan), granddaughter of the man he killed, is to get one-third of the fortune, and writes her a note to that effect, encloses it in a package with the pearl necklace, and signs it, “A friend.”
Jonathan Small kicks off the plot by escaping at long last, bringing the fourth conspirator with him, and Small literally scares Major Sholto to death just by appearing at his window. Small disguises his sidekick (Roy Emerton) by tattooing him all over his body (imdb.com lists a “Mr. Burnhett” as playing the tattoo artist, but from the film itself it’s clear that Small is supposed to be doing the tattooing, and Burnhett was probably a double used for the scenes in which the tattooing needle was actually shown touching Emerton’s skin) to cover up the identification number tattooed on him when he went to prison. The two of them steal the necklace from the safe in the flower shop Mary operates, and with the help of Tonga (Togo), a pygmy they met and befriended on the penal isle, they murder Bartholomew with a poisoned dart from a blow gun. Holmes, who doesn’t appear as a character until 21 minutes into the 77-minute film, deduces how the murder was done and who was involved, and traces the villains to a “Fun Fair” — a sort of miniature community circus — and then to a warehouse where they’re supposed to meet a boat that’s going to take them out of the country. (There’s also a speedboat race with Holmes and the police chasing down the villains.)
The Sign of Four is one of the best early Holmes movies, aided by a strong story, good direction and excellent production values — Wontner even looks younger here than he had in The Sleeping Cardinal two years earlier, and Ian Hunter is an excellent Watson even though it’s a bit disconcerting that he’s taller than his Holmes. This story gives Watson and Mary Morstan a relationship — in the book it’s depicted as ending in marriage and taking Watson out of his bachelor digs with Holmes at 221B Baker Street (it’s 221A in this film), though some critics at the time dissed the film for giving Watson a lover, not realizing that was part of the book as well! Isla Bevan is an appealing heroine, with a striking resemblance to the young Ginger Rogers (by coincidence, one of the two cinematographers on this film, Robert De Grasse, would later work in Hollywood and become Ginger Rogers’ favorite cameraman), and Graham Soutten is a great villain who proves that, given the right actor, a lower-class cutthroat could be as effective a foil for Holmes as an upper-class intellectual like Moriarty. I’ve never cared that much for Wontner’s Holmes — he’s seemed fine in the more cerebral scenes but miscast when Holmes is called upon to be an action hero (and the obvious doubling in the final fight scene here suggests that was because Wontner, unlike Basil Rathbone, wasn’t athletic) — but under stronger direction than he usually got, he’s quite good here in a film that does justice to the Holmes canon and is well balanced between deduction and action.