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Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Does not quite merit the sign of four stars."
3 stars

Before Basil Rathbone made the role of Sherlock Holmes his own in the late thirties and forties, a number of different actors had the role - in at least one case, with two different series existing in competition with each other (at least in the United States, things went into the public domain much more quickly back then)! During the 1930s, the most prolific Holmes was Arthur Wontner; he did five films. Of those, "The Missing Rembrandt" is lost, and "The Sleeping Cardinal" is extremely rare. The other three vary wildly in quality, sometimes within the same film, as is the case with this version of "The Sign of Four".

Many years ago, convict Johnathan Small (Graham Soutten) lets his jailors in on a secret - the location of a hoard of treasure. Though the group agrees to split it, double-crosses abound - one kills another, and Small is left in prison. Years later, Small and his cellmate (Roy Emerton) escape, an event that frightens the elderly Maj. Sholto (Herbert Lomas) to death - but not before confesses to his sons (Miles Malleson and Kynaston Reeves), and encourages them to make amends to Mary (Isla Bevan), the daughter of Maj. Marston. They do so anonymously, but when another note bearing the "sign of four" accompanies the ransacking of her West End flower shop, she turns to Sherlock Holmes (Wontner) and his friend Watson (Ian Hunter).

The film actually adheres fairly closely to the events of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, but rearranges the presentation into chronological order, which means that we don't see Holmes and Watson until nearly twenty minutes into a movie that doesn't quite make an hour and a quarter all told. There's good and bad to that approach; the bad is that Holmes's deductions are a little less amazing when he's arriving at conclusions we already know, although it does counter the feeling that the author and/or filmmakers are cheating by having the detective base those deductions on facts that we are not privy to. There is still rather too much of that, and there are bits in the screenplay that feel flat out like holes - for example, based upon just what we see in the film, it seems that "The Sign of Three" would be a more logical title.

Of course, like many Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of Four is as much penny dreadful horror as mystery. It features a circus's worth of freaks - villains with one leg, a body covered with tattoos, and diminutive stature (well, they're freaks by the standards of Victorian London and the early twentieth century). The budget and perhaps the times keep director Graham Cutts from going all-out with this, although he does create a number of thrilling scenes. He milks some tension from the sound of Small's peg leg, and he and cinematographers Robert de Grasse and Robert G. Martin make a chase through a warehouse memorable by removing the roof and shooting it from overhead. A motorboat chase to get there isn't put together quite so well, and sometimes a well-paced action scene will be undercut by obviously sped-up fighting. The filmmakers do that sort of thing more than once; a clever use of forced perspective that makes a normal-sized actor appear to be a pygmy is soon ruined by a shot that breaks the illusion.

The cast isn't exactly A-list either. Wontner plays Holmes a little broadly, especially in his first scene or two, although he seems to be having fun when demonstrating that Holmes is a master of disguise. There's perhaps more meanness to how he teases Watson than is perhaps appropriate; of course, Wontner is saddled with a Watson who leans slightly more toward dim-bulb than invaluable assistant. That's not actor Ian Hunter's fault - he just does what the script says - but he doesn't demonstrate a great deal of chemistry with either Wontner nor Isla Bevan, who makes an acceptable Mary. Graham Soutten and Roy Emerton are another oddly mismatched pair; their bickering occasionally seems more suited for comic-relief characters in a stage production than as the villains of the piece, although they do have moments of genuine menace.

The Wontner series of films would fade from general notice after the Rathbone versions appeared, but they remain interesting today - generally faithful versions of the stories, made with affection but not the skill of the later Rathbone and Brett series. That's "The Sign of Four" in a nutshell; it's got its moments, but its flaws keep it from pulling above average.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19997&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/03/09 00:00:00
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USA
  14-Aug-1932 (NR)

UK
  N/A (U)

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Graham Cutts

Written by
  W.P. Lipscomb

Cast
  Arthur Wontner
  Isla Bevan
  Ian Hunter
  Graham Soutten
  Miles Malleson
  Roy Emerton



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