Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932)

Third Time's the Charm for Wontner

- As the saying goes: "the third time is the charm." In the context of Arthur Wontner and his third Sherlock Holmes film, The Sign of Four (1932), the saying is correct - for the most part. The Sign of Four is my pick for the best Arthur Wontner Sherlock Holmes film; however, like most of the Wontner Holmes films, it is noticeably flawed as it sits above the mediocre line.

In The Sign of Four, young Mary Morstan (Isla Bevan) enlists the help of Holmes and Watson to protect her from an escaped killer with a tie to her father's past. While it is a watered-down adaptation, the fact that The Sign of Four is the closest of the Wontner Holmes films to its inspired Arthur Conan Doyle source material (though it is not much of a contest) and is the best Wontner Holmes film is no coincidence. Out of all of Wontner's Holmes pictures, The Sign of Four has the thickest atmosphere, sharpest wit and toughest attitude.

Director Graham Cutts had a twenty-year history in the film industry (ten of those years making silent pictures) before directing The Sign of Four but he was not suited for the talkies and his career would not last past 1940. His work on this film shows. The story is set up quite well but becomes more muddy and disjointed as the film progresses. However, the messy story structure is the least of the film's problems; the worst aspect of the film is the dead-on-arrival romance between Watson (Ian Hunter) and Mary Morstan (Isla Bevan). While an important aspect in the novel, it fails to leave an impact on this film due to Ian Hunter's embarrassing gushing act and the lack of chemistry between the two. Cutts mishandles this aspect of the story but - along with some help from later Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert De Grasse (Vivacious Lady (1939)) - does employ some nice visuals and creates a thrilling action-packed climax (suddenly the action-heavy Robert Downey Jr. Holmes films do not seem so anti-Holmes). Cutts's commanding visuals alone create a dark and edgy atmosphere but he also paces the short film well, creating an overall enjoyable Holmes screen story.

Wontner does not enter the picture for the first twenty minutes (the filmmakers still had not learned their lesson from the past Holmes films) but The Sign of Four is Wontner's third go as Holmes; a dramatic introduction is not as important or necessary. Wontner also gives what I consider to be his best performance as Sherlock Holmes here in The Sign of Four. The third time is definitely the charm for Wontner, who is able to embody much of what defines Holmes in this film: the sarcasm, the risk-taking, the contempt for the "representatives of the law," the powers of deduction as well as displaying his talent for disguises. Wontner delivers the dialogue with piercing wit and directness while also physically throwing himself into the role with a little more gusto than what is seen throughout the rest of his Holmes tenure.

The Sign of Four was the first Arthur Wontner Sherlock Holmes film I saw and it remains my favorite - it really is Sherlock Holmes' "Greatest Case" as far as Wontner's Holmes is concerned. Due to the fact that the film is a deteriorated B-movie that has little-to-no reputation, I was expecting to not enjoy this film. However, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps no treasured classic, The Sign of Four is a pretty enjoyable early Holmes film adaptation with a fun story and Wontner's best turn as Sherlock Holmes.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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