Index Pages

Monday 28 December 2009

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The ferry is coming into Dover and Naomi Drake, the lovely thief who's on board to steal the cursed black pearl of the Borgias, makes only one mistake. She successfully sneaks it away from the courier delivering it to the Royal Regent Museum but she attempts to smuggle it through customs through use of a clergyman who's really Sherlock Holmes in disguise. That's never a good idea and she should know better given that she's Evelyn Ankers, one of Universal's most prominent scream queens, returning to the series after something of a gap after Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror where she got to learn Holmes's methods pretty well.

This time she's on the other side of the law. Her boss, Giles Conover, is waiting for her, even though the actor playing him, Miles Mander, was murdered in cold blood in the last movie, The Scarlet Claw. Conover is a fiend, apparently, all over Europe like a plague though the police can't pin anything on him and most people have never even heard of him. As Holmes memorably details to Watson, he's there whenever there's a crime without a motive, a robbery without a clue, a murder without a trace.

He's there at the Royal Regent Museum too, when Holmes makes a rare blunder. Eager to prove a point by demonstrating to the curator, Francis Digby, quite how flimsy his museum's electric security system is, he successfully deactivates it on the sly, only for Conover, who has been working there for the past few weeks as a general workman, to take advantage of the situation, promptly stealing the pearl and escaping through a broken window. He's back quick enough, captured by the police chasing him, but of course the pearl is long gone. The whole thing was so obvious that we expect it all to be yet another clever setup on the master detective's part but apparently it's a real slip. Perhaps the escape of the fake maid in The Scarlet Claw was the beginning of a gradual decline, though with five more films to go in the series after this one that must be a very slow gradual decline.

The important thing is that Conover didn't have time to hide the pearl in a really safe place, so he chose the best thing at hand and that means that the race is on, each contestant attempting to retrieve the pearl before their opponent. This chase pits our heroes most obviously against Conover, who has the sheer effrontery to turn up at 221B Baker St in disguise to lay a not so subtle trap for his opponent: a simple spring loaded knife in a book from a master criminal? That's not even worth considering. However it also pits them against his assistants too. We've already met Naomi Drake, who Ankers gets to portray in a progression of disguises as the film progresses, even more than Holmes himself. You have to love a movie that features so many characters played by so few!
The other assistant is an even more memorable one, a mute known only as the Oxton Creeper and played by the never forgotten Rondo Hatton, described here by Holmes as having 'the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla'. Here, the Creeper is merely a hired thug working to retrieve the pearl for Conover, breaking a few backs in the process at the signature third lumbar vertebrae, but Universal quickly leapt upon his popularity and turned him into a new monster. Under a new name and with the power of voice, he returned in a couple of further movies, House of Horrors and, both released in 1946, the year he died.

Hatton had a face you'd never forget, due to the onset of acromelagy, a bone deforming disease of the pituitary gland which the overeager Universal publicity department claimed was caused through being subjected to German poison gas while fighting on the western front in World War I. He was apparently a sensitive man, nothing like the character Universal were so keen to exploit, though it's sad that he died as his career was beginning to take off. Its a testament to his talent, or at least his face, that he made such an impression here given that he really has next to nothing to do. His name lives on in the form of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, given annually for merit within the genre across multiple media.

Based as always on an Arthur Conan Doyle story with such looseness that it's hardly recognisable except for a particular gimmick or theme, this one is a chase movie and it's a fun one. People are murdered, china is smashed and both sides narrow in for the kill. Rathbone and Bruce haven't got tired of their parts yet, Ankers appears to be having a lot of fun and Mander almost as much while the Creeper lurks in a sinister manner behind the story waiting for the right moment to emerge. Further down the credits, Ian Wolfe gets the dubious distinction of playing pretty much the same character in two Holmes films, yet still not be the same. He played an antiques store clerk in Sherlock Holmes in Washington and here he's running an antiques shop, so perhaps that could count as a promotion. If only he'd get promoted to the key supporting actor slot. He deserved it.

No comments:

Post a Comment