Monday 28 December 2009

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
It's grim up north again for Sherlock Holmes but for a change it's not the moors of Yorkshire or the wilds of Scotland, it's the French Canadian province of Quebec. Apparently the town of La Morte Rouge, which translates to the rather lurid The Red Death, is so named because of a series of mutilations a century ago, leaving men and sheep dead with their throats torn out. Now the monster is back, or so it seems, slaughtering sheep anew. The locals are afeared, because everything supernatural seems to be abroad in the town, from strange lights appearing on the road and disappearing into the misty marshes to the church bell tolling when it shouldn't. And when the priest investigates, he finds Lady Penrose dead under the bell.

Lord Penrose has the best alibi in the world. He's in Quebec, addressing a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, trying to persuade Holmes and Watson how the slaughtering of sheep is proof of the existence of the supernatural. Holmes argues for facts not wild interpretations, of course, even though his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a well known advocate of the supernatural, from the Cottingley Fairies to psychic manifestations, and frequently incorporated such things into his stories. In fact one of his short story collections, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was banned in the Soviet Union for supposed occultism.
Before the conversation can go too far, Lord Penrose is summoned to the phone to be told of the death of his wife, and while Holmes naturally offers his assistance Penrose just as naturally believes such an offer would be made only to disprove his theories of the supernatural. The kicker is that Holmes promptly receives a letter from Lady Penrose, sent to him before her death because she felt sure that her life was in danger. As he points out to Watson, this is the first time they've ever been engaged by a corpse. It's an interesting mystery, one of the best in the series, eschewing the propaganda and pulp theatrics of prior Universal Holmes offerings in favour of traditional detective work, which becomes something of a joy because the killer is both one and many people all at once. It's well constructed and well played out.

There's much to enjoy here, from Rathbone's grim determination to Bruce's even more overt blithering than usual. There are a couple of surprising scenes, one the harsh death of a character that we didn't expect and the other an unforgiveable slip on Holmes's part. Both raise an eyebrow and a wonder as to whether the writer was deliberately trying to make a point or not. It would be easy to read too much into such things, but they do seem out of place. It's certainly much tighter a script than the last entry in the series written by Edmund Hartmann, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. That one wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be but this one is very sure indeed. It's surprising that Hartmann didn't go on to write further Holmes scripts.
The acting is solid, though Ian Wolfe gets far too short a part, as he sadly always tended to. It's good to see Miles Mander and Gerald Hamer is a joy. Hamer, a Welshman and the father of the well known Ealing Studios director, Robert Hamer, was a character actor who didn't rack up the same sort of volume of credits as most of his peers, averaging only a film a year for 26 years. No less than five of those are Holmes movies though, and a number of others are entries in other detective series, including the Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Arsene Lupin, suggesting that he truly appreciated the genre. This was the middle one of the five, and happily gave him more to do than the last couple. He shone in the first, as the British secret agent murdered at the beginning of Sherlock Holmes in Washington and he shines here too. He'd be back for Pursuit to Algiers and Terror By Night.

If there's a downside here it's that the film, set up to recognise the importance of Canada to the English speaking world during wartime, just doesn't feel Canadian enough. The sets, actors and accents are mostly interchangeable with previous entries in the series set in England and only the odd character really stands out as being from somewhere else. With that morale boosting element restricted to the final comments, once again from a Churchill quote, it's the easiest thing in the world to forget that we're in Canada at all, let alone French speaking Canada. There's also the lack of resolution to the whole supernatural angle, which is debunked quickly but promptly ignored. Lord Penrose simply disappears from the film, as if he loses all importance once there's no supernatural element to wonder about any more. As the longest but one film in the Universal series, things like that feel surprising, but then again it still only has 74 minutes to play with.

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