Excellent film! I really enjoyed that. It's definitely one of the best Rathbone Holmes films, being a successful blend of adventure, horror and detective story.
If you don't care about Sherlock Holmes, it's great. You have an interesting, twisty plot with memorable villains and one of Universal's more disturbing horror icons in the Creeper. He's played by Rondo Hatton, who happened to walk on to a studio set one day in 1930 and was instantly given a role on the basis of his appearance. He never regarded himself as an actor, but that's not why they hired him. The poor chap had apparently been quite handsome in his youth, but when serving in France in World War One he was caught in a poison gas attack. At some point after that he developed acromegaly, a bone disease that's more commonly caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland and causes deformity of the head, hands and feet. Playing the Creeper was Hatton's big breakthrough, comparatively speaking. As it happened he died in 1945, but not before he'd lurched through a number of Universal horror movies, two of which were sequels to The Pearl of Death.
Needless to say, he's one of the most memorable things about the film. He's kept mostly offscreen, but there's no mistaking the effect he has on the other characters. Evelyn Ankers's Naomi is actually afraid of him. It's like having Frankenstein's Monster in the movie. He's what makes the movie's climax so memorable, if you can stomach the political incorrectness of using him as such in the first place.
Needless to say, we have a memorable trio of villains here. Evelyn Ankers was a veteran of this series and of Universal's horror films as well, not to mention being one of my favourite actresses in the series. Then the last baddie is Miles Mander, who'd also played Judge Brisson in The Scarlet Claw
in the same year and is perfectly okay. You wouldn't watch the film for him, but he does a perfectly acceptable job and makes a suitable foil for Rathbone. Oddly his character, Miles Conover, is described by Holmes in dialogue taken from The Final Problem, making him sound like another Moriarty. He's not, of course. He's more likely than the Professor to get his hands dirty, for a start.
All that said, this is also a surprisingly good showcase for the Great Detective. It's an adaptation of The Six Napoleons. Universal would adapt that story again two years later in Dressed to Kill, but oddly enough the two films complement each other. Dressed to Kill reminds me more of Conan Doyle, while this film is more exciting and dramatic. We start with a double-cross and the theft of the Borgia pearl, after which Holmes gets the thing safely to a museum only to be entirely to blame for its being stolen for a second time! It's rather refreshing. Fortunately his mistake isn't due to stupidity but the exact opposite, in that he's realised something no one else has and is essentially showing off. Unsurprisingly this causes him to take the matter personally, although I noticed that he seemed remarkably unconcerned about his mistake eventually having caused five deaths.
On top of that, we get to see Holmes doing some actual detection. He trails the pearl from pillar to post, pulling off some neat tricks along the way. His telephone impersonation is an ingenious bit of improvisation, while I like the way it's hard work even for him to deduce that the killer was smashing Napoleon busts. In the original story, Beppo doesn't try to hide what he's after. Here, the Creeper's been instructed to smash every last piece of crockery in the room as a blind and Holmes has to get it all sent to 221B Baker Street so he can sift through and reconstruct how things were in the beginning. I loved all that.
Nigel Bruce's Watson is a bit too much of a clown even for me, but I liked his hiding place for the pearl. There's also a lot of dressing up in the film, not just for Rathbone but also Ankers and even Mander. I liked that too. Disguises are good. I also admired the elegance of Holmes's demonstration of how Conover hid the pearl in the bust, which simply and completely gets across everything we need to know. He gets Watson to act it out.
I don't see why Holmes left the detection of Conover's secret message to Lestrade, though. If he'd stepped in personally, he could have caught Evelyn Ankers red-handed in the police kitchens, thus saving five lives and ending the film inside half an hour.
This film is larger than life. The presence of the Creeper pushes it into the realm of Boris Karloff, lending an operatic quality that really serves the melodrama. There's even a macabre poetry to it. Holmes says Conover reeks of an "underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay," while the traditional pompous closing speech manages to be a bit more subtler than usual. Holmes is listing the crimes committed by greedy men in love with the Borgia pearl, but goes on to liken this to the lust for world domination and ends by expressing a hope that "perhaps even the pearl will be washed clean again." That's clever. It's another bit of wartime flag-waving, but for once done subtly.
You know, I think this might be my favourite Rathbone Holmes film. Ingenious detective work in an exciting, cleverly written story with a top-notch ending. How often have I used the word "clever" of this series? Or even "really satisfying"? Damn, it's good.