Roy William NeillMiles ManderNigel BruceBasil Rathbone
The Scarlet Claw
Medium: film
Year: 1944
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Paul Gangelin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Roy William Neill, Brenda Weisberg
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gerald Hamer, Paul Cavanagh, Arthur Hohl, Kay Harding, Miles Mander, David Clyde, Ian Wolfe, Victoria Horne, Olaf Hytten
Format: 74 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 18 December 2008
The DVD commentary thinks this is generally considered the best of the 12 Universal Sherlock Holmes films. Hmmm. That's quite a big claim... actually, on second thoughts it isn't, but this is unquestionably one of the good ones, up there with the one they based on The Musgrave Ritual. I wouldn't want to rank them any more finely than that. The Rubbish Title is recognisably based on a real Arthur Conan Doyle story and has that memorable scene with the human chessboard, but this has a scarier villain, a better ending and more of a horror feel.
We begin with church bells tolling in a graveyard at night, while villagers talk of strange lights and animal mutilations. Sheep are being found with their throats torn out. Eventually someone plucks up the courage to investigate the bells and at the church he finds... well, let's just say that the local slasher has moved on to bigger game than sheep. Nasty. We don't actually see any slashed throats, but we hear enough to make it gruesome. This is already strong stuff for a series like this, but it's going to get stronger. The killer's unhinged and prepared to rack up a body count, including one shocking choice of victim that I didn't see coming. He deserves everything he has coming, but even so the ending surprised me by being meatier than usual. Admittedly I'm comparing it with other films in the series, but that doesn't mean it's not good. I would say more, but, y'know. Spoilers.
Like the Hound of the Baskervilles, this is a Sherlock Holmes story where everyone thinks the deaths are supernatural. The murderer has gone to some lengths to ensure they think so, even using a Scarlet Claw to shred his victims' throats. It's never confirmed, but presumably it was him who attacked those sheep. However the "scarlet" is just blood and the "claw" is really a five-pronged garden weeder. Universal made three films in which this was the murder weapon: The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942), She-Wolf of London (1946) and this. The first of those was based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, after which I suppose they simply got the taste for it.
The killer's supposedly a brilliant actor, which is ironic given the wooden delivery of his "I'm going to kill you in a moment, Mr Holmes, so I might as tell you everything" speech. However this is a great story device, allowing a twist on the whodunnit formula and also providing a clever reason why the victims had had a vague presentiment of danger without being able to articulate it. The first victim is even found to have sent a letter to Holmes before she died, begging him to help protect her from something she couldn't identify. As Holmes comments, his commission is from a murder victim to find her murderer. For the first time, he's being retained by a corpse.
As usual, almost everyone in the cast had either appeared before in the series or would do so again. Paul Cavanagh plays the bereaved and deeply suspicious Lord William Penrose. I was convinced he had to be the killer. Dr Watson is less overtly comedic than usual, but that doesn't stop Nigel Bruce, the old scene-stealer. Meanwhile Basil Rathbone's Sherlock is particularly rude to Watson, to an extent that got me wondering why a genius like him should go around with this bear of very little brain. It's like carrying around a handicap.
It's set in Quebec, by the way. Why, I don't know. It makes little difference to anything and you could be forgiven for not even noticing, given how many of the cast have decided to use English accents. The isolated village setting might have seemed tailor-made for England, too. However there's a fair bit of French floating around, so it's not as if there's no local flavour. This is also (hallelulah) the first Universal Sherlock Holmes film to make no reference to World War Two. If it weren't for Holmes and Watson delaying their plane flights back to England, I'm sure you could convince an only moderately gullible child that this was set in the 19th century as a Holmes film should be.
There aren't many whodunnits in this series, but this is one of them. That's a good thing. Detectives need mysteries. However it also easily counts as another of Universal horror films, from atmospheric opening to vengeful climax. This isn't one of my longer reviews, the reason being that this film does what it's trying to do efficiently, stylishly and without goofs. I still don't know if I'd necessarily call this the best Universal Sherlock Holmes film, given my partiality for The Rubbish Title, but you'd certainly have a job on your hands trying to claim that another one was better.