The Scarlet Claw (1944)

poster-Scarlet-ClawFor many this is the best of the Holmes and Watson films made by Universal. It is certainly the most successful as a whodunit and possibly the darkest too. It was originally titled Sherlock Holmes in Canada and it is the only entry to be set entirely overseas, mostly taking place in the spooky little Quebec town of ‘La Mort Rouge’ (a reference of course to Poe rather than Doyle). Holmes and Watson are at a conference when they receive a telegram from Lady Penrose asking for help, but it arrives too late, so they set out to solve her grisly murder, the first of many.

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 6
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “Sit down, old fellow. Judge Brisson has decided not to shoot us.”
Original filming dates: Started filming on 10 January 1944
Sherlock in disguise: No
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have Gerald Hamer (3/5) as the postman with a tendency to hiccup when he has too much to drink, in easily the best role he ever had in the series (and possibly in the movies); Ian Wolfe (2/4) as Lord Penrose’s butler; and Paul Cavanagh, in the first of his three appearances, here as the stolid Lord Penrose, a believer in the occult (and a very big red herring).


Sherlock Holmes: Consider the tragic irony: we’ve accepted a commission from a victim to find her murderer. For the first time we’ve been retained by a corpse.

While no Doyle source was used directly, the obvious inspiration was The Hound of the Baskervilles with its swamp and misty ambience, a subplot about an escaped convict and the air of terror as a victims fall foul of an apparently supernatural creature that is already ripping the throats of innocent sheep. Holmes realises that Lady Penrose was really ‘Lillian Gentry’ (a name that is more or less a play on the Victorian celebrity and royal courtesan, ‘Lillie Langtree’), an actress who was involved in a murder several years before. The man responsible, Ransom, was jailed and thought dead – but what if he is still alive and in disguise, slowly enacting his revenge against those he believed responsible for his incarceration? Then it turns out that the judge who sentenced Ransom is also living in the village … So much for keeping the basic premise plausible!


So, while the basic story is not that credible, how else does it compare with the other films in the Universal series? Well, although there is some silly comedy with Watson either falling into potholes or getting tipsy in the local tavern, this is a remarkably dark film, even a morbid one, which gives it a very unusual texture. The villain appears throughout in various disguises and most of these are (unusually) very convincing, especially in the sequence of the judge’s murder (thanks in part to a clever cheat that made me smile since it required the filmmakers to go the extra mile to fool the viewer). The damp, dank atmosphere of the little Quebec village where a creature of light stalks its denizens and animals is beautifully rendered by cinematographer George Robinson (his only entry, more’s the pity) and much of setting is incredibly eerie, such as the dilapidated villain’s lair where Holmes, unknowingly, meets his nemesis not once but twice. This was the only film in the series on which director Roy William Neill also took a writing credit and one can see why, because it really is something special in terms of its brooding atmosphere, ultra dark look and horrifying subject matter. I’ve tried not to say too much about the plot or characters as I think this one story that is well worth savouring if you are coming to it for the first time and I’d hate to spoil it – I guarantee, if you are a fan of these films, then you won’ forget this one.

For my dedicated microsite on the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, click here.

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as The Scarlet Claw, look very good indeed.

The Scarlet Claw (1944)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Edmund L. Hartmann & Roy William Neill (story Paul Gangelin & Brenda Weisberg)
Cinematography: George Robinson
Art Direction: John B. Goodman
Music: Paul Sawtell, Frank Skinner (theme music)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Gerald Hamer, Miles Mander, Paul Cavanagh, Kay Harding, Arthur Hohl, Victoria Horne, Ian Wolfe

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, Canada, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Scarlet Claw (1944)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    The key to a good adaptation of a story, I think, is the respect it shows for the original. If there’s genuine respect for the original, even affection, then an adaptation can work very well (given quality camera work, acting, and so on). I’m glad you thought this succeeded. Thanks, Sergio.

  2. tracybham says:

    OK, I am going to watch this.. I put it on the Netflix queue. It may take a while to get to it, I have some other watching planned. But not too long I hope.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Interesting – I was convinced I’d seen all the Rathbone Holmes films but this one rings no bells at all – and it sounds essential . Off to seek it out…. 😁

  4. Colin says:

    Popularly regarded as the best of the series and I’m not about to go against the consensus. I recall first seeing this as a youngster and even then it was clear this was top stuff. The atmosphere is thick enough to cut with a knife just about everything works really well.

  5. Pingback: The Scarlet Claw (1944) | Doyleockian |

  6. On the strength of your review, I looked this movie up and found it on Youtube (it says it’s in public domain), and watched it yesterday. Very enjoyable! Thanks for the recommendation!

    • My pleasure Terry, thanks. It’s all over the web, isn’t it, though I am pretty sure it’s not really PD, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. The HD transfer to Blu-ray is very good quality though, so well worth seeking that out if you are so inclined 🙂

  7. mike says:

    hard to believe the full film on Youtube thanks for review.

    • My standard response is that 97% of non user-generated content on YouTube is there illegally, but it is great that people can get to see them at least. If you are interested, there are four of them that are listed as beign PD in the US (and only in the US, never in the UK) – these are: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, The Woman in Green, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill due to an initial failure to renew copyright when their term wa up in the early 1970s. The one caveat to that was the underlying literary rights, which wouldn;t affect the last two of these as they were not based on the original stories, though of course the main characters were. Now that all the Doyle stories are out of copyright it certainly clears the way!

  8. Lohr McKinstry says:

    I have this on the DVD restored set. Just watched the sort of light-hearted “House of Fear,” which I hadn’t seen before. Ending was one I didn’t see coming. I’ll put this on next.

    • House of Fear is very popular, though the ending, while admittedly memorable, is very daft in terms of Holmesian logic shall we say! Claw is much darker and feels, within its own cuckoo-land story-telling style, much more plausible (if that is the right word …) – but then I love it, so i would say that 🙂

  9. Yvette says:

    This is one of my favorite films in the series even if the premise and plot make NO sense whatsoever. WHY IS HOLMES IN CANADA? To attend a meeting in which he scoffs at the topic? Hardly a reason to fly all the way across the Atlantic, I’d think. But that’s the least of the plot inconsistencies. I do love the guy who plays the killer, as usual he is one of the repeating cast members who appeared in various roles in this series of films. La Mort Rouge – a small town with a charming name where nothing good ever happens. 🙂 (Did I get the name right?)

    • Thanks Ybvette – and as ever, you are right – I mean, you have to feel sorry for the realtor who tried to shift a property there, right? I agree, the logic is absurd but consistent within its own universe 🙂

  10. I’ve only ever seen one or two of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films and it was a looooong time ago. I became so enamored of Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes that I never looked back. This seems like a good pick to get reacquainted with the series.

    • Thanks for that Kelly – I love the Brett series and these are certainly very different, though Rathbone is a wonderful Holmes and these films remain a big influence on the new Cumberbatch / Freeman show

  11. Pingback: The Pearl of Death (1944) | Tipping My Fedora

  12. tom j jones says:

    It’s a brilliant film – atmospheric, brilliant if lunatic plot, a really fantastic B-movie – but there is one murder in this film that I always find heartbreaking …

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