The Pearl of Death (1944)

220px-The_Pearl_of_Death_-_1944_-_PosterAfter the rousing success of The Scarlet Claw, could Universal’s Holmes and Watson series continue at the same fever pitch? Well, no, not quite, but this breezy thriller, kicking off the next trio of Holmesian adventures for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, remains none the less extremely entertaining. It is also one of the most faithful to its original Conan Doyle source, in this case The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, in which Lestrade calls on the detective to investigate a series of odd crimes perpetrated by a an ape-like man.

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

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 7
Conan Doyle Source: The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904)
Sample dialogue: “…Electricity. The high priest of false security.”
Original filming dates: 11 April  to 1 May 1944
Sherlock in disguise: Old vicar, European surgeon
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: Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording (6/8) as Gerder, the maker of the original statutes; Miles Mander and Evelyn Ankers make their second and last appearances in the series as the villains; and Holmes Herbert (3/5) appears as the head of the museum.

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The original story:
Inspector Lestrade asks for Holmes’ help in a bizarre case involving the shattering of various busts of Napoleon made from the same mould, which escalates to murder. Lestrade thinks it is a lunatic who hates Napoleon but Holmes discovers that it is Beppo, and Italian man of gigantic size who used to work at Gerder and Co., the company that made the busts. Clearly inspired by Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, with an ape-like man instead of an actual simian, the story is one that I have always liked, probably in part because it has a strong Italian connection (you can argue that Napoleon, being Corsican, is a bit of an honorary Italian and of course ended up on Elba), with murderer and victim turning out to be Italians involved with the Mafia, which was something of a novelty at the time the story came out, with the McGuffin turning out to be a pearl once owned by the Borgias.

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The Film:
The original story offers a series of bizarre crimes which Holmes solves by discovering its impetus in the theft of Borgia Pearl. The film takes the opposite tack, right from its title, so we know that the jewel is what the film is all about. The focus instead is switched to Holmes’ attempts to recover it after it is stolen by a terrific trio of villains. First we have Evelyn Ankers (who played the tart with the heart of gold in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror) as Naomi Drake, a gorgeous baddie with a penchant for disguises that matches Holmes’; then we have the leader, Miles Mander as Giles Conover, who also uses plenty of disguises, and is something of a Moriarty substitute, who is clever but often fails to think his plans more than halfway through despite months of planning.

Sherlock Holmes: This man pervades Europe like a plague, yet no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on the pinnacle in the records of crime

And most memorable of all, the Hoxton Creeper, played by Rondo Hatton, whose brief celebrity (he died in 1946) as a star in horror films was launched with this film, and he would reprise the role in two further films, House of Horrors (aka Joan Medford is Missing) and The Brute Man (both, 1946).

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The Creeper, an assassin who breaks the backs of his victims, is given a wonderful buildup, mentioned throughout with fear by police and by Naomi, who is terrified as he is in love with her, then seen in shadow and silhouette and then only seen fully, and then in creepy semi-darkness, right at the climax. The film series was relying increasingly on Gothic and horror motifs, so the Creeper is perfect for this.

Dr. Watson: The Borgia pearl is inside that?
Sherlock Holmes: If it isn’t, I shall retire to Sussex and keep bees.

Holmes, Lestrade and Watson have some great scenes together here, not least because the great detective is for the first, and only time, genuinely on the backfoot. Arrogantly, to prove the deficiencies in the security of the museum where the Borgia Pearl is being exhibited, he cuts the wires of the security system, allowing Conover the make off with the prize. The press have a field day with Holmes’ failure, as does Lestrade, but Holmes is soon back on top when he deduces why the Creeper is knocking off owners of Napoleon busts all over London.

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While the puzzle of the smashed Napoleon busts is very well handled and the trio of villains played with great gusto by Ankers, Mander and Hatton, the film does also miss a few tricks – Conover’s plans rely too much on coincidence, despite his being represented by Holmes as a master of crime, and it is a real shame that Naomi and the Creeper never have a scene together, despite it being a major subplot. But for all that, the settings (including a museum, a ship at sea, a creepy house, assorted antique stores) are great, the cast is super and director Neill drives the film at a great clip so its 69 minutes just fly by. And, for me at least, the last of the top-notch entries in the Universal series – after this there would be a steady and noticeable decline, though with one notable exception, none are without merit.

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 Pearl of Death, look absolutely pristine.

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The Pearl of Death (1944)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Art Direction: John B. Goodman
Music: Paul Sawtell, Frank Skinner (theme music)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Dennis Hooey (Inspector Lestrade), Miles Mander, Evelyn Ankers, Rondo Hatton, Harry Cording

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

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30 Responses to The Pearl of Death (1944)

  1. I’m glad you mentioned the setting, Sergio. I think Neill did do a fine job of creating suitably creepy settings and context. And you’re right about the supporting cast, too. Nice that Neill had that talented group of actors who could play some different sorts of roles. They fit the context, too, if I may put it that way. Thanks as always for an excellent review.

  2. Colin says:

    Very good. This is one of my favorites in the series. OK, it’s not quite as good as The Scarlet Claw but it’s not too far off either as far as I’m concerned – I don’t think there’s too much weakness from Faces Death through House of Fear.
    I agree Conover doesn’t quite come across as the super criminal he’s built up to be, but he is dangerous and has a neat line in sadism going on.

    For me, it has bags of strong atmosphere, enough to disguise the weaknesses in the writing, just. The whole business of the Creeper had a big impact on me when I first saw the film something like 35 years ago; the truth is I was genuinely scared and unnerved by the character and how he was handled in the movie – the music, the use of silhouette, the glimpses of the smooth and shiny (gloved) hands. You could safely say the Creeper creeped me out.

    • Thanks for that Colin, I agree, the small details leading to the Creeper’s reveal is just very well handled; and the sheathing of the gloved hands sequence I agree is very creepy in a thrilling way – clearly aimed at younger viewers, but scary in the right way to appeal to them (and clearly left an impression) 🙂 I have House of Fear next – some love it, others are a bit more critical …

      • Colin says:

        Yeah, we’ll not talk too much about House of Fear till you get to it – suffice to say, I like it.

        I think you’re right about the Creeper business appealing to a younger audience, especially now as time has passed and brought us more explicit material. It certainly had my hair standing on end as a little fella, and even now there’s still a slight chill. Of course I may just be a wuss. 🙂

        • I think this one and the next, because of the horror factor and the much more linear narrative compared with CLAW would appeal to impressionable kids of the right age (like us in the late 1970s)

          • Colin says:

            That sounds logical enough, and Bruce’s interpretation of Watson as essentially an overgrown schoolboy feeds into that too.

            I think the supporting cast were extremely good in this entry as well. Hoey’s Lestrade was in good form and enjoyably sarky. Miles Mander was a nice mix of debonair and treacherous, while Evelyn Ankers (I used to think she must have been a huge star since she seemed to appear in so many movies I liked when I was a youngster, the fact they were almost all B grade didn’t register then) is someone I’m always happy to see. Oh, and Ian Wolfe – another ubiquitous face – pops up too.

          • Thanks for that – and I should have mentioned Wolfe, darn

          • Colin says:

            Well in fairness guys like Wolfe and Cording appear in so many movies fro brief moments and then exit so it’s hard always to keep track.

          • Yeah but I was really trying … hey did those DVDs ever arrive (twice)?

          • Colin says:

            You mean the Davison stuff? Yes, ages ago and I cannot believe I didn’t let you know and say thanks! Sometimes I feel like punching myself.

          • Did they arrive at both destinations? I really had my doubts about the post office and something else I sent to a friend never arrived, so I wanted to check. Make sure you watch them too 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Definitely arrived at one destination – I’ll let you know about the other in due course. And don’t worry, I will watch.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I don’t remember seeing this one.

  4. Mike says:

    This one’s really good fun, isn’t it, an absorbing little thriller with fine villains and the treat of Holmes being made to look like an idiot for a time. It’s especially lovely to see Rathbone, Bruce and Hoey trading barbs and pleasantries exactly like they’ve been at it for a long time, completely at ease within their company and playing off each other effortlessly. For me this is definitely one of the better entries, and it even comes in a nice horror-infused package thanks to the way the Creeper is presented, like an angle of death lurking in the shadows.

    For the record, HOUSE OF FEAR is probably my all-time favourite in the series, harking back to seeing it as a kid and being entirely wrong-footed by the classy twist!

    Thanks for continuing with these Holmes reviews, Sergio; they’re a very pleasurable read and cover some wonderfully entertaining movies.

    • Colin says:

      Indeed, the back and forth involving Hoey, Rathbone and Bruce is a delight and says a lot about the smooth professionalism of all involved.
      Nice to hear you’re a fan of House of Fear too, Mike. Good man.

      • Mike says:

        Definitely am, and thanks again to you both for your Holmes posts. It’s a very busy time for me right now work-wise (exam results!) and you’ve encouraged me to fire up these golden greats for some easy evening viewing – the perfect antidote!

        • Hope clearing isn’t too horrible – just had a mate of mine do a 12 hour stretch at a call centre (where he got a grand total of 8 calls. He was no a happy bunny …)

      • Having Holmes and Lestrade compete is a very nice. There is also a really interesting shot in the film, when Ankers is disguised as a matchstick seller in which we track with Rathbone and Bruce in the foreground as they discuss the case, but they are out of focus, the camera instead drawing our eye to Ankers as she overhears them. It is almost a mistake I reckon as it is completely outside of the established norms of the day in terms of film syntax, but it is fascinating all the same.

    • Thanks Mike – I do like the banter between the three of them a lot. I think the original story is the last story in which Lestrade actually appears. I’ll be getting round to House of Fear fairly soon …

  5. dfordoom says:

    I’m in the process of (very slowly) rewatching all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movies. I haven’t got to this one yet although I do remember loving it years ago.

  6. This sounds great, and I love the stills – what a set of pictures, summing up everything about these films…

  7. I haven’t seen this one in a long while, Sergio. I think it’s available still on youtube, think I’ll take a look one of these evenings when I’m in the mood for ‘creepy’. I also love the supporting cast used in these films, many of them showing up over and over in different parts – sometimes the villain, sometimes not. Like a traveling theater troupe. 🙂

  8. tracybham says:

    Putting this one on the Netflix queue also, and I should be getting to some of these soonish.

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