After 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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