Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan, and Graham Soutten
Director: Graham Cutts
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
After Mary Morstan (Bevan) receives a mysterious string of pearls and a mysterious letter requesting a meeting, and is then menaced by a mysterious thug (Soutten), she retains the services of private investigators Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Wontner and Hunter) for protection and to get some answers. What is brought to light is a tale of greed, decades-old treachery and murder, and a madman seeking revenge.
"The Sign of Four" is one of the most often adapted Holmes tales, with this 1932 film being the third version and the first talkie. It's a fast-moving and at times very chilling mystery film, with a cinematic style that often anticipates techniques that wouldn't come into wide use until the rise of film noir in the late 1940s and the 1950s. These stylstic flourishes help to offset some of the film's acting styles, which are still heavily influenced by what was then the fast-fading silent movies period, giving the film a more modern feel that many of the early talkies lack.
Another strong point of the film is the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Not only does Arthur Wotner's Holmes seem as though he was brought to life straight from the pen-and-ink illustrations in "The Strand Magazine," but Holmes here seems more at ease with himself and those around him than the one we most often find in the films. He comes across as a unmatched genius, but he also has a good sense of humor and a compassionate nature and friendly demeanor that makes it easy to understand why Watson admires him. Another aspect I like about this adaptation is the Holmes is shown to be as excellent at physical confrontations as he is with the matching of wits. During the film's climax, Holmes kicks much butt, just like the character that Doyle described in his fiction.
Similarly, Watson is portrayed as an intelligent and useful assistant to Holmes, so there is no difficulty in understanding why the Great Detective keeps him around and relies on him for important tasks. This cannot be said of Watson in several other Holmes adaptatations.
While I generally liked how Watson was handled in the film, one aspect of Ian Hunter's portrayal of Watson I didn't care for was the way he came across like a lecherous pervert whenever he was around Mary Morstan. He is ogling her, pawing her... obviously barely able to keep himself from jumping her right then and there. While I understand that the intent was to portray "love at first sight" between Watson and Mary--who becomes his wife in the Doyle tales--the combination of clunky writing and silent movie-type acting makes one wonder why Mary wasn't beating this disgusting lech (who is also at least twice her age) with his cane and then running screaming from the room.
While the film keeps most of the generalities of the original Doyle tale, there are a number of changes that lend the film to be internally inconsistent and even nonsensical at times. The villain is so over the top and reprehensible that one wonders why his henchmen stick around, or even helped him in the first place; while the fact that the entire stolen treasure seems to be intact when Mary is sent the pearls instead of partially spent as in the original story; and a bizarre bit of comedy involving the neigh-obligatory "Holmes-in-disguise" scene. Some viewers might also be annoyed by the fact the story has been transported from the 1800s to the modern-day period of the 1930s, but it really makes no difference to the overall thrust of the tale.
On balance, though, it's a strong adaptation that is made even stronger by Wontner's excellent portrayal of Holmes. It's well worth checking out.