The Sign of the Four (1890), the second of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, features such favorites as Toby, the bloodhound; Wiggins and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars; and Mary Morstan, who presumably went on to marry Dr. Watson (though Watson’s wives is a topic of some contention). In 1983, a TV movie adaptation of this novel was made. Though it clearly shows “whodunit” upon its launch and sputters along at first, the movie gradually builds steam and becomes a pleasant boat chase along the Thames.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
Perhaps more than any other actor who’s played Holmes, Ian Richardson calls Basil Rathbone to mind because of his physical resemblance. This neither helps nor hinders his performance, though. The real trick to playing Holmes is to balance his being romantic, in the sense that he has essentially super-human mental abilities, with his being realistic, in the sense that those abilities impact him in ways that show he is, after all, only human. For instance, the original The Sign of the Four introduces Holmes’ drug habit as his flawed-human response to a lack of mental stimulation. Though this film adaptation avoids that issue completely, Richardson strikes the right balance between the romanticism and realism by making Holmes smugly pleased with his superior intellect. The actor’s mischievous grin lets us know that he really does see crime fighting as a game that’s afoot.
Richardson went on to play Holmes again in The Hound of the Baskervilles (reviewed here), which was made the same year by the same production company. A longer series had been planned, but competition from the Jeremy Brett series proved too formidable. Interestingly, Richardson went on to play the inspiration for Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell, in Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, a series broadcast in 2000 and 2001.
Who knows? Perhaps Richarson’s physical resemblance to Basil Rathbone inspired the decision to return Watson to the silly, chubby sidekick played by Nigel Bruce in that earlier series. This Watson has a schoolboy crush on Mary Morstan, spends a scene smeared with shaving cream, and expresses chronic confusion throughout most of the investigation.
David Healy plays the part well — never overplaying it — but my usual question of why Watson remains loyal to the persnickety Holmes became replaced by why Holmes lets this doltish Watson tag along.
Due to Charles Edward Pogue’s script, Healy’s Watson does little more than afford Holmes a means to provide exposition for the audience. Well. That’s an overstatement. Watson also helps Holmes break down a door. And, at another point, he serves as Holmes’ “conductor of light,” helping the detective hit upon an important deduction. And, toward the end, Watson is given a moment of impressive sharpshooting, but this single moment of triumph takes Holmes by surprise. In other words, we’re supposed to laugh at the dumb luck of Watson doing something heroic instead of attributing his marksmanship to, say, a military past.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
As I say above, things start out slowly here, and it might be because director Desmond Davis’s camera isn’t limited to Watson’s perspective the way Doyle’s novel is. Rather than begin with the arrival of Mary Morstan at 221B, we’re shown that the appearance of a one-legged man terrifies Major Sholto. We see his sons learning of their father’s ill-gotten treasure and their disagreement over what to do with it. We even see the key details of the murder of one of the Sholto sons — all before Holmes has a chance to piece any of this together. The tension is pushed away from our snooping beside Holmes and towards our waiting for Holmes to catch up with what we already know. It’s not especially effective, and I half-hoped Holmes would get a few minor details wrong . . . because we’d know it!
It’s only when the representative of Scotland Yard appears that the film seems to find its pacing and tone. Disappointingly, the novel’s Athelney Jones was given the bland name of Inspector Layton for the film, but there’s more humor and chemistry between Layton and Holmes than between Watson and Holmes. In addition, after the Inspector’s arrival, the filmmakers begin to explore inventively cinematic ways to show, say, the tracking of prints left behind by the one-legged man and his assistant. I especially liked the shot of Holmes and Watson riding bicycles because it teasingly toes the line of respect for the two characters while also showcasing the talents of the two actors.
But then a chain of high-action pursuits begin, probably one pursuit too many. The assistant of the one-legged man chasing after Mary Morstan gave me flashbacks to watching the Zuni fetish doll chasing after Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror (1975). (I hope the few of you who catch this reference will find the comparison a funny one.) I rolled my eyes, though, when Holmes chased the culprits through a carnival fun house and its obligatory Hall of Mirrors.
Given the plusses and minuses, the film is worth watching on some uneventful evening. It adds some action to the original story but does so because of the different medium. It plays safe with its treatment of Holmes but shortchanges Watson. The portrayal of Tonga is ridiculous in both bad and good ways. Fans of all things Holmes get to see Clive Merrison be murdered rather than hear him solve murders as the great detective in the BBC Radio adaptations.
If nothing else, this film might be studied for how it forms an interesting transition between the Basil Rathbone series and the Jeremy Brett series.