The Sign of Four [film]

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson

a Sherlock Holmes mystery

Director: Graham Cutts
Writers: A. Conan Doyle; W.P. Lipscomb

  • Arthur Wontner — Sherlock Holmes
  • Ian Hunter — Dr. John H. Watson
  • Isla Bevan — Mary Morstan
  • Gilbert Davis — Detective Inspector Atherly Jones
  • Roy Emerton — tatooed convict
  • Herbert Lomas — Major John Sholto
  • Miles Malleson — Thaddeus Sholto
  • Graham Soutten — Jonathan Small
  • Togo — Tonga
  • Margaret Yarde — Mrs. Smith, barmaid

Associated Talking Pictures: 1932
black & white

74 minutes December 2008


This adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic The Sign of Four (1890) is a strange, sometimes frustrating mixture of brilliance and flaws. While not completely faithful to the novel, the script sticks closely enough to the plot to avoid annoying Sherlock Holmes fans too much (although one new character is introduced and the action is moved forward to the early 1930s). The movie is crisply detailed, especially when we follow the characters into the seedier parts of London; a pub and a waterside warehouse are full of local color and strike just the right note.

There are some brilliantly conceived scenes and clever dialog — watch for the scene with the ailing and conscience-stricken Major Sholto, and the later throw-away scene in which a tattoo artist and his customer are discussing initials. The film's portrayal of Watson is another positive note; Ian Hunter's character is much less bumbling (and therefore both more believable and more satisfactory) than Nigel Bruce's version — although one amazing bout of stupidity late in the action sadly mars his non-moronic-Watson credentials.

Unfortunately, one of the significant flaws in The Sign of Four is the Great Detective himself. As played by Arthur Wontner, Holmes in his proper persona is unsatisfactory, even jarring — a prissy-pedantic character reminiscent of Barney Fife. (Oddly, Wontner is absolutely brilliant when he plays Holmes in disguise, so his — or the director's — conception of the character, rather than Wontner's acting skills, must be at fault here.) There are other defects as well; a few feats of wooden-leg kung fu strain our credibility and introduce an unintentionally comic note into a would-be suspenseful action scene.

There are also some distracting oddities in the romantic interaction between Dr. Watson and the heroine. Even presuming Mary Morstan (who looks slightly ferret-faced to modern eyes) to be a knockout by 1932 standards, Dr. Watson's gung-ho pursuit of her — within three minutes of laying eyes on her, he's stroking her hand — seems a little over-the-top. A predictably saccharine interplay between the two at the movie's close is redeemed only by the fact that it provides an excuse for a final bit of clever dialog.

If not for these defects, The Sign of Four would be a premier example of Silver Screen Holmsiana. Even without this distinction, however, this film is definitely worth watching — even watching more than once.


© 2008 Jennifer Monroe Franson

Detection at Troynovant
solving mysteries; detective agencies

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