“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Four words heard frequently that are indelibly linked to the most famous fictional murder mysteries in history. When it comes to whodunits, no one solves them better than Scotland Yard’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, physician Dr. Watson. Referring to himself as a “consulting detective” in the stories, Holmes is famous for his proficiency with observation, forensic science, and logical reasoning. The reader and the viewer are along for the ride as the two crime fighters uncover life and death clues.
Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to the world in 1887 in “A Study in Scarlet,” written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Since then, Holmes has been featured in four novels, 56 short stories, and on screen 254 times, a Guinness Book world record for the most portrayed literary human character in film and television. All but one of the stories occur during the Victorian or Edwardian eras, between about 1880 and 1914. Most are narrated by the character of Holmes’s friend and biographer Dr. Watson, who usually accompanies him on his investigations and often shares a home with him at 221B Baker Street in London, where many of the stories begin.
A British cultural icon, the character and stories have had a profound and lasting effect on mystery writing and popular culture as a whole, with the original tales as well as thousands written by authors other than Conan Doyle being adapted into stage and radio plays, television, films, video games, and other media for over one hundred years.
It is believed that the famous fictional sleuth was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, one of the teachers at the medical school of Edinburgh University, whom Arthur Doyle met as a 17- year-old student. When he met the impressive Dr. Bell, Conan Doyle described the impressive Dr. Bell as a “thin wiry, dark” man, “with a high-nosed acute face, penetrating grey eyes, and angular shoulders.” Dr. Bell “would sit in his receiving room with a face like a Red Indian, and diagnose the people as they came in, before they even opened their mouths. He would tell them details of their past life; and hardly would he ever make a mistake.” Conan Doyle even dedicated “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” to Dr. Bell, who gave credit to the author for Sherlock Holmes’ genius: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it,” he wrote him.
Holmes is a classic obsessive-compulsive personality. “He works compulsively on all his cases and his deductive powers are phenomenal. He can get engulfed in periods of depression between cases and is known to take cocaine when he cannot stand the lack of activity. He has an in-depth knowledge of music and plays on a Stradivarius that he bought for a song in Tottenham. He is also known to run chemistry experiments in his spare time to the dismay of both Dr. Watson and his landlady Mrs. Hudson. He’s not known to have had an intimate or amorous relation with a woman.”
The Moviezoot.com watch list film this week from 1932, “The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Case,” is a classic Sherlock Holmes tale. This black and white British crime/mystery was directed by Graham Cutts and starred Ian Hunter, Arthur Wontner, Ilsa Bevin, Graham Soutton and Miles Malleson. A young woman needs Holmes and Watson for protection when she’s tormented by an escaped killer, who wants revenge for her father’s previous actions.
Unfortunately, when the woman is abducted, Holmes and Watson must infiltrate the city’s criminal underworld to track her down.
The plot twists and turns throughout. It follows Jonathan Small, a prisoner serving a long sentence, who reveals the location of a stash of loot to two army officers, Major Sholto and Captain Morstan, in command of his prison. Small expects them to help him to escape from jail with the three splitting the booty equally.
Sholto and Morstan find the valuable treasure behind a brick wall in an Indian fortress. The two men quarrel because each wants the whole treasure for himself. After a struggle, Sholto kills his accomplice and returns to England without helping Small escape as promised.
Years pass and Sholto is a wealthy man living in London thanks to his theft of the treasure. One day he reads of Small’s escape and fears his retribution, becoming haunted by the sound of Small’s wooden leg. Believing that he will be killed in revenge for his past betrayal, Sholto tells his sons Bartholomew and Theodore about his murky past and how he gained the family fortune. He instructs his sons to send Morstan’s daughter Mary a valuable pearl necklace and split their inheritance with her. Sholto is murdered by Small, however, before he could tell where his treasure was located.
Small had broken out of jail with two accomplices, a tattooed convict and a native named Tonga. He forces Theodore into telling him about Mary Morstan. They soon begin threatening Miss Morstan in the hope that she will hand over her share of the treasure to them. Frightened, she asks Sherlock Holmes to help protect her. Theodore comes to her and reveals that the treasure’s secret hiding place has been discovered. He offers her the share as his father instructed and they go to the family house. When they arrive there, they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure missing.
Holmes has his theory about the murder, but the innocent Theodore is arrested for murder. Holmes and Watson try to prove Theodore’s innocence and track down the gang threatening Miss Morstan. They soon discover that Small and his gang are waiting to take the necklace from Mary Morstan to complete their haul and then flee the country. Meanwhile, they are hiding out in a circus. Watson unwisely takes Mary to investigate, and she is forcibly abducted. Small’s gang plan to escape by boat up the River Thames, but are pursued by Holmes and Watson. The film climaxes in a shoot-out at a deserted warehouse.
Ian Hunter is a standout in this film as the level-headed Dr. Watson. This smooth, fair-haired British leading man, who was actually born in South Africa, enjoyed a productive four decade long film career in both England and Hollywood.
To see Ian Hunter and follow along with this Sherlock Holmes suspenseful The Sign of Four mystery, visit Moviezoot.com.