Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (DVD)

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Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (DVD)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are brought to the tiny village of La Morte Rouge, Canada to investigate a series of ghastly slayings. The villagers be...

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Review of "Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (DVD)"

published 28/07/2015 | GenerallyInterested
Member since : 15/07/2013
Reviews : 223
Members who trust : 64
About me :
Still snoozing.
Pro Wonderfully visually, moody, sinister and atmopsheric - far, far better than one could hope
Cons Some may not like that it's old, black and white and some iffy performances I must admit
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Characters / Performances
Special Effects

"Sherlock Holmes and The Scarlet Claw - Atmospheric and Sinister"

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (DVD)

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (DVD)

So just what exactly is Sherlock Holmes doing in Canada?

Perhaps more to the point is: what is Sherlock Holmes doing in a Canada that feels like it could be Dartmoor, where we could be in The Hound of the Baskervilles? You don’t need to answer that but I probably will refer back to it at some point. Actually, I’ll refer back to right now because the Dartmoor reference is important. Now, the usual context, slightly repeated from my review of The Woman in Green: this is one of a number of Sherlock Holmes films made by Universal in the 1940s, this particular film The Scarlet Claw being made in 1944, starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. In this series Universal decided that they would update Holmes and Watson, bringing them into the present day, something that the studio eventually tried to hide and made less and less obvious as the series progressed. As such it’s interesting that this small town – La Mort Rouge, indeed the red death – feels like it could be late Victorian and even its references to certain actors who appear as characters in the film feel like they could be referring to Henry Irving and Ellen Terry as opposed to the more contemporary Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Maybe this is the reason why The Scarlet Claw is considered by many to be the best film of the series, an opinion that I share. The Scarlet Claw despite its small budget, short pre-production and shooting deadlines is for the most part a beautifully atmospheric film. Though in the film’s credits it doesn’t cite any of the Sherlock Holmes stories as being the basis of the film it is very clearly influenced by The Hound of the Baskervilles, because it does suggest that a beast is committing a crime perpetrated by a human being (that’s not a spoiler, after all, it has to be), the town is awash with marshland exteriors and is in the middle of nowhere, there is an escaped convict - all evoke Baskerville. There is also a reference implicit assuming that the screenwriter and director had read it, of a short story by G K Chesterton but of that I’ll say no more.

Like all the Universal Holmes and Watson films, it’s not perfect, the acting is variable but it’s a cut above your average B-movie and let’s face it, a B-movie is exactly what it was and is.

As interested as I am in your preamble and frankly I’m not interested in it at all, let’s do something far more interesting, relatively speaking anyway, and actually tell us what the story is about

Basil Rathbone – Sherlock Holmes
Nigel Bruce – Dr. Watson; a bit bumbling
Gerald Hamer – The Postman; nervous of the Moors
Paul Cavanagh – Lord William Penrose; a recent widower; a member of the Canadian occult society
Arthur Hohl – Emile Journet; an owner of an inn; an ex-prison guard
Kay Harding – Marie Journet; Emile’s daughter; cries a lot
Miles Mander – Judge Brisson; wheelchair-bound
Victoria Horne – Nora; Judge Brisson’s nurse
David Clyde – Sgt. Thompson; a policeman in the district
Ian Wolfe – Drake; Penrose’s Butler

Sherlock Holmes is debunking a story told by Lord William Penrose at the Canadian occult society, much to Penrose’s irritation. Penrose though is called to the telephone to discover that in his hometown of La Mort Rouge his wife has just been found dead, apparently having been savaged by the claws of a vicious beast. Penrose immediately returns home. Holmes offers his services but Penrose is determined that his wife’s murder is due to a supernatural entity that is part of a traditional tale in his hometown. Just as Sherlock Holmes is then preparing to return to England he receives a letter from the dead woman herself stating how she has some terrible premonition of danger to her and for the first time Sherlock Holmes finds himself retained by a corpse.

You cadged "retained by a corpse" from a line in the film you sneaky person you, but worthwhile as it’s a good line

Once again producer/director Roy William Neill was at the helm for this film as well as providing input into the story and the screenplay, though it is credited solely to Paul Gangelin. What’s obvious is that for the most part Roy William Neill was the creative force behind this series of films and had an obvious affinity for the characters and the moods that the films needed to generate. He is also a much better and much more visual director than perhaps you would expect for your average B-movie, and it’s such a shame that he would die only two years after making this film. The extent to which the film is clearly made to extremely short timelines is evident in an early scene where Gerald Hamer, as the postman who delivers both letters and a message of doom to the district, upon leaving Journet’s inn walks rights into a table, and they clearly didn’t have enough time to reshoot the scene and oddly enough small mistakes like that actually almost add to the film because it makes it feel less like a film. As with so many of his other films, Neill is able to create a wonderful sense of menace and there is an eerie mood that permeates the town of La Mort Rouge. Admittedly naming the town the red death is a little bit like putting a sign outside the town saying: “welcome to town! Prepare to live surrounded by the sinister and perhaps even die!” As always Neill’s use of the camera is consistently interesting, he is able to use it to create some startling images, sometimes these are reasonably obvious but beautifully effective, such as the fog strewn the moors but there is an eerie Gothic beauty in some shots, such as when we see Penrose standing before his wife’s coffin. The dense atmosphere of the sinister is one of the reasons why The Scarlet Claw is such an effective film. Also the way in which he is able to shape a small Canadian town into something more like an isolated moorland British village again really helps create a sense of an area that is endangered if not downright doomed. Of course as an audience we never believe the story that there is this curious beast though when we do see it oddly enough the effect is much more potent than that of the beast in the earlier Rathbone Bruce version of The Hound of the Baskervilles that was produced by 20th Century Fox and made on a much bigger budget. This is because all of Universal special effects crew – and crew in general – were all on contract and so their skills could be used for films of varying budget and so Roy William Neill was able to utilise their skills and Universal that some remarkably proficient technicians (just watch films like The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man to see their skills in action). Again this really adds to the film because sometimes the problem with a lot of B-movies, and in a way this film is almost like a horror thriller at times, is the way in which poor special effects or costume can make you want to chuckle or lose any impact because they’re so obvious and in The Scarlet Claw the images of the beast with its phosphorescent glow are beautifully evoked.

There are some oddly disturbing images as well, and it’s interesting that it’s the kind of thing that would be highlighted in the work of other directors. The use of men dressing up in women’s clothing and making them all the more sinister for it, is something that we see in The Scarlet Claw and I’d argue is every bit as eerily disturbing as in Psycho (again there is the knife). But because this is in a small budget film and not in a Hitchcock film we are more likely to gloss over it as just another scene in the film. Equally Roy William Neill adds some intriguing and surprising and again eerily effective techniques, such as a very sparsely used voice-over. Occasionally Rathbone as Holmes will quote a line of dialogue and his voice is soft, almost ethereal, and it’s not something that is used in any of the other Sherlock Holmes films and you wonder why Neill decided to use it in The Scarlet Claw but regardless somehow it adds to the sense of menace, and really builds upon the dense atmosphere of fear.

You could argue though that some of the story is slightly ridiculous. What is clear is that there seems to be some force menacing the town of La Mort Rouge and that is taking revenge upon a number of people and by chance as Holmes starts to deduce who this person might be it seems of remarkable coincidence that these folk upon whom vengeance is sworn all seem to life in the very same small and rather remote town. The chances of this happening are astronomically small and yet somehow we are able to suspend our disbelief and I think again this is because of the way that Roy William Neill is able to generate such a sinister atmosphere. We’re so sucked into the feel of the film that some of the questionable pieces of plotting, well, we’re able to put out of our mind.

And as with most B-movies I assume there are some questionable qualities

There are few decidedly dubious qualities indeed. Whilst most of the acting is surprisingly good there are some appalling performances, such as Kay Harding as Marie Journet, the innkeeper’s daughter. In the version of the film I own there is an audio commentary by David Stuart Davies, an expert on Sherlock Holmes especially the various film and television variants, and he notes that in his investigations he was barely been out of find almost any references to her having a film career, or at least an extended film career because she is one of those actresses who seems to turn up in some of the Sherlock Holmes films that are moderately dire. She is about as wooden as a scarecrow, though she does make Arthur Hohl as her rather disciplinarian father seem like a gifted thespian, although he is clearly not. But thinking about the cast will you have in all of the Sherlock Holmes film is a repeating list of actors, some of whom are startling, such as the oddly named Skelton Knaggs, as one of the patrons of the inn; Knaggs just looks very odd, even without having to do anything or use any form of make-up. Most of this ensemble cast actually do at worst a serviceable job and again it’s typical B-movie fare where you expect a lot of the minor characters to be imperfect. Of course the most obvious imperfection is the characterisation of Doctor Watson. Right from the first two 20th Century Fox films this version of Doctor Watson was always meant to be something of a blustering buffoon and of course that is thus then the way that Nigel Bruce plays him. You can’t fault Bruce for this, but you understand that the some point he’s probably going to do something slightly stupid, such as falling into a bog – as yes he does fall into one – though thankfully here Roy William Neill is able to keep some of these pratfalls to a minimum and you can understand why because too much overt comedy would subvert the pervasive sinister feel of the film. The continued reference to a four pronged garden weeder, suggested to be a murder weapon, is rather gruesome and slightly grotesque and so was Rathbone’s Holmes talks of such things the last thing you want is Watson excessively blustering. Admittedly Neill does put some of Watson’s blustering buffoonery to good use, where Holmes is clearly using him as a diversion.

So having touched on our actors, you think the performances are pretty variable

As always Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is nearly perfect. He quite simply fits the role, even down to his rather hawklike appearance. Oh yes, he’s tall as well. It’s true though that Rathbone is able to project the superciliousness that is so often apparent in Holmes’s character, as well as the ability to be surprisingly gentle with women though he has very little patience with them under the surface. Thankfully in this film as well the character actually has quite a lot to deduce. Sometimes in the early Sherlock Holmes films the character actually doesn’t do much in terms of rational deduction and the plot could be any old thriller and the detective any old detective, but in The Scarlet Claw the character really has to do sift through the clues, read between the lines and deduce just exactly what is going on in this town. This allows Rathbone to be at his best, because it shows the character of Holmes at its best. Rathbone clearly got under the skin of the character even if he personally was becoming more and more impatient with playing the role, starting to feel typecast and you can understand his frustration. As I said in The Woman in Green Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson would happily have continued playing the character for ever. Maybe for Bruce this is because in many ways the role that he plays here is similar to his characters in a great many other films, so there wasn’t much in terms of variation for him in the first place. (Though Bruce does do a good turn as the cockney impresario in the Ginger Rogers comedy Roxy Hart, which is the actual source material for Chicago, which seems continuously overlooked maybe because it was 60 years earlier and we don’t want to admit we may actually owe quite a lot to early ingenuity. Rant over.) Bruce does tone down a bit of the buffoonery that we see in other films, but he does sometimes get obsessed in, for example, wanting to go off and shoot prairie chicken, and he does occasionally get to show the character’s compassionate side, such as with the innkeeper’s daughter, Marie, after she is berated and slapped by her rather unpleasant father.

Otherwise the cast really is a mixed bag. There are some middlingly effective actors such as Miles Mander, an English actor who had hopped over to Hollywood and been a reasonably prominent B-movie supporting actor – and intriguingly had actually directed and starred in his own silent film which I’m yet to see – who as a wheelchair-bound ex-judge with the premonition of his own death, whilst not giving a barnstorming performance gives us just the right amount of jitteriness. There is some intriguing casting in terms of his nurse and housekeeper, Norah played by Victoria Horne, who was actually best known as a comedienne - probably best recognised for her role in Harvey - but actually like a lot of comedians when playing straight is actually very effective. As the postman Gerald Hamer has a great deal of scope for enjoying himself and you feel like his enjoyment is really brought out in his acting, something that in his audio commentary David Stuart Davies possibly exaggerate somewhat but nevertheless it’s very much an asset to the film and very necessary. Probably the biggest asset is actually Paul Cavanagh as Lord William Penrose. Cavanagh is an interesting actor because – to quote David Stuart Davies – he has the look of a faded matinee Idol about him. (It’s a seriously spot on observation, really.) He turns up I think three of the Sherlock Holmes films and because of his looks and reasonably appreciable quality as an actor always brings a certain indefinable something to the films. He does have an air of faded star quality to him and you can imagine him as a silent film star past his prime; he’s especially effective in those scenes where he feels that Holmes is intruding upon his grief. It may be helps that Roy William Neill is often able to place him in some very Gothic surroundings, often beautifully shot, but the actor is able to evince a sense of the characters obstinacy when it comes to his belief in the occult but also his delicacy when it comes to the fact that his wife has been killed. It’s very easy to overlook him as an actor and his overlook his performance though I think to do so would do him a great disservice because in all of the films in which he performed in the series is hard not to say that in many ways he is every bit as excellent as say Rathbone as Holmes.

Show that you can be as excellent as Rathbone only not in acting but by illustrating that you can attempt to truncate your verbosity and glide effortlessly from this review

To put it briefly I would say that The Scarlet Claw is a beautifully packaged minor horror thriller adventure. It’s an extremely enjoyable film and at 70 minutes it’s slightly longer than many of the Sherlock Holmes films. If it seems like a short running time of course it would have been a B-movie supporting feature, so it would be expected to be no longer and actually the length is in the film’s favour because it moves along at a good pace, revealing its secrets steadily throughout. As I said it’s also a marvellously atmospheric and visual film, more so than you would have reason to expect. It’s a film where Roy William Neill pulls out most of his stops, both in terms of mood and tension and the sinister but also in terms of the storytelling. Yes it draws enormously from The Hound of the Baskervilles but in many ways I think it works better than The Hound of the Baskervilles, because of course in that story Holmes is absent for a huge chunk of the narrative. For this reason I’ve always been slightly bewildered at the continued churn of remakes of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Yes, I know it’s one of the longest stories but still there’s such a wealth of Sherlock Holmes stories to draw from and ultimately the most interesting character in the Sherlock Holmes stories is Holmes himself. Or at least I feel so.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The Scarlet Claw because it’s a genuine pleasures to revisit it; to explore its fogbound moors and creakingly archaic sometimes Gothic buildings is such a downright pleasure.

So it will come as no surprise that I recommend the film, though probably mainly to fans of films from the period and also those who appreciate a well told Sherlock Holmes story. As this is a film only review bear in mind that you can get numerous releases of this film, of varying quality and my suggestion would be to get the box set that was released by Optimum, now Studio Canal, which contains all of the Sherlock Holmes films, including the two original films produced by 20th Century Fox. That version includes a wealth of information, including some unusually insightful audio commentaries by David Stuart Davies who is actually both knowledgeable and engaging. But I will leave this to your discretion, even though I’d be very pleased if I were to find out that I had encouraged at least one person who wouldn’t otherwise look to seek out this film, to sneak in a viewing.

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Comments on this review

  • hiker published 10/10/2015
    Brilliant - and I think I'd enjoy the film too.
  • jo-1976 published 10/08/2015
    Another epic review
  • shellyjaneo published 07/08/2015
    Sorry I'm out of E's fab review x
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Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are brought to the tiny village of La Morte Rouge, Canada to investigate a series of ghastly slayings. The villagers believe the murders signal the reappearance of a legendary ghost whose glowing form can be seen floating through the fog-shrouded marshes. At first the famed detective is challenged by the phantom's many different disguises, but Holmes regains control of the case after an ingenious ruse leads him to the identity of the ghostly killer.


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