Sherlock Holmes and a pearl of DEATH
A pearl of death usually isn’t good. This 1944 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes adventure is a decent one, although the series is declining into B-Movie country at this point. I say decent, because there’s still plenty of contrivances, Conan-Doyle changes, and Nigel Bruce stupidness. But overall, I like this movie, even though it’s the ninth entry in a long line of stupid entries.
The Pearl of Death is a loose adaptation of one of my favorite Holmes stories, The Six Napoleons. I think the Jeremy Brett adaptation of this story is probably the best, but there’s still some of the same deductions from Basil Rathbone. Some guy still hides a rare pearl in a bust of Napoleon and there’s still a series of unexplained events Holmes has to solve. Pearl of Death just throws in a bunch of other stuff, probably to make it a longer story, which would make sense if the movie was actually paced out and as long as other movies but this one is only 69 minutes long. That’s kinda short if you ask me. The Jeremy Brett episode was an hour long and it seemed to do more with the same content, so that’s kinda why I like that one better.
There’s a few characters thrown in the movie not featured in the original story, who work pretty much as villains and people to root against. I forgot scream-queen Evelyn Ankers was in this movie, and she shows up as a dubious accomplice to the evil villain. The evil villain has a hulking brute named The Creeper as an enforcer, a character which is not related the Conan-Doyle story, The Creeping Man, so don’t get confused. This large guy is just a brute who breaks backs. He’s not doing any climbing of walls. The Creeper is played by Rondo Hatton, a huge guy who was typecast as a thug and monster in a lot of B-Movies because of his size. He shows up in the last part of the movie and attacks Holmes.
The comedy relief is handled by Nigel Bruce, of course. He actually has a few good lines, but they give him one scene by himself to look dumb and I guess it’s mildly amusing. He uses Holmes’ methods of deduction to find a picture he accidentally glued to his elbow. I don’t know. Guess we can’t be serious all the time.
The reveal of the “pearl of death” is rushed and not all that good. The Jeremy Brett version focuses on this amazing twist and even uses Lestrade to emphasize it. Lestrade sorta disappears in the Basil Rathbone version but he’s there at one point to conflict with Holmes and the two argue like kids.
Most of the movie reeks of B-Movie stuff and the director is no exception. Roy William Neill directed, and he does alright, but his style is just sorta generic. Most of the shots are close and tight on the actors, with not much variation. He shot the whole thing on a back-lot, but he does try to make up for it by using a lot of detail. That’s good, at least.
There’s a lot of changes from the Canon, as you can probably tell. They even make businessman Horace Harker into a reporter and a victim of The Creeper. I’m not sure why they even threw in all these villains and antagonists to begin with, but I guess Universal couldn’t wrap their mind around a story about an object that inspires greed and murder. The Jeremy Brett version does well showing some of the pearl’s backstory in order to explain its allure and boost the tension, but the movie really doesn’t do that. There’s a couple of lines here and there and the pearl is given its rightful name, but even the title of the movie is more sinister.
Overall, this is a decent movie. I won’t say it’s great, but it’s way better than most Universal Holmes movies. That’s mostly because of the script, which is based on a perfect Conan-Doyle story. I won’t complain about the villains, because the final scene with The Creeper stalking Holmes is good even though it’s cheesy and not in the Holmes Canon at all. I don’t mind. Funny thing about Rondo Hatton’s Creeper character, is that he reappeared in another movie after being shot by Holmes. Kinda strange if you ask me, but I guess people liked his performance. I agree, he does a good job being mysterious and evil. Too bad they couldn’t have kept some of the Canon intact, because most of the other changes just make me want to find my Jeremy Brett DVD.