Wednesday, 21 August 2013

PEARLS, POISON DARTS AND MURDER: PETER CUSHING AS SHERLOCK HOLMES IN 'THE SIGN OF FOUR'


A murder and stolen treasure pique the interest of Sherlock Holmes…

The Sign of Four, published in 1890, was the second of four Sherlock Holmes novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Though not quite so popular and oft referenced as, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles or even some of the short stories, it weaves a pleasingly complex, twist filled tale and has been adapted on numerous occasions.  The first known cinematic adaptation emerged in 1913, under the title Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four; it is now believed to be a lost film.  Another silent adaptation followed in 1923, as part of the Ellie Norwood series filmed in the UK.  The first sound version was released in 1932 and starred Arthur Wotner, who was arguably the preeminent interpreter of the role on screen until Basil Rathbone inherited the deerstalker in 1939.  Rathbone never had a go at The Sign of Four, and indeed it would remain untouched by producers until this 1968 adaptation for the BBC series, Sherlock Holmes. 



Later versions would hail from as far away as the-then USSR (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Treasures of Agra), and would even include an animated version (1983’s Sherlock Holmes and The Sign of Four, with Peter O’Toole voicing the great detective).  The best versions would later be done for British TV, however – first with Ian Richardson and David Healy as Holmes and Watson (1983), then with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke essaying the roles (1987).  The 1968 version falls decidedly short of the excellence of those later versions, but is still worth seeing for Peter Cushing’s customarily accomplished portrayal of Holmes.


Of the six surviving episodes of Cushing’s tenure on the program, The Sign of Four is easily the weakest.  Part of this is down to the rather stiff, uninspired direction of William Sterling.  There is also trouble in the casting, with few of the actors measuring up to the standards of Cushing’s performance.  Even Cushing, it has to be noted, seems a bit off his game in a few scenes, lending credence to his own later complaint that the shooting schedule was too rushed to allow to him to do his best work.  Even so, it’s still a joy seeing him in the role, and Nigel Stock again proves to be a solid and dependable Watson.


On the downside, the use of a middle aged actor to play Watson works against the romantic subplot which was so crucial to the story.  Watson becomes smitten with the character of Mary Morstan, and indeed – as readers of the stories will be aware – he would later marry her.  This works perfectly well in Doyle’s story, as Watson is rather younger in Doyle’s conception – but the sight of avuncular Stock lusting after pretty Ann Bell comes off as awkward at best, creepy at worst.  Bell – who also costarred with Cushing in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964) – does a competent job in the role, but she has zero chemistry with Stock, and it’s just as well that his proposal to her at the end of the story was dropped from the screenplay adaptation.  Supporting actor honors go to John Stratton, another familiar face in the Cushing universe (he would go on to play the comically blustering asylum director in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, 1972), who gives a good account of himself as the clueless and supercilious Inspector Jones.  Howard Goorney, a busy character actor whose credits include The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) and The Offence (1972), also shows up in a small role.


The Sign of Four is by no means an unmitigated disaster, but it definitely comes up a bit short compared to the other surviving episodes – and it looks very poor indeed compared to the earlier episodes starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes.  It all comes off as a bit rushed and awkward, lurching in an uneven pace from one talky, prolonged set piece to one all too hurried a bit of action and intrigue.  Cushing gives a game attempt, but there are moments wherein he comes off as a little hammy and theatrical, reminding one of what a delicate balancing act it can be to play Holmes properly on screen.  It’s a difficult role, one which has defeated many fine actors, but happily this particular outing is not indicative of Cushing’s interpretation in general.  But even if he comes off a little poorly in a few scenes, Cushing’s inherent presence and charisma as an actor help to redeem this otherwise disappointing adaptation.


Images: Marcus Brooks
Review: Troy Howarth

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