The Pearl of Death

The Pearl of Death. Universal Pictures 1944.
The Pearl of Death. Universal Pictures 1944.

Before watching the movie:

Sherlock Holmes pops up so often here that he has his own genre category. So it was fairly inevitable that I’d get to the series starring Basil Rathbone eventually, even though I haven’t been very up on that version in the past. This is mostly by reputation at this point. Rathbone is considered definitive by some, and by others a poor portrayal that damages subsequent attempts. I have seen one installment before, but not much of it held my attention and my own opinions have changed since then.

At the time, I found the idea of setting the stories contemporary to their WWII production was lazy. The BBC’s current hit, Sherlock, however, has since demonstrated to me how much brilliance can be involved in making that kind of leap, and I should be judging it on the quality of the shift, not on the presence of it. Additionally, I was annoyed that they apparently tied Moriarty to everything, but most other adaptations do that too, and I should be judging it on how much they made that make sense, starting from the basis that a Napoleon of Crime would in fact have his fingers in a lot of crime. Finally, at the time I wasn’t aware that this series has been accused of practically lobotomizing Watson next to Doyle’s character, influencing many subsequent takes.

There’s a delicate balance in reviewing an installment from a film series. I try to avoid sequels that build on events from their predecessors, but this is more of the franchise type, with each individual film standing alone. In fact, it’s practically a television series before the popularization of television, due to the sheer number of films, the turnaround time between each, and the length of each (this one is only 69 minutes, and seems fairly typical). So how did I select which one? I have access to the third volume of the collection and this was the most interesting one in it. It’s based somewhat on The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

After watching the movie:

The Royal Regent Museum is to display the infamous Borgia Pearl, known for the string of murders for its ownership in its past, over the objections of Sherlock Holmes, who believes it should be locked in a secure vault for everyone’s safety. Sure enough, master criminal Giles Conover steals it right out from under Holmes’s nose, but is quickly caught… without it on him.  Soon after, Holmes takes interest in a string of murders that match the back-breaking M.O. of the Hoxton Creeper, whom Holmes believes has always been Conover’s henchman. These murders have an odd motif of smashed china, leading Holmes to find an odd connection between them in a series of plaster busts of Napoleon.

I actually like the biggest change to the source story. In Adventure of the Six Napoleons, the bust-smashing is introduced first as an oddity, which then gets connected to a murder by accident. It doesn’t make much sense for Conover to draw attention to what he’s doing by killing all the people who bought the busts, but it does make for a more interesting mystery to have a string of bizarre, seemingly unrelated crimes that use smashed china to conceal the smashed busts.

I think Conover is meant to be a mastermind type, as he has a gang as well as a couple of major operatives, which makes it odd that he stole the pearl from the museum himself, going to the trouble of getting a job at the museum for a whole week. He doesn’t seem to be the type to do that kind of dirty work, especially when he has Naomi get two other well-placed jobs for him. While I appreciated that Naomi was just a competent henchperson and not the damsel the promotional material hinted at, the Creeper is an unfortunate turn for the story, which feels it needs  a monster for some reason.

I didn’t actually have much of a problem with Rathbone’s Holmes, besides perhaps a lack of depth. He seems like the Holmes I know from the books and Jeremy Brett (though Brett’s was written with some more depth), though I wonder if that’s because Rathbone’s performance influenced an entire generation of pastiches and earnest performances. Watson didn’t seem to suffer so badly from being made stupid to boost Holmes as Lestrade did. Lestrade stubbornly refused to acknowledge facts Holmes laid out just because they didn’t fit his overly simplistic version of events, while Watson actually got to use some medical knowledge near the beginning. There is a later scene where he loses a newspaper clipping by accidentally pasting it to his sleeve and taking a while to work it out, but he does work it out, so I continued on believing he was more competent than they say, until right after that there’s an exchange with a visitor where he gets every fact of a past case wrong, and I finally gave up trying to read him as all that intelligent. (Still, better than James Mason’s)

One thing I did like about the original is that Holmes buys the last remaining bust off of its owner so he can smash it himself in his own time, and I was disappointed that was not retained. The owner is not asked for permission, Holmes just smashes it because he’s that anxious to recover the pearl. It saves a couple of minutes of runtime, so I can’t fault it too much. And with or without it, the film is capped off by a particularly artful shot of the pearl in Holmes’s hand in the foreground, framed by Holmes and Watson’s reflections in the mirror behind, showing that even these hastily made film series can take some time to make something beautiful.

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