Posted: 02/26/2003


Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four


by Parama Chaudhury

“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.” — Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four

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The Sign of Four has always been a favorite of mine, among all the Sherlock Holmes stories. Entirely grounded in events that took place in India during the Mutiny of 1857, it is a wonderfully rich chronicle of greed, revenge and ultimately, murder. All in all, the perfect ingredients for a wonderful winter’s night in. This Granada TV production of the classic story, brought to video and DVD by MPI Home Video, is of especially high quality as it stars the most brilliant pairing in all of crime movies, Jeremy Brett as the inscrutable Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as his faithful scribe Dr. Watson.

The story itself is vibrantly colorful and multi-textured, and this production wisely sticks to Conan Doyle’s guidelines as far as possible. Miss Mary Morstan is a beautiful young orphan who has been receiving a rare pearl on a particular day each year, starting a few years after her father’s sudden disappearance. She comes to the great detective Holmes because she has just received an anonymous summons which promises to atone for the unjust treatment meted out to her. Mystified, she asks Holmes and Dr. Watson to accompany her to meet with her unknown benefactor. As the story proceeds, we find out that Miss Morstan’s father was in the British Army in India where he was stationed in the prison barracks in the Andaman Islands, a place inhabited largely by aboriginal tribes. We also learn that his friend and colleague, Major Sholto returned to England before Morstan did, and that Sholto lived the rest of his days fearing for his life. From here, the story leaves the cozy Baker Street living room where Holmes and Watson spend most of their time, and winds its way through the underbelly of London; the docks and waterways and the people who make their home in the back alleys of the city are brought to life as vividly on screen as they are in Conan Doyle’s writings. Some claim that the story contains the first chase ever described in a detective story, and it is a riverboat chase at that. We also get a brief look into Holmes’s legendary repertoire of disguises which fool even his old friend Watson. By the time the chase ends in the capture of the main suspect, we have been introduced to a wide range of characters, each more colorful than the previous one, but every character is so well developed that there are no problems sorting through them. While the denouement is quite dramatic, it leaves us pondering on the morality of various actions, so that we are willing to argue that the suspect caught at the end of the chase, is not really the villain of the piece.

Many of the Brett-Hardwicke Sherlock Holmes productions suffer from the malady of not featuring enough competent actors besides these two stars. In fact, Brett so often overshadows everyone else in sight, that we forget about the exquisitely constructed characters that Conan Doyle specialized in, and are transfixed by the distinctive profile and the enigmatic smile of the great detective himself. The Sign of Four is a welcome change from this norm. Jenny Seagrove, who appears in various other Sherlock Holmes stories, plays Miss Morstan as a modest but appealing innocent. The two Sholto brothers are played by Ronald Lacey, probably most familiar to movie audiences as Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Heinrich Himmler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Yeah, remember him? Here, he appears benevolent - a far cry from those ominous characters - but there is something incredibly creepy about him. His presence keeps the mystery alive, when it might have been shown up as an open-and-shut case about a third of the way into the movie. The other impressive performance, though a short one, is by John Thaw of ‘Inspector Morse’ fame, as Jonathan Small, the Englishman in charge of guarding the Agra Fort during the Mutiny, a man who remains steadfastly loyal to his Sikh friends till the end. Thaw generally places important but understated roles: Inspector Morse is the star of the series, but he is plagued by doubts about his own fallibility and about morality in general. Here his role is exactly the opposite; while we start hearing about Small early in the story, we only see him for a few minutes at the end. But by then, he is a bitter, battle-weary man, more wedded to his life in India and his Indian friends than anything in London. He spews venom, though by the end of his tale, he has become almost noble in our eyes, in spite of the fact that he is a murderer.

There are, as always, slight inaccuracies in the story and in some of the subtitles - Inderjeet Singh appears as Indigo Singh a couple of times - but in the case of Conan Doyle, this is only an authentication of his times. Everything about this story is resolutely nineteenth century, when the British had a thicker-than-water relationship with India even though many of their impressions of the country and its people were unbelievably uninformed. The mystery itself is much less compelling than the history of the people involved in it. In this production, the historical part is kept mercifully short, but the skillful storytelling by Lacey’s and Thaw’s characters bring the full color of the events to life. This is definitely one of the most adept Sherlock Holmes movies ever made.

Parama Chaudhury is a graduate student, an ex-writing instructor and a budding freelance writer based in New York City.

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