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The ongoing popularity of Sherlock Holmes has led to many theatrical and movie adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories. Guiness World Records regards him as the “most portrayed movie character” with more than 70 actors playing the fictional detective in over 200 films. Of these 70, one of the best remembered is Basil Rathbone.

Basil Rathbone as Holmes

In 1939 20th Century Fox released two Holmes movies, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Portraying the lead roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson were Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Both films were well received by audiences, in part due to the screen presence of both actors, particularly Rathbone.

The South African born Rathbone, who had often been cast as a villain in previous movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood was an ideal choice to play the role. His height of 6-1, build, and facial features nearly matched the literary Holmes as described by Doyle. Trained on the Shakespearean stage, he was also able to bring a staid, dignified sophistication to the role.

Universal Studios Steps In

Shortly after the Fox movies were released, Rathbone and Bruce reprised their roles in a popular radio series based on the Doyle stories. Then in 1940 Universal Studios signed the two men to star in what would become a series of 12 Holmes movies, the last released in 1946.

The 12 movies were essentially low budget “B” or second feature films that ranged in storytelling from mediocre to quite good. The one which is still considered the best and holds up well today was the sixth in the series — The Scarlet Claw.

Synopsis of The Scarlet Claw

  • Cast: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Miles Mander, Ian Wolfe, Gerald Hamer, Paul Cavanaugh, and Kay Harding
  • Director: Roy William Neill
  • Length: 74 minutes
  • Color: B&W

Holmes and Watson are in Montreal attending a conference with Lord Penrose when the latter receives a message that his wife has been found dead, her throat savagely torn out. The three go to the Lord’s small French-Canadian village of La Mort Rouge to discover that the town's residents are all convinced that the killing is the work of the legendary La Mort Rouge monster, which allegedly roams the marshes around the village.

Holmes, however, is skeptical, and quickly deducts that Lady Penrose, a former actress, is the victim of a revenge killing by an ex-actor and convict, Ramson, who was believed to have been killed in a prison escape years before. Holmes eventually tracks down the disguised killer, but not before a prominent judge and a young woman are also slain.

Analysis of The Scarlet Claw

Many Sherlock Holmes purists do not like the Universal series which was updated to the World War II era and, at best, only loosely followed any of Doyle’s stories. Although most critics have no problem with Rathbone’s portrayal per se, they do not like the character of Bruce’s Watson, feeling that he was often portrayed as Holme’s slow-witted foil rather than his trustworthy confidant.

Although purists may have legitimate concerns, The Scarlet Claw is still a fine movie. The original script by Edmund Hartmann, later a comedy writer for Bob Hope, and the film’s director, Roy William Neill, is tight, has no noticeable “holes,” and contains enough suspects and red herrings to keep the audience guessing.

Director Neill and his cameraman, George Robinson, are also to be noted for creating a very atmospheric, moody, and dark setting. The decision to have almost all the scenes shot in nighttime settings was a wise one. And the story has just enough of a Hound of the Baskervilles resemblance, with its moor-like environment and “luminous” creatures, to give the movie an eerie feel.

The acting is also notable. Rathbone never gave a “bad” Holmes presentation and English-born Bruce, even if his Watson doesn’t satisfy purists, always had great chemistry with Rathbone on screen. He also has a chance to show his comedic talent, particularly in one pub scene.

The supporting cast, although made up of lesser known actors, are quite capable. In particular are Gerald Hamer as a nervous postal carrier, Arthur Hohl as a nasty-tempered innkeeper, and Kay Harding as his ill-abused daughter.

The Scarlet Claw DVD

Once a mainstay of Late Night Movies and PBS, The Scarlet Claw appears infrequently on television today. However, there are several versions on DVD, including one recent (2009) release. These versions vary in quality, particularly the older ones, so any potential buyer would do well to read reviews on them.

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