Music: Ernest Irving Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan and Graham Soutten
The Sign of Four is the second film to feature Arthur Wontner as the great detective, and made by Associated Radio Pictures, a European arm of RKO, after The Sleeping Cardinal from the previous year was financed by Warner Brothers. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name, and has the distinction of Dr. Watson falling in love with his future wife. Like the Universal series later in the decade, featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the producers decided to save on expenses and set the film during the present rather than the 1880s. Production designer on the film was none other than Rowland V. Lee, who would go on to minor immortality at Universal when he directed Son of Frankenstein in 1939. Though director Graham Cutts, is relatively unknown, his cinematographer, Robert De Grasse had a lenthy career. There are a few interesting camera setups, mostly during Wontner’s investigation of a murder, shooting through a ladder and from overhead. There are also some nice overhead shots in the finale. It’s too bad there was more use made of different angles because the bulk of the film is shot as though it is on a stage. Like so many films from the period, there is title music, and some diegetic pieces, but no real film score. And also like other early soundies the film suffers from that lack primarily in the climactic finale.
The film begins with architectural plans laid out on a table. The name on the plans is Jonathan Small, who also happens to be serving a life sentence on the Andaman Island Convict Settlement. An iris transitions to the feet of a man walking with a peg leg, Graham Soutten as Small, telling two soldiers on the island where they can find precious cache of gems hidden within the wall of an old fortress there. The soldiers, Herbert Lomas and Edgar Norfolk, are supposed to split the gems with Soutten who threatens to break out and come after them if they don’t. But when they find the gems, Lomas kills Norfolk so that he can have it all. The scene then shifts to London years later, with Lomas reading about the escape of Soutten and his partner, Roy Emerton. Sure that Soutten is coming after him he calls for his two sons, Kynaston Reeves and Miles Malleson, to confess and to warn them. He tells them that Norfolk had a daughter and to give her the valuable string of pearls, but before he can tell them where the rest of the treasure is, Soutten shows up outside his window and Lomas dies of fright. Norfolk’s daughter, Isla Bevan, receives the pearls at her flower shop with an anonymous note from the sons and then locks them in her safe.
When Soutten and Emerton confront Malleson to get the jewels, he truthfully tells them he doesn’t know where they are, but does tell them Bevan has the pearls. When they break into the safe and can’t find them, they write a note threatening to kill her, and that’s when she goes to Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes and Ian Hunter as Dr. Watson. It’s obvious that Arthur Wontner was chosen to play Holmes because of his physical resemblance to the illustrations of the detective rather than any acting ability, as he possesses very little. In fact, he has a rather high, droning voice that annoys rather than reassures. The film keeps with the tradition of having Holmes disguise himself when he turns himself into an old seadog to get information at a wharf side tavern. Unfortunately, there’s no disguising his voice. Ian Hunter, when he is on the screen as Watson, is easily the best actor in the room and would go on to a distinguished career in Hollywood and London. In this film he has the unfortunate task of having to ask Wontner how he came up with every deduction, and then remarking how astounding it is. Nasty work for a talent like his. The heroine in the film, Isla Bevan, doesn’t add much to proceedings, and neither do any of the other actors, especially the Lestrade stand-in, Gilbert Davis. The Sign of Four isn’t terrible, and if you can get past the bad acting it does manage to keep interest, but it still lags miles behind the Universal series with Rathbone and Bruce.