Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Ever since Doyle penned A Study in Scarlet for the Beeton's Christmas Annual in the late eighteen hundreds, Sherlock Holmes has been the most popular fictional character of all time. Many fine actors have portrayed him... from Charlton Heston to Jeremy Brett and John Barrymore, and finally the definitive Holmes, Basil Rathbone. The latest in the crew of talented actors is Matt Frewer in the Hallmark Hall of Fame's collection of four films... The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four, The Royal Scandal, and The Whitechapel Vampire.
The Sign of Four is the second of the film series and surprisingly enough the story adheres quite well to the original. It does take a few liberties for the sake of melodrama but plays Holmes as he was meant to be played... with irony, genius, and even humor. For those of you who are under the impression that Holmes was a dull but brilliant character, prepare yourself for a shock. Frewer's Holmes, as he puts it, "is a bit more humorous than other interpretations." The setting is London in the late 1880's and Sherlock Holmes is brooding. He has just completed a rather lengthy and involved case and now finds himself at odds with prevailing boredom. Perhaps by a concerned hand of Providence, a new adventures appears on his doorstep in the form of the lovely Miss Morstan, a young woman with a captivating past. Ever since her father's mysterious disappearance, she has received one rare and luscious pearl annually on her birthday. The latest has come with a request of a midnight meeting to "reveal" his intentions; and informs her that she may bring along two friends. Watson, blinded by a pretty face, is eager to accompany her and it is with some trepidation that Holmes agrees.
Welcomed into the home of the eccentric benefactor Thaddeus Sholto, who is an avid reader of Dr. Watson's narratives, he informs Miss Morstan that she is the half owner in a large inheritance. Their fathers were fellow officers together in the India war involved in a deadly plot to assassinate an Raja Prince. Unknown to their superior officers, they murdered the prince and concealed his treasure. They parted for a time and several of their band were caught and imprisoned. Sholto escaped, took the treasure, and brought it to England. Morstan became involved... but then one day simply disappeared. Since that time, Sholto had sent her one pearl every year, intending to cheat her out of the rest. But on his deathbed, he informed his two sons -- Thaddeus and Bartholomew -- that they must see Miss Morstan her fare share: half, rather than a third. This sparked a violent uprising between the two, and Thaddeus requests that Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Miss Morstan accompany him home to plead with Bartholomew over the treasure.
Agreeing, they travel to the London home and are shocked to find locked doors, darkened rooms, and a horrific surprise. Bartholomew has been murdered... and the treasure stolen. But the footprints are those of a child! There is a murderer loose in the city with a malicious intent, and it is up to Holmes to learn the truth before it's too late. Taking Watson in hand and his lop-eared hound Toby for a run, the consulting detective has at last met his match in the shadows of the night... Despite the film's few singular flaws (mainly liberties taken for the sake of dramatic purposes), The Sign of Four is a winning adaptation and a fine addition to the four films. It gives the viewer both respect for Sherlock Holmes' cunning and Dr. Watson's insights. Usually the good doctor is played the fool, but in this film he is well-thought, well-versed and utterly likable. Likewise, Holmes is given a tone of prideful arrogance that often plays out into the original humor and pride of the Canon.
The most obvious change is the fate of Miss Morstan and her romantic interest. In the narrative, it is Watson to whom she eventually marries, while in the film it is Thaddeus. (Undoubtedly to leave Watson at Baker Street with a reason to be there in future films.) Additionally, the original Thames chase is almost nonexistent (we're given only a skirmish on the docks) and sorely missed. As anticipated, there is violence -- this is a murder mystery after all. There's some violence at the docks, gunplay, hand to hand combat and a chilling dart-throwing maniac. There's also some mild language, but the scene which may bother sensitive audiences most comes when they burst in on Bartholomew. He is laying in a chair, a positively ghoulish look on his face; and his body/face is seen several times in the following scenes. Readers of the novel will be expecting this grotesque expression and shouldn't be overly offended. The costuming is rather general in nature, but for lovers of period drama, the midnight fog-shrouded London and the utter brilliance of Sherlock Holmes gives off a fine adaptation with all the lace, mystery, and evil intent of Victorian England.