From a tale based on none of Doyle’s stories, we move on to one that very much follow the old trick of taking a Holmes story and adding enough elements to make it up to movie length. Fortunately for us, those additions do help to add a lot more meat to what is one of the most famous Holmes stories, The Six Napoleons.
One of those additions is a return for an old friend. Evelyn Ankers, last seen playing the criminal turned patriot Kitty in Voice of Terror returns to the series, to play a more villainous character. Evelyn was a stalwart at Universal, so it’s not surprising that she returned. This was the last time she appeared in the series, and she would go on to star in over fifty films before she retired from acting aged 32.
The other addition is much more notable, and even became an established element of the Holmes canon – the Hoxton Creeper, played by Rondo Hatton. The Creeper only appears onscreen at the end of the movie, but he looms large (in more ways than one) behind the action.
More visible is the chief villain, Giles Conover, a very Moriarty-esque figure. Conover is played by Miles Mander, who had played Judge Brisson in The Scarlet Claw. Mander was the younger brother of an MP, and had been an army captain in World War I. Having starred opposite Olivier and directed multiple films, Mander could be said to be slumming it here, though he gives a great performance and is one of the few villains to be able to push Rathbone to his best. Sadly Mander’s promising career would be cut short by a sudden heart attack a few years later, and he never had the opportunity to truly make his mark on Hollywood.
On board a ship, a courier hides a large pearl in a secret compartment of his suitcase before leaving his cabin to check a message on the wireless. No sooner has left, though, than Naomi Drake (played by Ankers) lets herself into his cabin. She soon leaves and tosses her duplicate key overboard as a steward calls that they are fifteen minutes from Dover. She sits in a deckchair and resumes a conversation with an elderly vicar, who she persuades to take her camera through customs for her.
In the customs office, the courier declares the pearl at customs, but finds it gone from the secret compartment. Meanwhile, the vicar returns the camera to Naomi, who thanks him and then boards a car containing her boss, Giles Conover. He is glad to see her back, and mentions that an “old friend” of hers has returned. She seems disquieted by this and asks who it is. “The Creeper,” he replies. He enjoys her discomfiture for a while before assuring her that the Creeper has been locked up. Mollified, she hands over the camera, but all he finds within is a note, signed by Sherlock Holmes.
Back at 221B Baker Street, Holmes removes his vicar disguise while asking Watson to remove the pearl from his pocket, telling him (to his disbelief) that he is holding fifty thousand pounds worth of pearl. (£1.875 million in today’s money.) Holmes tells him that he has thwarted the designs of Conover, who he describes as a master criminal who has managed to avoid entirely ever getting a criminal stain on his record. They are interrupted by a tread on the stair, and Holmes arms himself. He tells Watson to hide the pearl, which Watson does – by popping it in his mouth. However, it is only Lestrade, who has arrived to escort it to the museum.
At the museum, Holmes recites the bloody history of the pearl to Watson, Lestrade and the curator as it is placed on display. Holmes is dubious as to the safety of the pearl, but the curator demonstrates the electronic alarm system, which if the pearl is removed rings an alarm and slams shutters down on the windows and doors. He takes them to his office to discuss the system, while Conover (in disguise) lurks outside the door listening in. Holmes takes his leave, but then deliberately knocks a bowl of fruit over – a diversion for a quick rewiring of the alarm system. He then asks them to lift one of the alarmed paintings from the wall, which they do, but no alarms trigger. Holmes has used this as an ostentatious demonstration of how vulnerable the alarm system is. However, the eavesdropping Conover takes advantage of this to lock them in the office, steal the pearl and escape while the alarm has been disabled – a fact for which the curator lays the blame squarely on Holmes.
While the curator is berating Holmes, two policemen enter with Conover, who they captured outside. The curator recognises him as a workman who has been employed there for weeks. Conover denies having stolen the pearl, and Holmes realises that he must have disposed of it. With no greater crime to charge him with, all they have to hold him on is a window he broke in fleeing. Lestrade thinks that he can hold him for two days, at most, which Holmes hopes they can use to track down where he hid the pearl.
At Scotland Yard, Conover’s dinner tray is brought to Lestrade by a guard who is sure there is a message hidden in it – mostly because Conover asked to borrow his pencil and tried to bribe him to keep quiet about it. Lestrade soon discovers a note hidden in the spout of the kettle, but his jubilation is cut short by the contents, which simply tell him that he is a fool. He sends the tray away to the kitchen, where a disguised Naomi finds a message written in invisible ink on one of the plates – revealed by the tea which Lestrade had poured onto it, but never thought to pour out. She stages a fight with her boss, and walks out.
In 221B Baker Street, Watson returns to find Holmes playing the violin in the dark. The two discuss the drubbing Holmes is receiving in the papers, before settling down to breakfast. Lestrade arrives, having had to release Conover. He is off to investigate the murder of a Colonel home from India, who has had his back broken, a fact that seems to disturb Holmes a great deal. He declares that it must be related to the pearl, and goes with Lestrade.
At the murder scene, he asks Watson to examine the corpse, while he comments on the number of Napoleon-related artifacts around the room. Lestrade is convinced that it is simply a housebreaking gone wrong, but Holmes points out that all the china in the room has been smashed, while Watson points out that the man’s back was not broken in a fall, but snapped with great strength. Holmes tells Lestrade that he knows who it is that kills this way, and Lestrade reluctantly admits that there is only one man he knows of who it could be – the Hoxton Creeper. He still clings to his theory of the housebreaker, however, but Holmes asks him to have all the broken china brought to Baker Street.
As Holmes and Watson leave, he tells Watson that he suspects that the Hoxton Creeper has always been a killer for Conover. He is also sure that they are being followed, and indeed a disguised Naomi Drake has been watching them the whole time. She whistles a signal, and a car drives past Holmes and Watson, shooting at them several times, though the two manage to duck behind cover.
In 221B Baker Street, Watson is scrapbooking and manages to lose track of the piece of paper he was pasting into the book. He decides to apply deduction, and soon finds it – pasted to his arm. While he chuckles over his success, a disguised Conover arrives at the apartment with a book concealing a trap. He claims to be a relative of a former client, and agrees to wait for Holmes while Watson, drunk with power, attempts to deduce who he is. Watson (despite being the chronicler of the series) manages to misremember aspects of the case that Conover claims to have been involved with, and offers to help Conover, but he has simply brought the book as a thank you to Holmes for his help. He leaves, and Watson nearly opens the book several times (being interrupted each time) before Holmes returns. Holmes is about to open it, but he smells the cigar that Conover was smoking and realises that he was not who he claimed to be. He finds a springloaded knife trap, and is delighted – he must be onto something, after all, if he is being targeted this way.
The pair go out to the scene of a second murder – this time of an old lady, but with the same broken back and litter of smashed china on the scene. Holmes points out that even the china in cupboards was taken out, and that all the china was broken after she was killed. Again Holmes arranges to have the china sent to Baker Street.
In a darkened room, a giant man (never clearly seen) wearing a hat climbs in through an open window. He grabs the resident and breaks his back, before beginning to smash the contents of the room.
Holmes and Watson discuss the case, while sorting china. Holmes believes that the china was smashed to cover up something else, as he found plaster mixed in with it. They find common pieces from the three murders, and identify them as parts of a bust of Napoleon. Holmes believes that the busts were smashed to check to see if they contained the pearl, and decides to get the museum guard to recreate the chase of Conover.
The guard tells them Conover ducked into a plasterers shop as he made his escape, but that he came back out and the guard caught him. They go into the shop, where the owner recognises the guard. The owner tells Holmes that when Conover came into the shop, the workers were at lunch, and six busts of Napoleon were drying on the board. Holmes has Watson recreate running into the shop and hiding something in the bust, and determines that Conover had time to hide the pearl. The owner tells them that they are not the first to ask after the busts. A woman (who they realise must have been Naomi) had asked after them first, and he told her – they went to a nearby art shop.
At the shop, Holmes recognises the shop assistant as a disguised Naomi, and stations Watson to cover the door. He overhears the owner berating her for causing breakages, including that of two busts of Napoleon. He asks what happened to the sixth bust, and the owner takes him to the register of sales, and reads the name out. Naomi slips out to the back, imagining herself undetected, and makes a phone call. Meanwhile, Holmes realises that the name has been altered on the book, and lifts the extension to hear Naomi telling Conover that Holmes has fallen for their ruse. She is reluctant to meet him, however, until the Creeper has been sent away. Conover hangs up, but Holmes pretends to be him and tricks her into revealing the name of the true buyer of the bust. He delegates Watson to warning the man, while he and a policeman intercept and arrest Naomi. Watson, however, isn’t able to raise the buyer (a doctor) on the phone.
Conover, one of his gang members, and the Creeper travel to the doctor’s address. As they travel the Creeper plays with Naomi’s vanity case. They enter the house, the massive form of the Creeper (who we have still not clearly seen) dwarfing Conover. Conover enters with a pistol drawn and demands that the doctor (who is operating on something) tell him where the bust is. The doctor distracts him, then reveals himself to be a disguised Holmes, who gets Conover under gunpoint. As he monologues, however, Conover kicks the power cord for the light loose and then overpowers Holmes and steals the gun. He calls to the Creeper and sends him upstairs. Holmes tells him that he will hang for this, just as they will hang Naomi. He raises his voice so that the Creeper will hear and tells them that Naomi killed Dr Watson while resisting arrest, and will hang for it.
The Creeper hears him, and turns, giving us out first clear look at Rondo Hatton’s distinctive features. Enraged by Holmes’ characterisation of Conover’s betrayal of Naomi, he kills him and then advances on Holmes, and Holmes is forced to shot him. Watson and the police burst in, and while Lestrade deals with the bodies Holmes retrieves the bust and smashes it to reveal the pearl. Holmes comments that it has the blood of five more victims upon it.
Pearl of Death is one of the most memorable entries in the series, and it’s not hard to see why. A more ruthless Holmes than usual is faced with a competent opponent who manages to outsmart him on several occasions, a femme fatale who does a pretty good turn at disguising herself, and, of course, the Hoxton Creeper. On the other side we have Lestrade and Watson at their most characteristic, and in the middle an intriguing twist on a classic Holmes tale. While the presence of the Black Pearl (not actually black in the film as it is in the story) would have clued those in to the books as to the reason for the smashed crockery, still the opening of the story is removed enough from the original to give those who spot the upcoming plot twist a nice sense of superiority without telegraphing it to those not in the know.
Rondo Hatton (who played the Creeper) gained his distinctive bulk and appearance from a rare genetic disorder known as acromegaly. The disease is caused by a malfunction of the pituitary gland, resulting in release of growth hormone that has a noted effect on their bone structure and size, and commonly affects men in middle age. Hatton was in his thirties when his symptoms became apparent, and he was spotted and recruited by director Henry King. This film was an attempt by Universal to introduce him as a new member of their monster “family”, making this possibly the only crossover between the Holmes movies and their traditional monster movie fare. He would go on to star as the Creeper in several more movies (including Spider Woman Strikes Back, another “unofficial sequel” to one of the Holmes movies), but a heart attack caused by the acromegaly would cut this film career short only two years later. He was only fifty one years old when he died. His legacy lived on, however, and he has been referenced by Judge Dredd, Doctor Who and the novels of Robert Rankin, among others. He even appears in Kim Newman’s awesome “alternate viewpoint” book, Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, haunting the Black Pearl, which appears as one of six cursed gemstones in The Six Maledictions
Overall, then, Pearl of Death is perhaps the perfect example of a movie adaptation of a Holmes story – adding enough new elements to intrigue and misdirect, while still holding at its core the conceit of the six busts of Napoleon, one holding a priceless gem, scattered throughout the city. Next time we look at another such film that builds upon a single story, as we venture into the House of Fear.