The eighth film in the series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce is definitely one of the high points of the series, and many critics even consider it the best. Personally, I prefer Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, but The Scarlet Claw is definitely one of the better entries in the series. While not officially credited as an adaptation of any particular Holmes story, the remote country setting and mysterious haunting definitely bring The Hound Of The Baskervilles to mind. The film takes place in Canada, somewhere near Quebec (which they refer to as a city throughout, so it may be that it is in Quebec and they are referring to the capital), in a village called La Mort Rouge – possibly a homage to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, or simply a reference to the “Scarlet Claw” of the title. As none of the action takes place in London (with Holmes and Watson already in the country), neither Lestrade nor Mrs Hudson appear – one of the few films where she doesn’t appear onscreen even briefly.
The original story was co-written by Paul Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg, the only script either wrote for the series. Gangelin was best known for writing Westerns and noir, but he did also produce several great spoofs as well. He wrote a lot of television (including several Gene Autry serials). His most famous work at the time was probably My Pal Trigger, one of the best Roy Rogers movies. Better known to modern audiences, however, is classic B-Movie The Giant Claw (no relation to this movie), in which a gigantic bird from space terrorises the Earth. His co-writer, Brenda “Goldie” Weisberg, was a Jewish Russian immigrant who grew up in Arizona. She spent 15 years writing stories for Universal (among other studios) in Hollywood before she moved back to Phoenix and into theatre. She was best known at the time for her B-movie noir scripts, although she also wrote several horror sequels.
Fog-wreathed gas lamps set the scene, as we move to the interior of Journet’s, a small inn and cafe. The cafe has fallen silent as they listen to a chiming church bell. The postman Potts enters the cafe, and asks the local priest who could be ringing the bell at this hour, wondering if it’s a monster of some kind. The priest rubbishes his concerns, but the innkeeper Emile Journet tells them that several of the farmers have found sheep with their throats slashed open, while Potts tells of seeing a mysterious light on the road. The priest persuades Potts to drive him to the church, before he goes on to deliver a letter to the manor. There the priest finds a dead woman, clutching onto the bell, with her throat slashed open. He rushes to the manor, where he finds Potts and the butler Drake, and tells them that the lady of the manor, Lady Penrose, is dead. Drake puts a call through to Quebec, to inform her husband.
At a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, Lord Penrose is addressing a meeting that includes Sherlock and Watson. He claims that if facts proved the existence of occult phenomena, Holmes would be forced to admit to them. Holmes counters by commenting that facts are one thing, but the conclusions drawn from them are quite another. Lord Penrose tells them of a mysterious apparition that appeared in La Mort Rouge (the village we opened in), that was followd by the discovery of three dead people with their throats torn open. Moreover the monster has been seen again recently, and he tells them of the dead sheep. Holmes is sceptical, which infuriates Lord Penrose. However he is interrupted by the news of his wife’s death. Holmes offers his assistance, but Lord Penrose rebuffs him coldly. As Holmes and Watson are leaving their hotel the next morning, however, Holmes finds a letter, begging for his help, sent by Lady Penrose before she was killed. He decides to go to La Mort Rouge and investigate the case.
Holmes and Watson arrive at Penrose Hall, where Lord Penrose is annoyed to see them, thinking that Holmes is simply there to continue to dispute the supernatural explanation for her death. He is unimpressed by the letter, but refers them on to the policeman investigating the murder. He does not show them out, which Holmes takes advantage of to go in to inspect Lady Penrose’s body. Watson observes that the cut aimed for the jugular but missed, resulting in her bleeding to death over the course of several hours, rather than instantaneously as the killer intended. They both feel that they have seen her before, but before they can discuss it further they are interrupted by Drake, who tells them of seeing the monster in the woods. Lord Penrose then returns, and Holmes informs him that he is sure of two things – that his wife was murdered, and that she was Lillian Gentry, a famous actress who retired into obscurity. Lord Penrose is still unwilling to talk to them, however, and orders them to leave.
At the local police station, Holmes theorises that a sharpened garden weeder could have produced the animal-like marks on the victim, but Watson shows a rare assertiveness by disagreeing, saying that a weapon like that would have severed the jugular vein. Holmes and the sergeant discuss Lillian Gentry, and Holmes asks if anyone in the district has a prison record, and finds out that nobody does, but Emile Journet the innkeeper is a retired prison guard.
Back at Journet’s, Emile is apparently absent but his daughter Marie books them into the hotel. Watson notices that she has been crying, which she blames on sadness at her father going away. Her father, meanwhile, hides in the back listening. As Marie shows them upstairs, he sneaks out, and finds Holmes and Watson’s names in the book. While he considers this, Potts arrives with the post. Emile confides in him that Sherlock Holmes has come to town, but Potts thinks that Holmes will be disappointed, as “you can’t arrest ghosts and monsters”.
Up in the hotel room, Marie shows the pair around and then leaves, trying to avoid any further questions about her father, but serving only to heighten their suspicions. Downstairs Emile berates her for her slip of the tongue, but as he strikes her he is interrupted by Holmes and Watson. He denies that he will be leaving, and sends Marie out. Watson is irate at his hitting her, but Holmes quiets him down, and then asks Emile why he came to La Mort Rouge after he retired from the prison. He then comments on how the monster appeared at around the time that Emile moved to the town, and then accuses Emile indirectly of recreating the monster legend as a screen, and of now fleeing because of Holmes’ arrival on the scene. Emile finally admits that he is running away, but claims that it is because he, like Lady Penrose, has been overcome with a fear for his life.
Holmes asks Watson to go to the cafe and mingle with the locals to learn what he can, while Holmes rests up for the trials ahead. He asks Watson to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, with predictable results. In the cafe, Watson is the subject of many curious stares. He sees Marie, who is smiling once again, and she tells him that thanks to his discussion with Holmes and Watson he has decided not to go away, a fact Holmes records in a notebook. He then sees Mr Potts holding forth to a travelling salesman on the subject of crime and the supernatural, and introduces himself to them. The salesman drunkenly mocks them, before departing to catch a bus. Watson orders another bottle of wine. Upstairs, Emile has snuck into Holmes and Watson’s room to discuss something with Holmes, but he finds that Holmes has gone out, leaving a suitcase in the bed to create the illusion that he was there.
At the police station, Holmes confirms the location of the murder with the sergeant, before setting out to see it for himself – alone despite the policeman’s protests. Back at the cafe, meanwhile, Watson and Potts have reached the bottom of the bottle of wine, and have attracted the entire cafe as an audience. Watson refers to a GK Chesterton short story where the murderer is a postman (The Invisible Man), to point out that it would be absurd to assume that because a postman was a murderer in that case, that would mean that Potts must be the murderer this time. Watson rubbishes the idea of a monster, as Potts leaves for the evening, and Emile sneaks out. On the misty moor, Holmes hears the church bell tolling. The cafe hear it too, and Watson asks why they fall silent, only for Marie to tell him that it is because it was at this time last night that they heard it toll for Lady Penrose. The sergeant rushes in, and tells Watson that Holmes is out on the moors, alone. Watson and the patrons immediately rush out.
Back on the moor, a mysterious figure, glowing from head to foot, dogs Holmes footsteps. It circles him, until he gets a clear sight of it and opens fire with a pistol. The figure runs off, and he gives chase, finding a piece of glowing cloth snagged on a branch. He then hears Watson’s cries for help – the monster has, fleeing, pushed him into the bog, where Holmes has to rescue him.
Wrapped in blankets at the inn, Watson is cold and resentful of Holmes not having let him in on his outing, but Holmes assures him that he now knows that the monster is a fraud – something Watson doubts, having seen the monster himself. Holmes shows him the piece of cloth he found, and says that it has been treated with phosphorus, to give it the glow and appearance of flames. Lord Penrose then arrives, and gives his opinion that the marshes are haunted. Watson is about to tell him about the cloth, but Holmes interrupts him. Lord Penrose warns them that they are lucky to be alive, then leaves.
At the police station, Holmes examines the cloth under a microscope. He comments that the cloth is “good fabric, but old”. A local shopkeeper arrives and tells them that the fabric comes from one of several shirts specially ordered by a local retired magistrate, Judge Brisson. He moved to La Mort Rouge two years prior after having a stroke – the same time as Emile Journet. Holmes rings his house, but the judge tells his housekeeper not to answer. Holmes decides instead to visit him in the morning.
The next morning they arrive to a barking guard dog and an uncooperative housekeeper, but Holmes tells her that the judge’s life is on the line, so she lets them in. The judge is unwilling to talk to them, even though Holmes says that they can saves his life, so they leave. As they do, though. Holmes drops an envelope on the floor. The judge rises from his wheelchair to retrieve it, only to be surprised by the returning Holmes. Brisson admits that he has exaggerated the effect of his stroke in order to justify his isolated existence – like Emile Journet and Lady Penrose, he is living in fear. Holmes notes that he is wearing a shirt that matches the cloth he found, and Brisson tells them that some of his worn shirts were given to a man called Tanner who did some ground work for him as a gift. Holmes tells him to admit no-one to the house, even anyone he knows well.
The sergeant takes Holmes and Watson to a wrecked hotel, where the itinerant Tanner has been known to sleep. They hear him moving about, and find him upstairs. He refuses to answer their questions, so Holmes accuses him of the murder, and then blows out the candle that is the room’s only light source, revealing a glowing shirt in a wardrobe. Realising the game is up, Tanner escapes out the window and dives into the river. As Watson and the sergeant run downstairs, Holmes finds a torn half of a photo of Lady Penrose, dedicated to “Alistair Ramson”. He goes off to investigate, despite Watson’s conviction that the sergeant managed to shoot Tanner as he swam off.
At Penrose Manor, Holmes breaks into Lord Penrose’s safe and finds the other half of the photograph, before being confronted by Lord Penrose. He tells him that Ramson was a member of Lady Penrose’s acting troupe, who was sent to prison for murder. Three years later he was shot escaping from prison and presumed dead. Holmes tells him about the shirt impregnated with phosphorus, and that Tanner was Ramson, who killed his wife. Holmes is sure that Ramson must have another identity in the town, and that now that Tanner has been exposed he will solely use that identity. Lord Penrose tells him that Judge Brisson was the one who sentenced Ramson, and Holmes phones him. He finds that someone has imitated him in order to get the judge to chain up his dog. Holmes rushes to help him, but he arrives just as Ramson, disguised as the judge’s housekeeper, murders him. Holmes gets into the house, but too late. He finds the housekeeper bound in a cupboard, but she cannot name her attacker. He calls for the police to secure the house, and heads back to the abandoned hotel, hoping to catch the killer changing disguise.
At the hotel, Holmes makes his way up the stairs, but one stair squeaks, giving him away. Ramson is able to ambush him as he enters, and has him at gunpoint. Ramson confesses to having killed Lady Penrose rather than see her with another man, and to having killed Judge Brissom because he grew to hate him during his trial. Holmes deduces that he plans another murder, and Ramson is about to name his planned third victim, before shooting Holmes, but is interrupted by Watson pounding up the stairs. Holmes is saved, but Ramson escapes through a secret room, where they find his disguises. Holmes deduces that Emile Journet is the next victim, and Watson tells him that Journet has gone into hiding. Back at the packed cafe, they search for Marie, and Holmes finds her murdered in a back room. Holmes deduces that Marie must have trusted her attacker, who was clearly trying to find out where her father was hiding. When she became suspicious, he killed her.
The next evening, Holmes returns to the cafe having spent the day searching for Journet without success. The phone rings, and Holmes answers it, but hangs up without speaking and rushes out with Watson in tow. He heads to Judge Brissom’s house, the only empty building he had not searched. They knock, and a mysterious unseen figure lets them in, revealed to be Journet, lurking in the shadows. Holmes asks Journet to return to the cafe to serve as bait for the murderer, a plan he initially rejects, but changes his mind when he finds that his daughter is dead.
In the cafe, Watson tells the townsfolk that he and Holmes are leaving for London, in the belief that the murderer has escaped across the border to the US. He asks Journet for the bill, but Journet says that he is just leaving for the church to pray for Marie, and that he will forward it to them. Watson bids the townsfolk farewell, and departs. Outside in the night, Potts catches up to Journet, and asks to walk with him for a short way, as the marsh is dangerous. As they walk, he discusses the killings while surreptitiously removing a sharpened weeding fork from his pocket. Potts reveals himself as Ramson and attacks Journet, who is in turn revealed to be Holmes in disguise.
They tussle, and then talk, with Ramson revealing that he murdered the real Mr Potts as he was travelling to La Mort Rouge. Ramson runs into the marsh as Holmes signals to the police. As they stalk him through the mist, he encounters Journet and they fight. In the struggle, Journet kills him with his own weapon. Meanwhile, Watson has once again fallen in the marsh. As they depart, Holmes quotes Churchhill in praise of Canada.
The Scarlet Claw is often touted as the best of the Holmes films from Universal, and it’s not hard to see why. The plot is original and fast paced, with a reasonably genuine twist in the hidden murderer, although since Potts is the only real possible candidate I think most people will figure it out. Still, Tanner and Potts are different enough that the disguise may easily fool the first-time viewer, and Gerald Hamer gives a masterful performance as both, as well as his reveal as Ramson. While he reappears in a later Holmes movie (Pursuit To Algiers) this role remains the high point of his acting career. A shame.
Another welcome part of the movie is a surprisingly sharp portrayal of Watson. He is assertive, notices things and lets Holmes know of them, and even uses his medical knowledge to analyse the body of Lady Penrose – something a lesser script would have given to Holmes to do. Indeed, one almost gets the feelings that the pratfalls given to Watson (his falling in the bog, and down the stairs in the hotel) have been added simply to keep the character consistent with his role as comic relief.
Despite all this, however, this film never quite gelled with me as a favourite. The plot never seems to have a decent arc, but rather simply wanders through the events. The villain, despite being masterfully portrayed, doesn’t seem to have any motivation beyond the desire to kill off all the other named characters. So a good film, but not my favourite. Next time is the opposite – a film that could never be considered the best in the series, but one I have a sneaking fondness for regardless. The Pearl Of Death.