A village in Canada has an old legend about a phantom that years ago killed three villagers. Many residents are afraid that the monster has come back, because some of them have seen strange luminous shapes, and then some sheep were found with their throats slashed. Their worst fears seem to be confirmed when Lady Penrose is found killed in the same way.
Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are in Quebec, attending a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, where they are involved in a sharp debate with Lord Penrose about his village\'s legend. Not long after Lord Penrose receives word of his wife\'s death, Holmes receives a letter that the dead woman had written before she died, begging for his help and protection.
When Holmes goes to the village to investigate, he finds himself hunting a determined murderer who is also a master of disguise.
Basil Rathbone ... Sherlock Holmes
Nigel Bruce ... Dr. John H. Watson
Gerald Hamer ... Alistair Ramson
Paul Cavanagh ... Lord William Penrose
Arthur Hohl ... Emile Journet
Kay Harding ... Marie Journet
Miles Mander ... Judge Brisson
David Clyde ... Sgt. Thompson
Ian Wolfe ... Drake
Victoria Horne ... Nora
Breathing a similar style to the earlier The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Scarlet Claw sees the great Sherlock Holmes in the middle of another supernatural themed adventure. While this yarn isn\'t quite up to the standards of The Hound of the Baskervilles, it still represents another success in turning the detective novels into films. This time round, we follow a remote village that is at the mercy of a mysterious ghost who appears to be killing them off. Not being a believer in ghosts, our logical protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, decides to take the case on and travels to the remote village to find, as usual, that there\'s more going on than meets the eye. Once again, this story is riddled with inventive twists and a plot that is constantly full of suspense and, as usual, it makes for great viewing. While the plot doesn\'t have any depth or substance, it doesn\'t matter at all because this film is made for pure entertainment value, and on that front it certainly delivers!
Once again, Basil Rathbone takes the lead role as the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes and, as usual, does excellently with it. He does so well at playing this character that you when you think Sherlock Holmes, it\'s Rathbone\'s image that instantly pops into your mind. While this may have hindered the rest of his career a little, it\'s definitely a good thing while you\'re watching a Sherlock Holmes movie. Also reprising his role from previous Holmes movies is Nigel Bruce in the role of Dr Watson. He too makes great use of the role, and again it\'s hard to imagine anyone else playing Dr Watson. The supernatural elements of the story are nice, and seeing the numerous atmosphere scenes is always a treat. The black and white cinematography helps to create a foreboding atmosphere, which compliments the story nicely. The ensemble of characters surrounding the mystery are well done and the film throws in a number of red herrings in order to keep the conclusion from the audience until it is finally time to give it away. All in all; great stuff!
This sixth entry in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series was the third which defied the initial conception of the franchise. Universal had envisioned Sherlock Holmes as a sort of archetypal hero who, transported into the modern era of WWII, could be put on the government payroll, as it were, to work as a contract agent to hunt down Nazi spies on behalf of the Allies. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, this idea met with a great deal of consternation, not only from serious Sherlockians, but also from film critics whose knowledge of Doyle\'s work was marginal at best.
Granted, most of the Holmes films made up to that point had been updated to their respective eras (in fact, only Fox\'s two Holmes features with Rathbone and Bruce had taken place in their appropriate time period), but in those cases, the modernization was all on the surface. Automobiles, telephones, and the fashions of the day were all on display...but that was, for all intents and purposes, scenery. The stories, though changed (sometimes drastically) from their original forms, had a timeless quality about them. The first three Universal films, however, were very timely, with plots focused explicitly on the events of the Second World War. This took Holmes out of his element...not only in the literal sense of removing him from Victorian/Edwardian London (as previous films had done), but in transforming the character of Holmes from a consulting detective into a spy-hunter. Indeed, at times, there is more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes in this character. This trend peaked (or bottomed out) with Sherlock Holmes in Washington...the final straw for critics and audiences alike. The film was a critical and box office flop and Universal saw fit to alter the series\' direction from that point on.
Though still taking place in the 1940s, the subsequent films did their best to place Holmes back in his proper role, solving intricate mysteries with deductive reasoning...rather than the pure chance and intuition that often guided him in his forays into international espionage. This may (or may not) be accredited to the director Roy William Neill (who directed all but the first entry in the series), who, with the fourth film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, became the associate producer...a title he would retain throughout the series\' run. From that point on, the films became more Gothic in tone, in many ways more closely resembling the Universal horror films of the era than the first three Universal Holmes pictures. This decision yielded immediate positive results. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death was easily the best of the first four entries, and subsequent films topped one another until peaking with The Scarlet Claw.
Oddly enough, the film is set in a French province of Canada...for no discernible reason. The setting is completely superfluous to the plot, which could easily have played out anywhere (ideally Great Britain). This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that the predominant accent present in the film is British, rather than French Canadian...even American actors threw on Brit accents, despite the fact that American accents would have been more sensible in Canada. But no matter. This slight idiosyncrasy aside, The Scarlet Claw is the ultimate Rathbone/Bruce Universal outing. Not adapted from any of the original Doyle tales, (though borrowing heavily from The Hound of the Baskervilles), The Scarlet Claw is dripping with atmosphere. Fog-wreathed marshes are the setting as Holmes tracks a ghostly apparition that has graduated from sheep mutilation to murdering humans. The local villagers believe the culprit to be supernatural, but level-headed Holmes rejects the idea out of hand, and sets himself to the task of finding the murderer.
Rathbone, as Holmes, is at the top of his form here...cold and detached, clinical in his reasoning. And Bruce\'s Watson, even in this dumbed down incarnation, is a pleasure to watch. Crisp direction, beautiful cinematography (particularly for a B-film), plenty of twists and turns along the way, and no small amount of deductive reasoning from Holmes, make this the strongest entry in the Universal series. The later films were often good, but none ever matched the achievement of The Scarlet Claw...which is simultaneously Gothic, suspenseful, and very, very Holmesian. It is not without its logical flaws, but the flaws are justified by the picture\'s enormous entertainment value. And of all the films in the series, this one is, by far, the most entertaining.
Holmes and Watson are in Canada at a conference on the occult and the power of cults. Holmes sceptically questions Lord Penrose on his stories about the gruesome killings of sheep and supposed sightings of ghosts and such. However Penrose is called out of the meeting and returns to tell the group that his wife has been murdered in the same way. When Holmes gets a note sent by the dead woman before her death saying her life is in danger, he realises that it is murder and stays in the town to investigate.
Although I prefer the Holmes adventures that occur in his own time this is a good example of how well the characters and mystery works no matter the setting. Here this story is set in Canada as a salute to our Allies during the Second World War. Happily, this flag waving style salute is confined to the final scene as opposed to becoming the whole body of the film (as in some of the `Holmes v\'s Nazis\' films). For the vast majority of the film the plot functions very well as both a mystery and a chiller. The mystery side is good, even if the villain is not very good at delivering lines when confronted by Holmes - no cat and mouse wit here. The chiller element of the film is much better than I assumed it would be, the director gets a great atmosphere, even if `the beast\' is a poor effect by today\'s standards.
The actors all do a reasonable job; my only complaint is that all of them seemed to have English accents rather than Canadian - only one or two of the characters spoken in French or with a French accent. Rathbone is as assured as ever and is very comfortable in the role. As reliable as ever, Bruce is an expert at playing the blustering side kick Watson and he is given plenty of humorous moments throughout the film - a drunken moment in the local tavern and a good reoccurring interaction with the bog! Cavanagh does a good job in support - the tension between him and Holmes feels very real and adds real spice to the drama. The rest of the support is good, with colourful characters and a little cutie in the shape of Harding.
Overall this is a solid little thriller - a real good atmosphere of mystery to it and the bogs are filmed with a real sense of tension that only Watson manages to break up with light touches! The feeling of loss and tension between the characters are very well brought through and make for a nice addition to the relationships. The lack of a real masterful villain is always an issue but with so much good here, that is a minor complaint.