Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG
The Pearl of Death is one of the better-regarded films of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes canon, but somehow it didn’t quite click for me. That doesn’t meant there isn’t a lot to enjoy, however.
The story this time is adapted from Conan Doyle’s The Six Napoleons, and the main mystery seems to be pretty faithful. It’s a rather good one too, involving the hunt for a stolen item — the titular Borgia Pearl — that has been hidden in one of six china busts — the multiple Napoleons of Doyle’s title. It’s dressed up here with some nice touches: Holmes first rescues the priceless Borgia Pearl, but then quite spectacularly loses it. The notion of Holmes being doubted, of having to prove himself to reassert his reputation, is a good one — one recently borrowed by avowed Rathbone fans Moffat & Gatiss for their modern-day Sherlock, in fact. The film attempts to build up villain Giles Conover as a Moriarty-level nemesis, including borrowing some text from The Final Problem to describe him. Unfortunately, Miles Mander doesn’t quite convey the menace to pull it off, but Conover is a fair match for Holmes in places.
Elsewhere, Nigel Bruce gets to indulge in a slapsticky scene that, as ever, people who dislike this interpretation of Watson would be happy to do without. Also worth noting is the female lead, British actress Evelyn Ankers: she was a regular fixture of Universal’s horror features, terrorised in no less than The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, The Mad Ghoul, Captive Wild Woman, Jungle Woman, Weird Woman, The Invisible Man’s Revenge, and The Frozen Ghost! (Plus a previous Holmes film, Voice of Terror, to boot.)
The series’ regular director, Roy William Neill, manages his usual atmospheric and exciting touch in places, but others are a slight let down — both involving characters kept in shadow and their eventual reveal. The opening sequence features a disguised Holmes; supposedly disguised to the audience too, though I imagine many will guess it’s him. He’s mostly kept in shadow, on the edge of frame, or with his back to the camera — it’s quite effective, in fact. Sadly, there’s no commensurate whip-the-disguise-off reveal.
Later in the film, the monstrous Hoxton Creeper is shown in silhouette most of the time, with everyone talking about how disgusting ‘it’ is. Unfortunately, when it comes to finally revealing his hideous visage in the final moments… he just sort of turns around to listen to a moderately interesting conversation. Considering all the points when the Creeper could have been revealed to good effect, Neill somehow managed to pick one of the least dramatic. Neither of these reveal fudges are ruinous, of course, and are outweighed by the handling of sequences like Holmes setting off the museum’s alarm, the ensuing robbery, the villains stalking round a potential victim’s house, and so on. Still, I was surprised to find them so wanting.
The Pearl of Death won’t find a place amongst my very favourites of the Rathbone Holmes series, but I feel I may have, for some reason, been expecting too much from it. Only niggles and incidental points let it down, rather than anything fundamental, and a future reappraisal may one day bump it up in my estimation. Nonetheless: