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Sign of Four, The (1987)
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by Jay Seaver

"One for both the Holmeses and Watsons."
4 stars

Early in the Granada Television version of "The Sign of Four", Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) makes a familiar comment about how Watson (Edward Hardwicke) injects too much sensationalism and romance into his accounts of their cases. He may be pleased, then, with this rendering of one of his more famous adventures; it actually reduces the love-story sub-plot of Arthur Conan Doyle's original. The result indicates that Holmes and Watson both have a point about what makes for good literature.

The client who approaches 221B Baker Street in this case is one Miss Mary Morstan (Jenny Seagrove), who comes to Holmes and Watson with a peculiar tale. Ten years ago, her father disappeared just after his arrival in London to visit her while on a year's leave from service in India. Four years after that, she begins receiving exceptionally valuable pearls in the mail, once a year. Now, she has received a message, inviting her to a meeting where she will be repaid for a great wrong that was done her. The invitation allows her to bring two friends, and though she knows nobody in London, her employer has referred her to Holmes. The invitation leads her to Thaddeus Sholto (Ronald Lacey), a nervous little man who confirms her father's death, but no sooner is that mystery solved than another presents itself: Thaddeus's twin brother Bartholomew is found dead, the treasure for which their late father (Robin Hunter) killed Mary's (Terence Skelton) missing.

The Sign of Four is a difficult story to adapt, though it is justly one of the most popular stories in the Holmesian canon. It's a thrilling dime-novel adventure, with strange and grotesque murders, eccentric characters, and dashes of comedy that undercut neither our respect for the characters nor the gravity of the crimes. Still, the lengthy flashbacks that were relatively common in the novels of Doyle's day can seem unwieldy to a modern audience. When reviewing the 1932 version with Arthur Wontner (, I complained that telling the story in chronological order reduced the impact of Holmes untangling it; watching this one, which like most of the adaptations Granada Television did in the 1980s and 1990s is quite faithful to the original text, I can't help but feel that it climaxes too early, with the last act too much given over to flashback. Today's viewers may also flinch at the broad and unflattering way foreigners are portrayed; developer John Hawkesworth preserves some of the time's xenophobia.

The upside of keeping that structure is that it gives us a concentrated dose of John Thaw at the end. Thaw, best-known to mystery fans as for playing Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, here plays the villain - Jonathan Small, the one-legged man who haunted the elder Sholto's nightmares. For all that Shaw's Small is barely glimpsed for much of the movie, he takes over the last act, explaining his character's fall, framing a series of flashbacks where we see his reluctance at the start of the road to villainy and how it fades away. His narration is that of a good man fallen who can justify his actions to himself and elicit some sympathy from both his audiences (us and those gathered at Baker Street within the story), who has not given in completely to evil and/or madness, but has surrendered enough.

Thaw gets much of the last act, but the rest is performed quite well. In particular, I greatly enjoyed re-acquainting myself with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Brett's Holmes takes some getting used to; his reliance on the familiar props is minimal, and in his first scene (the interview with Mary Morstan), he seems like an actor determined to let the audience see how hard he is working, with small theatrical gestures and a script that plays up his eccentricity. That fades, though, as the mystery unfolds and we start to see the point of those tics, that Holmes is only truly at ease when solving a case. Brett is so good that we don't notice his transition from neurotic to a man temporarily comfortable within his own skin and able to joke with Watson until the end, when he soon reverts to the man uninterested in the rest of the world with the case solved. The references to Holmes's cocaine habit in the original book are absent (the lines themselves transplanted to the series' adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia"), but Brett shows us how crushingly ill-equipped he is for the time between cases.

As much as Brett, this series is set apart from others by its Watsons. Edward Hardwicke plays the role here, I believe for the first time, taking over from David Burke. While reasonable people can disagree on which actor played the part better, it's hard to find fault with Hardwicke, whose Watson is a capable and rock-steady companion, a perfect illustration of how making Watson someone the audience sees as being on their level makes Holmes seem even more brilliant and strange. Even with the romance mostly cut, we still enjoy and smile at his attraction to Mary Morstan. And why not; Jenny Seagrove is breathtakingly beautiful and yet still able to convince us that she is shy, sad, and uncertain. Alf Joint plays a little broad as the Scotland Yard man skeptical of Holmes's theories, though staying just on the proper side of the line where it becomes obnoxious. Ronald Lacey is similarly theatrical as Thaddeus Sholto, but even as we're tempted to laugh at him, we see his fragility, too.

That is, in many ways, indicative of what makes the Granada adaptations a cut above so many other attempts to film Holmes. The Sign of Four is a pulpy adventure first and foremost, but underneath there is a collection of characters who all feel lonely or abandoned in some way, each dealing with it differently: Mary quietly, Small angrily, Thaddeus with his hookah, Holmes by throwing himself into others' problems. There's unexpected depth to this story as mounted by developer John Hawkesworth and director Peter Hammond. That the adaptation is faithful to the source material in a way that fans can seldom expect is a bonus, as is the handsomeness of the production. Cinematographer Ray Goode shots a sharp picture, and though some scenes seem like they could perhaps use a few more extras, the period detail and design is exquisite. It holds up much better than one might expect a production made for television twenty years ago to.

There is occasionally something a little chilly to this version of "The Sign of Four", but when that's the case, it's always chilly to an end - and not just the end of not altering the status quo for a still-in-production television series. Though that is a fine end - it means that if this is one's first exposure to Brett as Holmes, there are dozens more hours to devour.

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originally posted: 12/16/09 16:00:00
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User Comments

11/13/13 SoBrettish Great film! 5 stars
9/25/13 Mark G. This is a great and faithful adaptation of "The Sign of Four"! It is one of my favorites! 5 stars
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