Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Sign of Four

[The film was not released in Finland].
GB 1923. PC: Stoll Film Company. D+SC: Maurice Elvey, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890), translated in Finnish as Neljän merkki; DP: John J. Cox, Alfred H. Moises; AD: Walter W. Murton; CAST: Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), Arthur Cullin (Dr. Watson), Isobel Elsom (The Girl [Mary Morstan]), Norman Page (The man with the withered leg [Jonathan Small]), Arthur Bell (The Police Inspector [Inspector Athelney Jones]), Henry Wilson (The Pigmy [Tonga]), Humberston Wright (The Thief [Dr. Thaddeus Sholto]), Frederick Raynham (The Prince [Abdullah Khan]), Madame D’Esterre (The Housekeeper [Mrs. Hudson]); 6750 ft /20 fps/ 79 min
From: BFINA. E-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Philip Carli. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 6 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "Arguably the best of the surviving Sherlock Holmes silent features, The Sign of Four shows off the Stoll Film Company’s capacity for producing high-budget dramas with visual flair, in contrast to their posthumous reputation for stolidly conceived literary adaptations. The film is also an excellent example of Maurice Elvey’s skills not just as director but writer, reworking the Conan Doyle novel in a way especially sensitive to cinematic narration. Variety’s critic Gore heaped praise, enthusing, “This new Stoll picture…is one of the best screen melodramas this firm has made. Keeping well to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, the film runs smoothly and is full of grip and thrill. Maurice Elvey has seized every opportunity the story gives and the result is a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story which is fine entertainment of the strong, sensational type.”
Elvey first tackled the Holmes tales with the 1921 series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and, in the same year, the feature The Hound of the Baskervilles. In line with Stoll’s shrewd policy of tie-ins, The Sign of Four was released to coincide with the final episodes of The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Stoll’s follow-up series directed by George Ridgwell. While Elvey doesn’t stick quite as close to the original as Gore implies, he’s nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the book, capturing a lightness of tone often absent in earlier film adaptations. This is true not simply for Holmes himself (more on that below), but for the general tone, conveyed through often wry intertitles which occasionally spill into distinctly non-Conan Doyle territory.
The film is well-paced and beautifully edited, not merely in the famous chase sequence on the Thames. While Conan Doyle wraps up his narration with an extended flashback that puts all the characters in place, Elvey minimizes the traditional flashback structure (there are a few scattered about), integrating the strands and choosing a superimposition device that keeps the action moving forward while explaining Holmes’ logic. Gore was so taken by this method that he singles it out for praise: “Another effective innovation is when the detective is explaining things to his friend Watson, the explanation aided by ‘ghost’ effects instead of the usual irritating ‘flash backs’. Some new camera effects are also used for the first time, including a great improvement on the usual ‘fade out.’”
One of the key results of the superimposition device is that it enables the audience to clearly follow Holmes’ line of reasoning while keeping the focus on the great man himself, furthering the identification with the character that’s such a vital element of the stories. The reader/viewer is encouraged to think they too can be master sleuths, provided they cultivate the necessary qualities as spelled out in the novel of The Sign of Four: observation, deduction, and knowledge. Watson makes this link explicit by asking himself “What would Holmes do?”, prompting the viewer to mentally answer back in the style of their idol, while Elvey furthers the pact between Holmes and his audience of would-be detectives by having Holmes turn to the camera and exclaim, via an underlined intertitle, “This is going to be exciting.”
And exciting it is, culminating in a thrilling pursuit on the Thames. Elvey slightly changes the original by adding a car chase (Conan Doyle complained in his memoirs about such updates), though the extratextual modification is organically integrated and allows the director to indulge in even more London sightseeing than would strictly be possible via the river. It’s worth quoting Elvey’s description of the shoot:
“Twenty-nine separate days, spread over a period of some weeks, were occupied in obtaining ideal effects… The screen does not reveal the difficulties under which we worked, nor does it indicate the material used in obtaining what I required. Though only one yacht and four launches appear in the picture, seven yachts were requisitioned. The Thames is a tidal river, and the varying times of the tides and the varying speed and roughness of the water rendered taking difficult. Particularly did we discover the latter fact when using the light motor racing boats, brought in from Monte Carlo for the purpose. Heavy seas were often running in the lower reaches, but patience was eventually rewarded.”
In her work on Stoll, Nathalie Morris discusses Elvey’s emulation of American methods, partly necessitated by the company’s desire to stoke an ever-increasing U.S. demand for Sherlock Holmes product in a style considered most sellable in the States. There’s something of an irony here, considering Stoll’s foundation in 1918 as a company created to present “British films by British producers, breathing the British spirit”, but as Morris states, Stoll’s methods were to promote Britishness via American models, initially through marketing strategies and production methods but occasionally, as with The Sign of Four, even emulating a certain perceived U.S. studio style. Elvey himself temporarily moved to America, and Fox, one year later.
With 45 series episodes and two features (plus stage adaptations), the star Eille Norwood became as identified with Holmes as William Gillette, and though it’s now impossible to make comparisons, Norwood certainly feels right. Conan Doyle himself was delighted with the actor, stating in his memoirs: “He has that rare quality that can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly even when he is doing nothing. He has the brooding eye which excites expectation and has also a quite unrivalled power of disguise.” Here in The Sign of Four he also enjoys Holmes’ dry wit, revealing an almost pixieish humor that makes the outwardly strict man of science so appealing. One major change in casting from the previous Stoll incarnations was Arthur Cullin as Watson, considered a more plausible romantic partner (!!) for the comely Isobel Elsom (then married to Elvey) than their regular Watson, Hubert Willis. Cullin was no stranger to the role, essaying Holmes’ right-hand man in Samuelson’s 1916 The Valley of Fear, opposite H.A. Saintsbury. – Jay Weissberg".

Professionally made entertainment, handsomely produced. Eille Norwood is fine as Sherlock Holmes. - The violin-playing of Sherlock Holmes is often on display, but in the live music of the screening that aspect was ignored. - The visual quality of the print is variable and passable. Some shots of the torture of Watson seemed misplaced. - My favourite character was Dr. Sholto, performed by Humberston Wright in an eccentric and inspired fashion. His dilapidated house in Kensington was also memorable. - A funny touch is that the bridges of London have been identified in the intertitles of the final chase that grows into a sight-seeing tour of London. - Among the visual touches one can single out the last shot: a close-up, with a mask, of the eyes of Sherlock Holmes.

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