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Spotlight on: Jeremy Brett in The Sign of Four

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The Sign of Four DVD Cover Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. With all due respect to William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett is my generation's, as well as my personal favorite (though I must admit the radio series from the 1950s starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, with Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty, runs a close second). With his beak nose and piercing blue eyes, brimming with barely-restrained mania, he is the closest to the troubled detective as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Brett personifies the character who, when not on a case, was so starved for mental stimulation that he had to inject it intravenously, and who denigrated his adventures as set down by his friend and companion, John H. Watson, M.D., as "[tinged] with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid." (Conversely, Brett the actor was quite the humanitarian and, upon learning of Holmes' popularity with children, sought permission to have the character overcome his cocaine addiction.)

Similarly, Edward Hardwicke is closer to the canonical Watson than the bumbling doctor played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films and radio series. Hardwicke's eyes display a certain level of intelligence that not only makes him believable as a doctor, but also lets on that he is often both amused and frustrated by his brilliant friend's erratic behavior. This gives the audience its focus of identification as well as adding another layer to the relationship. The two have amazing chemistry onscreen, which belies the great difference in their personalities (as displayed in an interview with the two actors included in the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes DVD set).

Understandably, the novels would be the ideal starting point for longer adaptations. Due likely to all the location shooting that would be required, and the fact that dramatizing the meeting of Holmes and Watson would be going back in time after three seasons (two of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and one of The Return of Sherlock Holmes) of programs, they chose to skip right over A Study in Scarlet and make the first feature adaptation the second novel in the series, The Sign of Four. (Also called The Sign of the Four in some circles, Granada has chosen to eliminate the repeated definite article.)

First telecast in 1987 to satisfy viewers waiting for season two of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four first concerns the disappearance, ten years prior, of the father of Miss Mary Morstan (the lovely Jenny Seagrove, who also appeared in the unrelated Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls). Her subsequent annual receipt of an exquisite pearl, accompanied by a note proclaiming her status as "a wronged woman," piques Holmes' interest and brings him into contact with the title marking.

As was often the case with the Sir Arthur's early novels (and in some of the stories especially), characters have a tendency toward longwindedness in the telling of their backstories. Despite this, Ronald Lacey is enthralling as the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto (and his twin brother Bartholomew -- a dual role in name only, since Bartholomew is silent throughout), a character reportedly based on Oscar Wilde. (The novel itself was apparently inspired by a dinner that Doyle had with Wilde and a magazine publisher, and that also resulted in The Picture of Dorian Gray. That must have been one damned satisfying meal.)

The question of Captain Morstan is solved early on, but the case gets immensely more complicated upon arrival at Norwood (Bartholomew's house). The connections between a treasure chest, a wooden-legged man, and a boat called Aurora result in the first appearances of both a dog named Toby and a ragtag bunch of street urchins called the Baker Street Irregulars, two resources at Holmes' disposal that were seldom used, but which are indelible in the minds of Holmes enthusiasts. (They show up more often in pastiches like The Seven Per-Cent Solution than in the actual canon.)

The small (he is only in the final half-hour) but pivotal (he dominates his time onscreen) role of Jonathan Small is played by none other than John Thaw, who would soon cement his place in the minds of British mystery fans as the irascible (and rather Holmesian, come to think of it) Inspector Morse.

This adaptation of Sign veers from the novel's storyline in one vital way. In the canon, Miss Morstan later becomes Mrs. Watson, but since the television series depend on the cohabitation of the two men, this was omitted, though traces of their mutual attraction remain, allowing Hardwicke to show his romantic side. The addition of an Andaman Island aborigine is a bit silly, but on the whole The Sign of Four is a phenomenal adaptation of what is probably Sir Arthur's most popular work, and stands among the best of the set of films included in The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection.

Extras on The Sign of Four DVD are limited to Richard Gutschmidt's drawings that accompanied the original printing of the source story. Sadly, once again MPI's subtitles are consistently the worst I've ever encountered -- so bad, they border on the ridiculous. Someone deaf or hard-of-hearing would have little or no chance at actually understanding what was being said by the characters. Not only is the dialogue constantly mislabeled, often completely changing its meaning, but far too many easily discernible lines are marked "(unintelligible)." That marking should be a last resort in any case, but here it appears to have become a crutch for a lazy transcriber.

The film, however, has been digitally restored, and comes with a very informative booklet with fascinating tidbits about the film (some of which I have used in this review). The lack of extras (in comparison to the Casebook and Memoirs sets) and viable subtitles is disappointing, but those primarily interested in a bright clean picture and terrific sound will find that MPI has indeed delivered the goods yet again on that point.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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