When Basil Met Nigel #6

The Scarlet Claw (Neill, 1944)


The eighth outing for Bas n’ Nige as Sherlock and his friend the Human Bumble Machine. It is not at all unusual to find folk who hold it as their favorite of the whole set of 14. As corroborative evidence, I offer that perrrrfect barometer of public taste, IMDB ratings: Scarlet Claw is tied for the highest score there (7.9) with Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

That’s right about where I fall – my favorite is one of the two, and I guess I side with the Claw. They’re very different animals – Adventures Of is one of the two Fox-produced “A” pictures in the series, with attendant increase in scale and ambition. It also pointedly falls in line with it’s title, as adventure is emphasized. There’s lots of running around and jumping and fighting and attempts on people’s lives, and frequently no small amount of speed. It has atmosphere to be sure, but it is perhaps secondary to the narrative thrust.

Claw on the other hand, is one of the 12 Universal productions, thoroughly a “B” picture, probably shot in three weeks. It has few sets and a single-strand plot. Mystery and atmosphere is very much at the fore, not adventure. Even though it’s set in Canada in the present (1944) day, it’s extremely effective at capturing the feeling of foggy dread that made Conan Doyle’s rural Holmes stories so popular.

74 snappy minutes. In so well fulfilling its narrower ambitions, it makes great virtues of execution and simplicity and leaves me wanting more.

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Although the series wasn’t very consistent in terms of typeface for its title cards, this is the only example of decoration I’ve seen on one – little spots, no doubt intended to be spattered blood. A couple of interesting crew credits here as well. Paul Landres went on direct just a ton of television, including things like Bonanza and Maverick and quite a few episodes of Daktari, a series I can just vaguely recall. He also directed a few features, one of which is the quite underrated Return of Dracula from 1957. It has real atmosphere and a nice take on updating the vampire story=xenophobia stuff to 50s disney america. And that “Dialogue Director” there, that’s Stacey Keach Sr., dad of James and Stacey “Mike Hammer” Keach.

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In the small Canadian town of La Morte Rouge, the evening’s customers in Journet’s Inn sit funereally as a church bell rings solemnly in the night. Potts the postman says what many are thinking, that maybe its the Phantom, the local monster story from decades past, whom they suspect of being responsible for a rash of animal throat-slashings of late. The priest gets the gumption to go back to the church to check it out. Notice this now, because its fairly consistent: this is a world of carriages, not cars, and frequently of candle or gaslight, not the electricity that should be common. If this begins to remind you of Universal Monsterland, that misty dreamworld that was a mishmash of 1870s and 1940s, of indeterminate country, that contained so many of the Universal Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolf Man stories, then I am right there with you. I’ll bet it has sets reused from those series, although I’ve yet to spot one.

And this film is dark – dark dark. No day shots ’til the tag scene at the end, and people are usually in the shadows of whatever poor light there is.

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The bellrope is held by a dead woman, who died trying to summon help. Her throat is torn open.

Holmes & Watson are in Quebec, having a spirited discussion on the supernatural and the scientific, with the Royal Canadian Occult Society. Let’s say that again: Royal Canadian Occult Society. Royal? Royal??? Is this just marketing, like Royal Crown Cola, or do they actually have a commission? “The King is concerned with the state of seances in Canada. Please get a bunch of stuffy old landed gentry together to smoke pipes and sit in comfy armchairs discussing it.”

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This is probably what wealthy boys who like camping and telling ghost stories around the fire do when they grow up – they’d look like fools camping, so they form a Royal Society so they can turn out the lights and shine flashlights up their faces while still getting served Bombay and tonics. While at this meeting, a message comes for the occult standard bearer, Lord Penrose. His wife (the bellrope puller) has been murdered in La Morte Rouge. Played by series stalwart Paul Cavanagh, he hustles back home, certain the Phantom has done it and that Holmes wouldn’t understand such things.

Our heroes find they must follow him – they find him in his house, holding almost mesmeric vigil over his wife. Director Roy William Neill does a great job on this film, but I wish he’d held this setup with Lord Penrose longer than the instant he does – its quite creepy and might have pressed the occult point harder.

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Nigel with a rifle. Now I feel safe. The girl is Marie Journet, daughter of the Innkeeper. She lets slip to Holmes her father’s fears and plans to go away. She’s played by Kay Harding, a contract Universal player who only did a handful of other things for them, this by far her biggest break. I think she did a very nice job, but apparently forlorn and doomed isn’t that hard to pull off. Hollywood was soon done with her.

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Slap! Her father Journet is unhappy with secrets getting out. The poor actor is obviously trying not to let her have it too hard. You don’t see a lot of man on girl slaps in old movies, or else I’m just not noticing. Even halfhearted, it’s startling.

Throats ripped by an animal? Or your garden variety (literally) weeder?

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I love maps in movies. Okay, this is a good moment to deal with the name of this town: La Morte Rouge. Yes, it’s The Red Death. What names did the town founders have to reject to think that was a good one? The Green Castration? The Orange Leprosy? The funny thing is, it turns out that several characters actually chose to move there in the last two years.

Let’s address another thing at this point: it’s Canada, yes? Near Quebec. So why is it that virtually everyone has an English accent? Journet is a little more American sounding, his daughter takes a stab at French Canadian, but everyone else – the priest, the postman, the judge, Lord Penrose, his butler, practically all the other speaking parts – Englishmen. The town cop goes for a Scottish accent. Where are we again exactly? Canada Schmanada, we’re in Generic Foggy English Village, a suburb of Universal Monsterland.

In the next cap, a nice drunk act going on. When one guy is playing drunk in a scene, it could go either way. When two or more are playing drunk, it’s almost always good value. Nigel and Gerald Hamer as Potts the postman ham it up. I like how Potts looks like he’s toking up. Gerald Hamer appeared in five Holmes films, and is the father of Robert Hamer, who directed several interesting features in England, not least Kind Hearts and Coronets.

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Holmes out prowling for the Phantom. Now if it hadn’t been clear before that this is a gloss on the plot of Hound of the Baskervilles, it should be so by this point. One of the things that makes this a better film for me than Hound is that that film is hamstrung by Conan Doyle’s tendency to drop Holmes for large sections of his novel-length stories. It’s alright on paper but not so much for cinema. In this streamlined knockoff, Holmes’ withdrawal from the Baskerville story has it’s equal in just this one scene out on the marshes – which of course he’s actually front and center in, so’s he’s never absent at all. Cinematic problem solved, and this film is better than Hound.

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This effect of The Phantom running through the marshes is terrific, much better than the glowing dog in the ’39 Hound of the Baskervilles, or indeed any filming of that story I can think of.

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Of course Watson’s gotta fall in a bog running off to help Holmes, because like the kids say, that’s how he rolls. He does have a genuinely nice line to Holmes, upbraiding him quietly for secretly going on the hunt alone: “I have a right to share your adventures.”

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A new suspect emerges, an itinerant fisherman. Love the scar. He’s tracked to his hideout, but escapes by crashing through an window and jumping into the river below, the police blasting away as he swims.

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A Psycho/Dressed To Kill moment. The old judge, hiding in his home with an odd sense of foreboding, calls to his housekeeper for assistance. All the while, Holmes is outside pounding on the door. Great stuff, could have been played out even longer.

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Holmes finds the real housekeeper stuffed undressed in a closet. He ungags her, and snaps at her to tell him who did it. The destroyed, weeping woman huffs out that she doesn’t know. Rathbone gives us absolutely true to character Holmes – he immediately dismisses her as being useless and goes on his way. The police are on their way, but he’s not going to bother hanging around comforting this abused creature, he’s going to leave her crying in a dark house with a corpse and get on to business. Dude is stone cold.

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Cornered by the still-mystery killer, Holmes is saved by Watson’s brave and totally planned distraction of tumbling down the stairs. Nigel, I trust, was enjoying tea while his stuntman got on with it.

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The Inn was like a morgue at the beginning, now it’s all hootin’ and hollerin’ – they’ve gotten the idea the Phantom is gone. Our heroes know better, and in the back room find his latest work – Marie Journet. What’s interesting about this is how the boys play it. It’s kind of horrible, not just one of the simple good guys n’ bad guys whodunit murders that have as much emotional impact as Daffy Duck getting his beak comically shot off. A true innocent was murdered, and Nigel drops the doofus act for a minute and speaks reasonably about what must have happened. Basil, for his part, looks genuinely hurt. He doesn’t seem to have the heart to “ratiocinate” about it.

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A trap is sprung, and the killer is unmasked in the foggy marshes. Holmes/Watson and a couple dozen townsmen are there to close off the escapes, along with…a Bobby? Again – WHERE THE HELL ARE WE?

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All wrapped up, and Holmes, again true to character, is more than content to see cowboy rather than courtroom justice administered. Watson, seeing a bog, feels compelled to fall in one more time. Just doin’ how he do.

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