In 1983 American TV producer Sy Weintraub teamed up with British producer Otto Plaschkes to produce a new series of lavish TV feature films based on the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Great Detective Sherlock Holmes. But just around the corner were Granada TV, whose
Jeremy Brett-starring series was already in the planning stages (and which was to go on to deliver, for many, the definitive interpretation of the character) so Weintraub’s plans ground to halt with just two films – The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four – ultimately made. With Holmes currently fashionable again thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller and even Robert Downey Jnr, The Sign of Four makes a timely reappearance on DVD to remind us of what could have been.
Starring Ian Richardson as Holmes, 1983’s The Sign of Four is a brisk, no-nonsense adaptation of the second full-length Holmes novel. The story is one of the more complex in the Doyle canon, involving a secret cache of diamonds, a one-legged man, a boat chase along the Thames, a mysterious “small man” and the first appearance of Mary Morstan who eventually becomes betrothed to Dr Watson in Doyle’s original stories (even though it is to be a short-lived union). Ian Richardson is a clipped, jaunty Holmes and all the tropes and cliches are present and correct from the familiar ‘deerstalker’ image of the character and David Healy’s slightly pompous Dr Watson (a portrayal popularised by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone 1930s-40s film series and which only became less of a caricature in the Brett TV version) and the film is filled with choking London smogs, hansom cabs and ragged urchins scurrying about in the employ of Holmes himself.
Production values are excellent with plenty of exterior sequences cleverly utilising then-derelict portions of the capital (especially around Butler’s Wharf near Tower Bridge, now a popular and affluent residential area packed with trendy bars and cafes) and even the river chase manages to conceal any sign of the bustling 1980s metropolis just a few hundred feet away. Deviations from the original text are inevitable but they remain sympathetic to the labyrinthine plot which, in its first hour at least, is dialogue heavy and action-light. But there’s time for some wit, too, especially in a scene where Holmes and Watson journey back to Baker Street on a variety of rattling bicycles and carts and pretty much all Holmes boxes are ticked – even “Elementary, my dear Watson!” is rolled out - with the inclusion of a witty sequence where Holmes disguises himself as a sozzled old sailor to procure information from a boatman’s wife, bamboozling Watson in the process.
This version of The Sign of Four brings nothing new to Sherlock Holmes - as an American co-production the idea was probably to be as traditional and retro as possible - but Ian Richardson has an easy, affable charm and brings a passion and vigour to a role which Brett would redefine just a few months later in the Granada series. But this is an enjoyable, by-the-numbers romp which more than does the Great Detective justice and, in an era when doing Holmes ‘straight’ isn’t on anyone’s agenda, it’s a reminder of just why Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most iconic and enduringly-popular characters in British literature.
Special feature: Commentary
THE SIGN OF FOUR/CERT: PG/DIRECTOR: DESMOND DAVIS/SCREENPLAY: CHARLES EDWARD POGUE/STARRING: IAN RICHARDSON, DAVID HEALY, THORLEY WALTERS, CHERI LUNGHI, RICHARD HEFFER, CLIVE MERRISON/RELEASE DATE: 25th APRIL