This volume contains the final three of the five Holmes films that featured Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes (the first two being Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour and The Missing Rembrandt). The three featured here are The Sign of Four (1932), The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) and Silver Blaze "Murder at the Baskervilles" (1938). Many critics still regard Wontner as an excellent Holmes, and his resemblance to Sidney Paget's Holmes in the Strand magazine is eye-catching. Ian Fleming is a more than adequate Watson, as is Lyn Harding's Moriarty. As far as the story lines are concerned, the first two are reasonably faithful to Conan Doyle's stories, with Triumph being easily the best (based on the novel The Valley of Fear). Whilst Silver Blaze manages to maintain the essence of the original story, this film also includes other such notable characters as Professor Moriarty, Colonel Moran and Sir Henry Baskerville, none of whom appear in the original story. Triumph is the best entry of the three in this regard. The quality of the transfers is as one would expect of films of this vintage that have not been restored, ranging from mediocre at best to barely acceptable in a few places (hence one star deduction). The sound quality suffers in similar fashion, with The Sign of Four having a very noisy and scratchy track, whilst Triumph is at times somewhat muffled. Nevertheless, in spite of the limitations of both the audio and video, these films are quite watchable. The average viewer will be less than satisfied with this DVD when compared to other films of this vintage that have received full restoration treatment. However, avid Holmes fans will thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to see these old classics and will be less than bothered by any of their shortcomings. This DVD is great value at the price for those who treasure the old classics. Who knows - this may be the only chance to buy them for some time, if at all in the future.
On the face of it, this triple bill of Arthur Wontner's once popular movies that saw him regarded as the best screen Sherlock Holmes before Basil Rathbone took the title looks like good value - but sadly the picture and sound quality is poor throughout. Although decent prints do exist on UK TV, every expense has been spared for this public domain release, so don't be surprised if you have to rewind to catch the odd line of dialogue thanks to a noisy soundtrack.
The best of Arthur Wontner's Sherlock Holmes films, much of the credit for The Sign of Four is due to Graham Cutts' strong direction and some imaginative cinematography by William Luff and Alan Smith making much atmospheric use of overhead tracking shots. Ian Hunter's Watson is something of a liability, though: closer to Doyle's original vision of the character, he overdoes the interest in the opposite sex something rotten, turning into a virtual walking erection every time the leading lady appears, lasciviously rubbing his hands when he sits near her like a drooling melodrama villain. Amazingly, this technique actually works, as the foolish girl ends up marrying him. Perhaps she didn't get out much. Maybe I should try out the Watson technique myself...
One curious note is the villain's decision to disguise his henchman Roy Emerton by covering him in tattoos - not much use when he wears a suit for the rest of the film.
Despite playing a henchman in Arthur Wontner's previous Sherlock Holmes outing The Sign of Four, Roy Emerton turns up again as the principal villain in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, a fair adaptation of The Valley of Fear. Like most of the novels, it relies heavily on a prolonged backstory that takes up most of the drama - in this case a thinly disguised retelling of the Molly Maguires with the social politics removed and the melodrama upped - with Holmes absent from much of the drama, but it ticks over pleasantly enough and doesn't outstay its welcome. Leslie Hiscott's direction is more efficient than inspired, though Ian Fleming (no, a different one) makes a better fist of Watson than Hunter, but is still enough of a wolf to spruce himself up before going to console the widow.
In spite of Moriarty taking one of his long drops at the end of the Arthur Wontner's second film as the great consulting detective, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, by the time he made his reappearance two films later in Silver Blaze/Murder at the Baskervilles, Scotland Yard seem to have forgotten he ever existed, let alone perished. Still, at least the film makes up or it by giving him a nice lair, a disused tube station with a nice art deco desk and a handy lift shaft for unwelcome visitors. Of the Wontner Holmes films, this is the highest regarded, and while it's not as strong as The Sign of Four, it's a good yarn. The moral of the tale: never eat curry a few days before a big race.
With no sign of properly mastered copies from decent prints on the horizon, for now these copies of copies of copies are about the only way to see the films - but bear in mind you're definitely getting what you pay for with this budget release.
These films are interesting in that they were very popular in the thirties, and, in fact, the Sherlock Holmes society in London considered Wontner to be the definitive portrayer of Holmes for many years due to his remarkable resemblance to the Sidney Paget dawings when these stories were first published in the Strand magazine. The copies presented here and in other DVD releases are just awful, and show the general laziness and contempt that the manufacturers seem to have to the public. I have seen excellent prints shown in the past on British television, so it wouldn't be impossible to produce a better product. These films are very dated in style and production, but this makes them all the more interesting to me, as a glimpse into early talkies in Britain.