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  Pearl of Death, The Back-Breaking WorkBuy this film here.
Year: 1944
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Miles Mander, Evelyn Ankers, Dennis Hoey, Ian Wolfe, Charles Francis, Holmes Herbert, Richard Nugent, Rondo Hatton, Mary Gordon
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rating:  7 (from 3 votes)
Review: The priceless pearl of the Borgias is being transported across the sea to Dover, but the man carrying it in a secret compartment in his luggage is called away from his cabin by a message. This set up gives expert thief Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) the opportunity to break into his cabin and steal the treasure; hiding it in a camera, she gives it to an elderly gentleman for safekeeping, knowing he won't be stopped at customs. But she has been fooled, for the elderly man is Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) in disguise, and he delivers the pearl to the museum where it will be displayed. However, the criminal mastermind behind the attempted robbery, Giles Conover (Miles Mander), will not give up so easily...

Written by Bernard Millhauser, The Pearl of Death was adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, and expanded accordingly to fill an hour-and-a-bit. It is commonly regarded as one of the better modern day, 1940s, adaptations of Holmes, perhaps because of the main embellishment to the plot, a back-breaking thug in Conover's employ, known as The Creeper. This villain was played by acromegaly sufferer Rondo Hatton, and launched him into a short trilogy of films whose only connection was that the disfigured Hatton appeared as the murderous Creeper in all of them.

However, if you're all fired up to anticipate a horror story starring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Nigel Bruce once more), then you will have been misled. For the most part this is a traditional detective story, and Hatton only shows up in the latter stages, even then shrouded in the shadows for the most part. What is also notable is that Holmes' predilection for showing off his towering intellect leads to his temporary downfall when he demonstrates how the museum's burglar alarm can easily be switched off, only for Conover to seize his opportunity and steal the pearl. Holmes is in disgrace, with only Watson sticking up for him, and the great sleuth has to track down the stolen item to make up for his error.

As ever, Rathbone and Bruce make a reliable team, with Bruce handling the comic relief. He hides the pearl in his mouth not once, but twice, essays a bit of business with a sticky newspaper cutting, and tries to use Holmes-style powers of deduction when he is visited unexpectedly. He fails, of course, to notice that the visitor is Conover, delivering a booby trapped book, and Mander portrays the villain as a kind of hitherto unknown Moriarty clone, complete with a flair for disguise (Naomi is good at dressing up too). Having the baddies ouwit Holmes near the beginning is a good idea, causing them to look more formidable; as usual, the only equals to Holmes' intelligence are the characters set against him - you will wonder how the obtuse Lestrade (the amusing Dennis Hoey) ever became an inspector.

It's not consistently effective, it has to be said, as the news reaches Holmes that someone is going about breaking backs and smashing bric-a-brac, in an apparent robbery attempt. The detective immediately works out the connection between these crimes and the missing pearl, but it takes him too long to reason that the pearl is hidden in one of six plaster busts of Napoleon - the scene in the plaster manufacturers in particular seems unneccessary in its spelling out of events. It all recovers for a thrilling climax, luckily, when Holmes finally confronts not only Conover, but the Creeper as well - it's not often you see Sherlock Holmes looking scared, but the brute puts the fear of death into him. So, a good, solid entry in the series, but maybe Rondo fans will be a little disappointed by his brief appearance.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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