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The Sign of Four (1923)

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A convict seeks revenge on the partners who cheated him of his treasure share.

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Title: The Sign of Four (1923)

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Cast

Cast overview:
Eille Norwood ...
Isobel Elsom ...
Fred Raynham ...
Prince Abdullah Khan
Arthur M. Cullin ...
Norman Page ...
Humberston Wright ...
Dr. Sholto
Henry Wilson ...
Pygmy
Mme. d'Esterre ...
Arthur Bell ...
Insp. Anthony Jones
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Storyline

A convict seeks revenge on the partners who cheated him of his treasure share.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Genres:

Crime | Drama | Mystery

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Details

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Release Date:

June 1923 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

Das Zeichen der Vier  »

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1.33 : 1
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Trivia

"The Sign of Four" is actually this story's correct title; it was the second Sherlock Holmes story completed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. See more »

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Version of The Sign of Four (2001) See more »

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A Holmesian Thriller
6 June 2014 | by (San Francisco) – See all my reviews

Never released in US, The Sign of Four received a belated premiere at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, giving American Sherlockians an introduction to Eille Norwood, whose portrayal of Sherlock Holmes earned raves from no less than Conan Doyle. Based on the evidence of this feature, Norwood definitely belongs in the company of Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

No one has bettered Conan Doyle's explanation of Norwood's appeal: "He has that rare quality which can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly even when he is doing nothing. He has the brooding eye which excites expectation and he has also a quite unrivalled power of disguise." Norwood is indeed a master of stillness and quiet intensity. Though old for the part, his haggard face and severe eyes command attention (along with his moments of wry humor). The film opens and closes on Norwood's face, masking the frame to reveal Holmes staring down the audience.

Norwood's Holmes is straight from the books, but purists should be warned that this film takes many liberties with Conan Doyle's novella. And that's perfectly understandable--silent film is not the most suitable medium for the Holmes stories, which heavily rely on dialogue and exposition. A faithful silent adaptation of "The Sign of Four" would have drowned in a sea of inter-titles. Maurice Elvey, who adapted and directed the film, instead chose to turn Doyle's whodunit into a thriller. Holmes does less detective work, and much of it is off-screen. The long flashback in the novel is drastically reduced and dealt with early on, along with the solution of the mystery and the culprits.

Major Sholto appears instead of his sons, Jonathan Small and Tonga have much reduced roles, and the film introduces a new villain, Prince Abdullah Khan. He's unsubtly played in brownface and identified as a "Hindoo" by Holmes (who is mistaken--"Abdullah" is an Islamic name, meaning "slave of Allah" in Arabic). Additionally, the Four signers of the title are different characters and lack the camaraderie Doyle gave them. That, along with the extensive use of hamming in brownface (and details like cutting between a monkey and "pygmy" as they doff hats), results in a film that's arguably more racist than its source material from 30 years earlier. An additional defect is under-use of Watson (a common problem in silent Holmes films), played by the stolid and mustache-less Arthur Cullin, though he has a fun scene of wondering "What would Holmes do?"

Once expectations of textual fidelity are put aside, "Sign" can be enjoyed as a nifty thriller, thanks to its brisk pacing and flair. Maurice Elvey's direction is stylish and inventive. Wipes are used to transition to and from flashbacks, and a flash-cut reveals the source of one of Holmes's deductions. When Holmes divulges his conclusions, flashbacks show him superimposed, lending a ghostly effect to the narration of previously unseen events. The film is strong in mood, opening with a shot of a "pearl grey afternoon in Baker Street" (though Watson later enters 114 instead of 221B!), and the use of shadows is splendidly inventive. Elvey also throws in scene of seamy working-class London in a Limehouse bar.

The climax expands Doyle's original chase, adding a damsel in distress and a car-versus-boat race across London and the Thames. It's practically a tour of the city, with landmarks announced through inter-titles ("Putney Bridge," "Hyde Park Corner" etc). The concluding speedboat chase still impresses, with the camera perched close to waterline or on top of the boats as they plow through the waves. You can see why Holmes faces the camera upon hearing the case and says "This is going to be exciting." It still is.


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