The Sign of Four (TV Movie 1983) Poster

(1983 TV Movie)

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The game's afoot
KatharineFanatic25 October 2002
There have been many adaptations of The Sign of Four as one of Doyle's most highly respected works. No adaptation follows implicitly, but this film does well at blending notable passages and dialogue from the book in with adventurous romps through London, and even to a carnival where death seems the main feature. Unlike other adaptations, rather than attempting to solve the case ourselves, we watch the villain at work and follow along as Holmes attempts to piece together the sparse clues.

Although the film takes great liberties in making the storyline unique and exciting, it still manages to convey the very heart of what Doyle intended. Richardson is an excellent Holmes; he portrays him with just the right amount of light humor and intelligence to make him enthralling even while in the background. He also does an excellent job of reacting. When Mary clings to him after a particularly jarring series of events, the uncomfortable Holmes untangles himself and insists on not making a fuss. One scene I happen to particularly like is when Inspector Layton is brought in to the crime scene. Watching him brush off Holmes' suggestions, while our favorite sleuth is attempting not to laugh or groan at his absurdities, is nothing less than humorous. I also appreciated finally witnessing the scene left out in many adaptations... the thrilling chase of the Aurora on the Thames.

Like many others, I find Ian Richardson the definitive Holmes, and mourn that not more films were made with him as the gallant and often eccentric private detective.
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Above average Holmes adaptation
james_oblivion6 March 2006
This is not at all a bad adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel. Ian Richardson makes a fine (if too affable) Holmes, and David Healy (though portly enough to be Mycroft Holmes) is one of the screen's better Watsons. It's quite entertaining...and when I first saw it, I considered it the best Sign of Four adaptation ever made. In later years, however, I would discover the Granada productions...and their adaptation of Sign of Four, which far overrides this one in terms of faithfulness, style, pacing, direction, acting, and suspense.

There are a few problems with this adaptation which could have easily been rectified. First off, the plot structure is changed so drastically from that of the novel. Not necessarily a problem, in itself. But in this case, too much is revealed to us too early on, leaving little room for suspense, and making Holmes's deductions seem fairly anti-climactic. Rather than learning of the particulars of various events through Holmes's brilliant deductions, we actually SEE the events first, then watch Holmes work them out via deductive reasoning. The other major disadvantage to this structure is that the introduction (a representation of events that Conan Doyle didn't reveal to us until the final act!) is quite labored and unnecessarily delays the introduction of Holmes and Watson. By the time Holmes begins to seriously investigate the matter of the one-legged man and his strange ally, we are nearly halfway through the film. We already know far more than we should, and many of the events which follow are altered due to the shifting of later themes to an earlier point in the film, giving a very uneven feel to the overall piece. The first two acts are far too leisurely, and the final act plays out at breakneck speed.

Beyond that, some of the characters have been changed beyond all recognition. Again, this is a needless change, and does nothing to enhance the story. In fact, in some cases, notably the alteration of Thaddeus Sholto, the changes detract from the effectiveness of various scenes. Conan Doyle's Sholto was an extremely nervous little man...seemingly on the verge of a minor nervous breakdown at all times. This greatly enhanced the suspense of the being in his presence made us, as readers, a bit jittery, as well. So, naturally, presenting him as a dashing young man with a fine gift for articulation deadens the impact of the scenes in which he appears.

I know I'm focusing on the negative here, but I find it difficult not to compare this film with the Granada production which usurped it three years later. That adaptation was practically perfect in every way...fantastic performances all around (including a spot-on Thaddeus Sholto, courtesy of Ron Lacey), extremely faithful to the source material...easily one of the best Holmes adaptations ever committed to film. Still, this version has a lot to offer, and is quite fun in its own way. Though I would have liked to have seen Holmes indulge in a few mood swings (and perhaps brandish his cocaine needle, just for the sake of accuracy), Richardson is one of the better Sherlocks. And Healy is no slouch as Watson, even if he doesn't match David Burke or Edward Hardwicke.

The truth is, I was duly impressed with this film the first time around, and I still quite enjoy watching it from time to time. View this and the Granada version back-to-back and debate the pros and cons for yourself.
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Not a bad little effort (some mild spoilers for anyone who doesn't know the story)
taylor_mayed2 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Ian Richardson is probably better known to Sherlock Holmes fans these days for playing Arthur Conan Doyle's mentor and apparent inspiration for his famous character, Dr Joseph Bell, in the BBC's justly-lauded Murder Rooms series around the turn of the 21st century. He is sadly less well remembered for actually having taken on the role of the great detective himself in a short series of television movies in the early 1980s, which is a shame as he is excellent in the part, as displayed here in one of that very series.

Richardson brings much of the literary Holmes to the fore, with the sense of self-assuredness coupled with a wry sense of humour and a mysterious, enigmatic quality. Richardson's portrayal exudes charisma – his Holmes may be arrogant and single-minded, but he is so watchable you can barely take your eyes off him. It's a real shame Richardson never got a longer run at the part in a perhaps more polished production, as he could well have gone down as one of the very finest actors ever to have handled the role.

One of the reasons why his stint in Baker Street is not so well remembered is because just a few short years after his productions were made, Granada Television came along with their famous series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, which has pretty much remained the last word in Holmes on the small screen ever since. Granada's own version of The Sign of Four in particular is commonly regarded as seeing their series at the very height of its powers, just as Doyle's original version is perhaps one of the best loved of all his Holmes stories. Thus this particular version both had a lot to live up to already and has been subsequently somewhat overshadowed, leaving it more of an interesting curio than a definitive version.

Nonetheless, taken on its own merits it is a more than entertaining film – Richardson's performance alone assures that much, but the script has been assembled with a little more care than some television movie hack jobs. The direction is also very accomplished on the whole – the shots using famous London landmarks such as Tower Bridge without getting any 1980s architecture in frame are particularly well-achieved, and indeed the entire boat chase sequence is made to seem fast-paced and exciting despite the boats themselves lacking the speed of the car chases which were to later succeed them in crime fiction.

Despite some minor changes to the details of the story that often seem pointless – why have Small hide the diamonds in his wooden leg rather than dispose of them in the river as in the original text? – the script remains largely faithful to Doyle's novel until towards the end, when for some unknown reason a lot of tedious padding set in a fairground is inserted for no real benefit to the story. Perhaps the film was running short – it's based on quite a short novella, after all – but they could perhaps have found something rather more interesting to fill the time with.

Nonetheless, the only change that really grates is the fact that once again, as in just about every other adaptation of the story, Watson fails to get the girl and have a happy ending with Mary Morstan as his wife. Morstan does at least get to keep some share of the treasure in this version, and on reflection the producers probably realised that to have her fall in love with their version of Watson would be pushing the audience's suspension of disbelief just a little too far.

This is because sadly, as with many Sherlock Holmes adaptations, the depiction of Doctor Watson is not quite that of the brave, intelligent man who narrates Doyle's tales on the printed page. While not as bad in the bumbling idiot stakes as the infamous Nigel Bruce, David Healy does suffer here from being somewhat miscast in the role of Holmes's sidekick. For one thing, I know nothing of Healy's background but he sounded less like the Victorian English gentleman than an Irishman struggling badly to put on an English accent – although given the number of times English actors have done the reverse in film and television history, I don't suppose there's much ground for complaint on that score.

It's perhaps ironic that given Healy's failings there is another Doctor Watson present in the cast. The actor here playing Inspector Layton – Terence Rigby, who coincidentally also co-starred with Ian Richardson in the BBC's 1979 adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – played Watson in the BBC 'classic serial' strand's contemporaneous adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, although that particular production and its star, Tom Baker, are not particularly highly regarded in terms of depictions of the Holmes stories on the small screen.

Overall then this is a fair adaptation, and while not on a par with the best of the Granada versions or perhaps the 1960s BBC Peter Cushing series, this is certainly well-done and enjoyable, and definitely worth making an effort to watch if and when you should spot it in your television listings.
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KatharineFanatic8 April 2001
Sometimes more thrilling than the novel, this adaptation mixes in romance, deception, and the cold hand of the master detective. I've seen more than one adaptation, but I'd say this one and the latest, with Matt Frewer, are tied as far as excitement goes. Both differ from the story, but on the upper hand, Holmes undertakes the thrilling Thames boat chase. It's somewhat strange in places, but I much appreciated the added sequences with Tonga and Mary. Ian Richardson is an excellent Holmes - second only to Basil Rathbone, who was born to play the part.

An excellent adaptation, and one for any Sherlockian to be proud of.
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ChrisHawk783 June 2001
It really is a disaster that only SIGN and HOUN were filmed with Ian Richardson. No other has been portraying Holmes in such a smooth and witty way - not even Rathbone whom I always considered a bit too perfect and too cold. The setting and the costumes in the Sign of the Four are brilliant and the acting of all the characters is quite convincing. Unfortunately Watson is a shade too Brucian. Few changes were made to the story, but for the worse and therefore quite acceptable. It has been said more than once so far but I must repeat it: The boat chase is brilliant. I must give credit to another point. Although we do see Holmes in his Deerstalker and Inverness cape in some scenes, he mainly is dressed like a gentleman would be in those days. Richardson is not an all-cliche Holmes. 9 out of 10.
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Good adaptation
klingon-attack3 January 2007
Although in some parts not too faithful to the original story this is a good Holmes adaptation. Everyone involved is making a good effort and the the finished product is solid enough.

One thing I did definitely not like is the way Tonga was presented. I am aware that he was portrayed as "so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty (and that) his small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury" (quote from the original story). I'm sure I can't apply 21st century political correctness to a 19th century story but the scenes where Small fed his companion with raw meat in an earth hole were definitely not necessary in a 1983 production.

Still, this being the only thing that bothers me a bit, this is a great movie. Ian Richardson comes close to my idea of Holmes and is second in line for my favourite Holmes, Brett AND Rathbone being in the fist place.
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If you have eliminated the impossible...
gridoon29 May 2004
A handsome production, with atmospheric sets, picture-perfect casting and a welcome dose of humor, but somewhat spoiled by a few schlocky moments (like Holmes' fight with the cannibal dwarf) and an arguably wrong structure that reveals too much of the mystery, too soon. Still good for fans of the character or the genre. (**1/2)
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Vengeance and murder...the Great Mogul diamond...a raw-meat-eating midget who puffs death. Will Sherlock Holmes prevail?
Terrell-415 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"Another monograph?" says Dr. John Watson (David Healy), as he walks into the smoke-filled parlor at 221B Baker Street where he shares quarters with Mr. Sherlock Holmes (Ian Richardson). "Yes," says Holmes, adjusting a long row of burning cigars. "This is on the distinction between the ashes of the various tobaccos. So far, I have enumerated 93 forms of cigar, cigarette and pipe tobacco." This monograph, long thought lost, is now assumed to have been suppressed by the major tobacco companies in Britain and the United States.

With The Sign of Four we will encounter one of Holmes' most dangerous and resourceful villains in a story which features a one-legged man; a prison treasure map; a box of diamonds, emeralds and pearls; an Andaman native named Tonga with an appetite for raw meat; the second largest known diamond in the world, named The Great Mogul; the Baker Street Irregulars and enough bestial murder, greed and revenge to curdle the blood of the most innocent of young Victorian ladies.

The Sign of Four is the tale of the one-legged Jonathan Small and three other prisoners held in the British military prison on the Andaman Islands. They know where a fortune in jewels is buried there. Small's trust in Major John Sholto, the commander of the prison, is sadly misplaced. They help Sholto and Captain David Morstan locate the jewels on the promise that the fortune will be shared when they are released. However, Sholto takes the jewels back to London. When later Morstan arrives for his share, Sholto kills him. Sholto on his deathbed six years later tells his two sons of the treasure and insists that to wipe away Sholto's guilt. Captain Morstan's daughter must have Morstan's share. When one of the sons anonymously sends The Grand Mogul to Miss Mary Morstan (Cherie Lunghi), a trail of death and horror begins to work its way towards her in the person of the now-released Jonathan Small. With the animal-like Tonga by his side, with thick fog swirling through London's gas-lit streets, Small intends to have his vengeance...and all of the jewels. Only Sherlock Holmes, with Watson by his side, stands between Small and the frightened but brave and lovely Mary Morstan.

Executive producer Sy Weintraub arrived in Britain with the idea of making a series of made- for-TV feature length stories with Ian Richardson as Holmes. He managed only two, and it's our loss. This and the first film, Sherlock Holmes - The Hound of the Baskervilles, are given first-rate, exciting productions and good, tight scripts. A real pleasure in The Sign of Four is Holmes against a collection of side show freaks, including Holmes on a turning, ornate carousel trying to elude a poison-dart-puffing Tonga. Richardson is a fine and subtle actor who gives just a bit more warmth to Holmes than, say, Brett or Rathbone gave. I would be hard-pressed to say which I like best. Fortunately, it's possible to like all three.

"What a very attractive young woman," John Watson had said to Holmes as Miss Marston left their quarters after she met the two and pleaded for their help. He finds her so attractive that, in the fullness of time, she eventually will become Mrs. John Watson.

"Is she?" Holmes replied. "I didn't observe." We'll have to wait for Sherlock Holmes to encounter Miss Irene Adler for the next step in Holmes' personal development.

For fans of Sherlock Holmes, the two Richardson movies are well worth owning.
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Entertaining and fresh, but inferior to the Jeremy Brett version
TheLittleSongbird27 June 2010
I like the book very much, and love the Jeremy Brett version. This film was very entertaining and fresh, plus it was faithful while taking some strange liberties(ie. Small hiding the jewels in his wooden leg). The production values are excellent, the score haunting, the script well written, the river sequence superbly staged and the final solution magnificent. Then we have a great cast, Ian Richardon is suitably sly and sardonic which is what I mean by the adaptation's freshness, Cherie Lunghi is charming and David Healy is good as Watson. Joe Melia was the only disappointment for me, his Small lacked the wonderful understated approach that John Thaw conveyed so well in the Brett version. Then there are one or two scenes that are slightly lacking in atmosphere(Tonga wasn't as scary or as imposing this time around) and the direction is occasionally a little too slight. Overall, it is a good film and a solid adaptation. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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Good film, involving without being gripping
bob the moo24 February 2003
Miss Mary Morstan has been receiving jewels from an unknown source for some time when the anonymous man wants a meeting. She takes along Holmes and Watson and they uncover a years old pact regarding stolen treasure – the so called `four'. However Holmes finds that someone is killing off the four in the hunt for the treasure and must race to stop him and save the jewels.

Over the past few months I have been watching al to of the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films and have been enjoying them, but I thought I'd take another version and try it out. I heard good things about this version and they were mostly right – this is a good telling of the story, even if I struggled to follow some parts of it (my fault and not the film's!). The plot is a little duller than it should have been because we already know what's going on from the start as opposed to working it out with Holmes. However it is still enjoyable and has some exciting moments of action and good moments where Holmes deduces the clues!

The film also has a reasonable vein of good humour running through it and is funny at times. Happily this does not come from Watson being a buffoon of sorts. He is clearly Holmes' sidekick rather than equal but nonetheless he is certainly different from Bruce's playing. Richardson is a good Holmes and made me forget Rathbone, while Healy does quite well as Watson – although Bruce is forever in that role for me (even though I dislike that version of Watson). The rest of the cast are good and support the tale well.

Overall this is a good film with a worthy sense of time. It is a lot `straighter' that the Rathbone Holmes films but that is not a bad thing. Not a classic but certainly an enjoyable mystery film that is involving without being gripping.
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Ian Richardson has the nose
jcholguin19 June 2002
Having been a long time fan of both Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett in their portrayal of the world famous detective Sherlock Holmes, I always measure anyone playing the detective against these two. Ian Richardson has one very distinctive feature on his face, his nose, which was also the part I first noticed on Rathbone and Brett. So Richardson had the nose but could he be a Holmes? My answer is yes. The Sign of Four was an enjoyable film. The characters Jonathan Small and little Tonga were also very well cast. I know the story well and this film was very close to the story. Revenge, murder and the chase were all featured as well as the Bakersteet Irregulars. So if you like Holmes, give this feature a look.
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Ian Richardson makes this show worth watching
Paularoc23 May 2013
This television movie is a fair adaption of the Sherlock Holmes short novel 'The Sign of the Four.' While the basic storyline of the search for a treasure brought back to England from India is here as are all the characters from the original story, there are also a number of changes - some of which are minor and insignificant but a few of which are major changes. The biggest change is in the ending, a change that seems unnecessary and certainly does not improve the story. There is also some pointless padding to the story such as the carousel scene and the emphasis on Tonga. However, Ian Richardson's portrayal of Holmes is so wonderful that all else can be forgiven. Richardson portrays Holmes as "a man who has an extraordinary genius for small details," and is aloof without being cold, is confident without being arrogant and has an occasional sense of humor. Holmes' interaction with Inspector Layton at the Sholto house murder scene is so good that it's worth watching the movie just for that one scene.
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Gentlemen, the game's afoot
helpless_dancer23 February 2000
Holmes and Watson are called in to investigate a crime involving a year old murder and a box of priceless jewels. Holmes must deal with an ex-con and his murderous companion, who are bent on revenge and the retrieval of a large missing diamond. Another good Holmes adventure.
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Loose Adaptation
rmax3048236 June 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Ian Richardson as Holmes takes a little getting used to if you're carrying around the images of Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone. Richardson has the requisite look but his voice is a little high and piping, and he moves more slowly than either of the other notables.

The story is recognizable. It's Conan-Doyle's alright. There is Jonathan Small and his curious little companion. There's the Agra treasure stolen by Major Sholto. There's the puzzled Mary Morstan receiving a gem in the post. There are the Baker Street Irregulars, the dumb Scotland Yard detective, the locked room mystery, Toby the hound, and a chase down what is identifiably the Thames. Holmes deconstructs the character of Watson's poor brother, based solely on an examination of his watch. But instead of Holmes and Watson stumbling onto the murder of young Sholto and unraveling it on the spot, the murder is enacted for us, which robs the mystery of its mystery.

There are also all sorts of interpolations. The most jarring takes place at a shabby outdoor fair. Holmes, alone, chases Small and the dwarf on a merry-go-round and then through a ghost ride and a crazy mirror house out of "The Lady From Shanghai" but thoroughly pedestrian. The police launch not only catches up with Mordecai Smith's "Aurora" but Holmes takes off his jacket, leaps aboard the fleeing launch, and he and Small tumble into the river, turning Sherlock Holmes into a kind of small-time action figure.

The direction lacks imagination. Holmes is always in his cape and deerstalker hat and whenever the dwarf blows a poison dart, the act is accompanied by shrieking violins stolen from "Psycho." The acting is professional enough. Mary Morstan is winsome. But it strikes me that Watson displays too overtly his attraction to her. Of course she IS now the owner of "the second largest diamond in the world" but still -- Watson, reeking of cologne, practically salivates over her. Naked greed, that's what I call it. It's how this whole sorry affair got started.
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one fourth of what it could have been
soccermanz10 October 2007
The original story had all the ingredients to make a thoroughly gripping Film. But failed miserably in this version as even Cherie Lunghi was a pale imitation of what she was to become - so much so that I suspected that she must turn out to be an accomplice right to the end. Sherlock Holmes was turned into a warrior quite unlike anything every suggested by Sir Arthur Conn Doyle ? In fact it was Doctor Watson who showed what little common sense that was going. The boot blacked midget from the Andoman islands looked as though he could not fight his way out of a paper bag and what the villain was doing taking tea in Baker Street for a denouement was beyond anything that the old Scotland Yard could ever have dreamed up. So consign this TV Film to their Black Museum please.
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May cause indigestion
Leofwine_draca5 February 2013
THE SIGN OF FOUR, a Holmes adaptation featuring Ian Richardson as Conan Doyle's sleuth, is a follow up to the slightly disappointing TV production of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. THE SIGN OF FOUR is only slightly better, a perfectly atmospheric and well mounted production let down by a slightly stodgy script that's going to give more than a few viewers indigestion.

Things get off to a good start, with some fine opening titles and a plummy Thorley Walters menaced by a one-legged man. Once Holmes is introduced into the storyline, though, it slows down completely and becomes more than a little boring. There's something about Richardson that I just didn't care for in his portrayal as Holmes; he's too mannered, slightly self-conscious, that you can't forget that he's acting. I had the same trouble with Peter Cushing in the part.

Despite the presence of decent sets and costumes, the TV-movie atmosphere means that the scares and thrills are somewhat diluted. The characters are difficult to like, aside from Cherie Lunghi's damsel in distress, and there's something slightly silly about having a dwarf in blackface as one of the villains. THE SIGN OF FOUR isn't bad by any means, but it's distinctly average all the same. It may be that the written stories are just so good nobody will ever do them justice.
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my comment
9901675310 January 2000
This is the first of the two Richardson Sherlock Holmes stories This again is a faithful adaption of the story. I enjoy watching this as some of the stunts are well filmed including the thames boat chase.
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THE SIGN OF FOUR {TV} (Desmond Davis, 1983) **1/2
Bunuel197627 October 2013
This was stage actor Ian Richardson's second stab at playing master sleuth Sherlock Holmes in the same year; while quite fine in the role, he does occasionally resort to hamminess. Both films were sourced from two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's more popular stories and, in fact, I also own the 1932 movie and 1968 TV versions of it (but have yet to watch either and will need to wait for a subsequent Holmes marathon!); the latter stars horror icon Peter Cushing and, for what it is worth, here we get genre regular Thorley Walters in a brief but pivotal role. The central mystery – involving loot, a map, betrayal, and a peg-legged villain – owes something to R.L. Stevenson's "Treasure Island", yet also incorporating a welcome macabre element in the presence throughout of a cannibalistic pygmy! Similarly unexpected, though, is the incongruity of having Dr. Watson smitten with the detectives' latest client (played here by Cherie Lunghi); however, an obtuse Scotland Yard Inspector – basically a given in any Holmes case – is on hand to counter with logical (and, by intimation, comical) reasoning the intelligent (and, obviously, correct) deduction supplied by the famed occupant of 221B Baker Street. For the record, the 1991 TV- movie THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD (with Charlton Heston and Richard Johnson as Holmes and Watson respectively) is an alternate retelling of the tale which I also have yet to catch up with, despite having been regularly shown on that medium in my neck of the woods...
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