Monday, March 7, 2016


FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *comedy*

SCARLET CLAW is the eighth of the Rathbone-Bruce "Sherlock Holmes" films. Being one of the Universal entries, it was filmed on a lower budget than the first two films from 20th-Century Fox-- and yet, this 1944 film is an improvement on 1939s classic HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in a couple of ways. The serial murderer in CLAW follows the same pattern as the Hound, using phosphorescent minerals to make himself seem like a ghostly apparition-- but the spooky visuals by director Roy William Neill come off much better than the comparable scenes in Sidney Lanfield's effort. In addition, the villain-- an actor-turned-criminal, who boasts considerable disguise-skills-- proves a much more formidable opponent for Rathbone's Holmes than did the master of the Hound.

Many Holmes movies prove a little too pat in allowing the Great Detective to anticipate the intentions of his adversaries, but CLAW is not one of them. Holmes and Watson, attending a conference in Canada, are called upon to investigate a gentlewoman's murder in a small town with the very French name of La Mort Rouge (though everyone in the village bears a very typical "Hollywood Brit" look). The "claw" of the title is attributed to a legendary monster, but it's actually (as shown in the above still) a simple metal instrument, with which the villain commits his murders. Holmes and Watson not only fail to run down the "monster" on their first encounter with him, they also fail to prevent two of his killings, and only manage to defeat him by using a third target as bait. There is therefore a greater sense in CLAW of the frailty of human life, with a strong mourning-performance by Arthur Hohl in particular.

Going to the other extreme is Gene Wilder's first effort as both writer and director, 1975's THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER. The premise is that the Great Detective didn't have just one other brother-- (the well-chronicled older brother Mycroft, who makes frequent appearances in Sherlockiana-- but also a younger one named Sigerson. Sigerson (Wilder) has also taken up the role of a consulting private detective in imitation of his more famed brother, but he hasn't precisely set the world on fire.

Sherlock himself, in concert with Doctor Watson, seeks to protect a valuable item, the Redcliffe Document, from falling into the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty. The Wilder script doesn't trouble itself with the threat presented by the document-- which is no more than your basic Hitchcockean "MacGuffin." In any case, Sherlock decides to use Sigerson as a decoy by sending him a case: music-hall singer Jenny (Madeline Kahn), who knows more than she admits about the blackmailer who plans to sell the document to Moriarty. Sherlock also sends Sigerson his own assistant, Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman),

In the tradition of the Mel Brooks comedies that had contributed to Wilder's fame, SMARTER is filled with wild slapstick scenes, many of which spoof the tropes of Sherlock-fiction. Overall the film holds together better than most Brooks-imitations-- including many of those Brooks himself made in his later years. The best scenes take place between Wilder, Khan, and Feldman-- who had worked together in 1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN-- and to Wilder's credit, his portrait of the frenetic, overcompensating Sigerson remains persuasive.

On the negative side, other performers have little to do but to mug and to beat on each other, a particular example being an overlong scene between Leo McKern (as Moriarty) and Dom DeLuise (as Gambetti, an opera-singer who's also the blackmailer with the document). As might be expected, in the end Sigerson manages to remove himself from the shadow of Sherlock, engaging the Great Detective's arch-villain in a spirited swordfight.

There's only one element in the film that qualifies it for metaphenomenal status: a scene in which Sigerson and Sacker are imprisoned in a small room which has been rigged with a moving buzzsaw, set to chop any inhabitants to ribbons. However, while some versions of Moriarty have used assorted uncanny devices, like the trap-filled house in SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, this "guest room" is actually the possession of Gambetti. Wilder's script does not explain why an opera-singer would just happen to have a buzzsaw-execution room in his domicile.

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