The Pearl of Death
(1944), 69 minutes b&w

The Pearl of Death, the ninth film in the Rathbone/Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes films, was inspired by or loosely based on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons." In the Conan Doyle story, Lestrade consults Holmes to solve the mystery of why someone is breaking into homes and smashing plaster busts of Napoleon. At this point in the story, they know nothing about the pearl. Holmes eventually deduces that the famous black pearl of the Borgias was hidden in a plaster bust of Napoleon. The pearl had been stolen from the Prince of Colonna by the Princess' maid, and an accomplice hid the pearl in a bust of Napoleon. The only person murdered was Pietro, the brother of the maid, and he was killed by the accomplice who hid the pearl.

The film is quite different. It pits Holmes against a slimy villain called Giles Conover, who is assisted by Naomi Drake and a huge, hideous killer called the "Creeper." On board a ship crossing the English Channel, Holmes, disguised as an elderly clergyman, outwits Naomi Drake (Conover's pretty accomplice) after she steals the Borgia pearl from a courier for the Royal Regent Museum. 

Holmes proudly turns over the pearl to the curator of the museum and it is put on display. However, in his eagerness to demonstrate how inadequate the museum security is, Holmes disconnects the alarm system, thereby inadvertently allowing Giles Conover to steal the pearl. Holmes is thoroughly discredited and derided in the newspapers.  Even Lestrade laughs at him. (Conan Doyle is no doubt rolling over in his grave now.) With the police on his heels, Conover ducks into a pottery shop workroom and hides the pearl in the base of a wet plaster bust of Napoleon. 


Removing his "elderly clergyman" disguise, Holmes says of Conover, "If I could free society of this sinister creature, I should feel my own career had reached its summit."

Lestrade chuckles at Holmes's faux pas.

Conover is arrested, but without evidence, the police can only hold him for 48 hours. Over those two days while Conover is imprisoned, six busts of Napoleon, including the one containing the pearl, are sold. One by one, Conover tracks down the owners of the busts, and then uses a back-breaking brute, the Oxton Creeper, to kill them. 

Investigating the first murder, Holmes suspects a connection to the theft of the pearl. Since the body is found in a litter of broken china, Holmes deduces that the killer was searching for something. Holmes knows he's on the right track after Conover, disguised as a former client, visits Baker Street and leaves a large book for Holmes. The book actually contains a springing knife, intended to kill Holmes when he opens the book. Thanks to Holmes' familiarity with tobacco ash, he realizes that the visitor was not who he pretended to be, and is suspicious of the book.


Holmes opens Conover's book with a walking stick, thus saving his life. 

Holmes and Watson examine busts of Beethoven at the pottery shop.

Two more murders occur and the bodies are also found in a litter of broken china. Holmes and Watson are able to find pieces of a Napoleon bust in the broken china from each murder scene. They question the museum guard who admits that Conover ran into a pottery shop just before he was captured. Gelder, the pottery shop owner, sends them to Amos Hodder, a London shopkeeper who bought six busts of Napoleon. Holmes recognizes the young woman working in the shop as Naomi Drake, and he learns that she broke two busts of Napoleon on her first day there. The other four busts were in turn sold to four different people: the three murder victims and Dr. Julian Boncourt.  


Holmes interviews Amos Hodder 
to find out who bought the Napoleon busts.

Holmes surprises Conover.

Realizing that Dr. Boncourt will be the next victim, Holmes disguises himself as the doctor and waits for Conover in the doctor's surgery. While Conover holds a gun on Holmes, Holmes tricks the Creeper into turning on his master, and then Holmes shoots the Creeper.

After Watson arrives with the police, Holmes breaks open Dr. Boncourt's bust of Napoleon and finds the Borgia pearl. Holmes comments thoughtfully, "The Borgia pearl...with the blood of five more victims on it." To which Watson says, "Anyway, Conover was one of them." Holmes continues, "What's Conover? No more than a symbol of the greed and cruelty and the lust for power that has set men at each other's throats down through the centuries. The struggle will go on, Watson, for a pearl, a kingdom, perhaps even world dominion...until the greed and cruelty has been burned out of every one of us, and when that time comes perhaps even the pearl will be washed clean again."

Even though the similarity to Conan Doyle's story is only slight, The Pearl of Death is nevertheless a very entertaining film with its share of action and suspense.  The atmosphere, especially in the final scene with the Creeper, is gripping. The sets are wonderful in their detail. Look for the Persian slipper and other well-known Holmesian artifacts in the 221B Baker St. set. The extras and details in the museum set and Gelder's pottery shop also give them an appearance of authenticity. 

Several clever disguises are used in this film: Naomi as a matchgirl, a shopgirl, and a kitchen helper; Conover as a bibliophile and a museum workman; and Holmes as an elderly clergyman and Dr. Boncourt. In addition, Holmes impersonates Conover's voice on the telephone. Rathbone actually does imitate Miles Mander's voice--it's not dubbed. 

The film also contains humorous dialogue such as the following, after Lestrade reports the murder of Horace Harker* to Holmes and Watson: 

   

Holmes: "Here's your coat, Watson. We're giving Lestrade a hand."
Watson: "But the Borgia pearl!"
Holmes: "It's the Borgia pearl we're after!"
Lestrade: "I don't want a hand!"
   

*There is also a Horace Harker in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," but he is a newspaper reporter, and he wasn't murdered.

The TV Guide Motion Picture Database review of this film erroneously states that the thief hid the pearl in one of six busts of Beethoven. (There were busts of Beethoven in Gelder's shop when Holmes and Watson questioned Gelder.)

Although the Creeper was killed at the end of The Pearl of Death, the public liked the character so well that Rondo Hatton was cast in the role of the Creeper in Jungle Captive, House of Horrors, and The Spider Woman Strikes Back.

See more pictures from The Pearl of Death on Page Two and Page Three.

.Watch the trailer for The Pearl of Death:

 

 

 

Cast

 

Credits

 

Basil Rathbone ............ Sherlock Holmes Production Co. ............. Universal
Nigel Bruce .................. Dr. Watson   Producer ........................ Roy William Neill
Evelyn Ankers ............ Naomi Drake   Director ......................... Roy William Neill
Dennis Hoey ............... Insp. Lestrade   Screenplay .................... Bertram Milhauser
Miles Mander ............. Giles Conover   Cinematographer .......... Virgil Miller
Ian Wolfe .................... Amos Hodder   Editor ............................. Ray Snyder
Charles Francis .......... Digby   Music Director ............. Paul Sawtell
Holmes Herbert .......... James Goodram   Art Directors ................ John B. Goodman
Richard Nugent .......... Bates Museum Guard   Martin Obzina
Mary Gordon .............. Mrs. Hudson      
Rondo Hatton ............ The Creeper      
J. Welsh Austin ......... Sgt. Bleeker      
Connie Leon ............... Ellen Carey      
Charles Knight ........... Bearded Man      
Al Ferguson ............... Guard
Colin Kenny ............... Guard      
Audrey Manners ........ Teacher      
Billy Bevan ................. Constable      
Lillian Bronson ........... Maj. Harker's Housekeeper    
Leslie Denison .......... Constable Murdock      
John Merkyl .............. Dr. Boncourt        
Harry Cording ............ George Gelder        
Eric Wilton ................. Chauffeur        
Harold de Becker ........ Boss        
Arthur Mulliner .......... Sandeford        
Wilson Benge ............. Steward        
Arthur Stenning .......... Steward        
Leyland Hodgson ....... Customs Officer        

.

Back to Sherlock Holmes films

The Pearl of Death is available on DVD:

Click to order
DVD also available as part of The Sherlock Holmes Collection, Volume 2:

Click to order

 

 

click to go to top of page
Top of
Page

Site Map

All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2012