The eighth entry in the Rathbone/Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes films, The Scarlet Claw is one of the best. This brilliantly-crafted mystery keeps the viewer guessing until the end.
A completely original story, not based on any of the Conan Doyle stories, it takes place in Canada, so Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson) and Dennis Hoey (Lestrade) are not seen in this film.
The foggy marsh, and the tolling bell in the old church create a foreboding atmosphere, and the acting is first rate.
The story begins in a little Canadian village called La Morte Rouge, where something has been killing sheep by tearing their throats open. The body of Lady Penrose is found with her throat similarly ripped open. In Quebec, where Holmes and Watson are attending a
meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society with Lord Penrose, Holmes learns that Lady Penrose has been murdered. When Holmes receives a letter from her stating that she fears her life is in danger, he and Watson travel to La Morte Rouge to investigate. Holmes comments to Watson, "For the first time we've been retained by a corpse."
Holmes addresses the Occult Society in Quebec,
commenting on the importance of the correct interpretation of
"For the first time we've been retained by a corpse."
The villagers believe the killer is a legendary monster or phantom that lives in the marshes. Holmes, however, believes the fiend is flesh and blood, with a motive for killing Lady Penrose. When Holmes sees the body of Lady Penrose, he recognizes her as the actress Lillian Gentry, who disappeared several years previously. Eventually he deduces that the murderer is Alistair Ramson, an actor who was imprisoned for killing another actor in a jealous rage over Lillian Gentry. When this man escaped from
prison, he came to La Morte Rouge. Using various disguises and his talent as an actor, Alistair Ramson has lived inconspicuously among the
villagers for the past three years. Holmes must figure out which of the villagers is the murderer. Holmes says to Watson, "Alistair Ramson has established a character, perhaps several others, who are by now familiar to the people of La Morte Rouge and quite above suspicion."
Two other people whose lives are in danger are Judge Brisson, who sentenced
Ramson, and the innkeeper Journet, who was a guard at the prison. Holmes sets a trap for the killer
using Journet as the bait. Ramson's disguise is revealed, solving the mystery.
The final scene shows Holmes and Watson driving to the coast, from where
they will sail to England. Holmes closes the film with a speech which he credits to Winston Churchill: "Canada—lynchpin of the English speaking world, whose relations of friendly intimacy with the United States on the one hand and her unswerving fidelity to the British Commonwealth and the motherland on the other. Canada—the link which joins together these great branches of the human family."
Holmes, wearing Journet's hat and coat,
lures the killer into the open.
As he and Watson leave La Morte Rouge, Holmes quotes Winston
Watch the trailer for The Scarlet Claw:
The working title of the film was Sherlock
Holmes in Canada.
George Robinson, the cinematographer for this film, was also the
cinematographer for Son of Frankenstein.
Filming began in January 1944 and was completed already in
La Morte Rouge is French for "the red death."
The Scarlet Claw was the first film of the Sherlock
Holmes series for which Roy William Neill co-authored the
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in spiritualism; he would have
been interested in the Occult Society meeting that Holmes and
The following are reviews that were published when The Scarlet Claw
was first shown in theaters:
Substantially-produced and Exciting Murder Mystery,
Well-acted and Sure to Score
Good acting and a good original story
based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make The Scarlet
Claw a gripping meller,—with no pun intended. The action is fast and
exciting, and all segments of fandom will be solidly entertained by
it. Theatermen should make note not only of the film's
contained-assets, but also of the fact that the team of Basil Rathbone,
as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson, has built up a
very wide following, particularly through their radio appearance in
the Sherlock Holmes series. Rathbone reflects well the sharp
attributes of Holmes, but there has been a compromise in the instance
of Bruce who is made to carry a comedy role which is too extreme, just
for the sake of providing lilting contrast here and there to the
otherwise stark happenings. Bruce, being an excellent trouper, proves
right up to the assignment. But it is a departure from the Watson of
Doyle. For the relatively few minutes Kay Harding is on the screen,
she gives some glamour to the proceedings. The story, penned by Paul
Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg, recounts the apprehending of Gerald
Hamer whose identity baffles his fellow townfolks and Holmes because
of the strong of murders he commits while in various disguises. The
criminal, through use of a five-pronged hand-weeder, conveys the idea
that a beast is the killer. Roy William Neill both produced and
directed the film. It's a solid job.
—The Film Daily, June 6, 1944, p. 3
Watson and Holmes at the inn in La Morte Rouge, Kay Harding ("Marie
Journet") in background
Holmes examines a piece of cloth treated with phosphorus, evidence
that the "monster" is human.
In The Scarlet Claw, Sherlock Holmes, played
by Basil Rathbone, and Dr. Watson, portrayed by Nigel Bruce, carry on
the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle characters with the deft touch.
Aided by chilling fog on the marshlands, a well-planted fear of the
mysterious "monsters" among the villagers, the mystery builds
suspense, capped by action, and touches of Dr. Watson's stuffy,
whimsical humor in just the right dosages.
At Le Morte Rouge Holmes
discovers that the murder of Lady Penrose, former actress, could not
have been done by a monster in whom her husband, a student of the
occult, believes, as do the natives. He and Watson track down the
murderer, who proves to be an escaped actor-murderer, who had created
several characters for himself among the villagers. Roy William Neill
produced and directed from a screenplay written in collaboration with
Edmund L. Hartmann from an original by Paul Gangelin and Brenda
Weisberg. Gerald Hamer provides excellent menace as the slayer, while
Paul Cavanaugh deliver well, and Kay Harding shows promise as the
winsome daughter of the village innkeeper.
—Motion Picture Daily, May 2, 1944, p. 11
Holmes questions Sgt. Thompson
Holmes and Judge Brisson
Holmes Wins Again
Sherlock Holmes, as played by
Basil Rathbone, presses relentlessly on the trail of a "monster"
criminal in "The Scarlet Claw," latest of the Universal mysteries
based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle characters. He is assisted by the
stuffy, but lovable, Dr. Watson, portrayed by Nigel Bruce.
Holmes comes to Le Morte Rouge, a little village near Quebec, after
Lady Penrose, a former actress, is murdered in circumstances that lead
her husband, a student of the occult, and the villagers to suspect a
ghostly monster. He adroitly unravels the murder and several
subsequent killings, almost meeting death himself at the hands of the
paranoiac actor-murderer escaped from prison.
Roy William Neill produced from a screenplay he wrote in
collaboration with Edmund L. Hartmann from an original by Paul
Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg.
—review by Jack Cartwright, Motion Picture Herald, April 29, 1944, p. 1867
Holmes tricks Judge Brisson into revealing
that he's not crippled.
A fair addition to Universal's series of mystery
melodramas based on the adventures of "Sherlock Holmes"; it should
have no trouble satisfying as a supporting feature. This time "Holmes"
uses his amazing powers of deduction to unravel several murders
committed by a mystic killer, a ghostly monster who runs amok on the
Canadian marshes and terrifies the natives of a French-Canadian
village. Like most of the stories in the series, this one, too, is
far-fetched, but it has enough action and suspense to sustain one's
interest all the way through.
The reappearance on the fog-shrouded
Canadian marshes of the legendary monster of La Morte Rouge, a village
near Quebec, frightens the townspeople. At a meeting of the royal
Canadian Occult Society, in Quebec, Paul Cavanaugh, an English
nobleman, who lived in the village, is unable to convince Sherlock
Holmes (Basil Rathbone) that psychic phenomena was the basis of the
crimes committed by the murderous apparition. In the midst of the
meeting word arrives that Cavanaugh's wife had been murdered by the
"monster." Holmes, together with Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), his friend,
goes to La Morte Rouge to investigate. He searches the treacherous
marshes and narrowly escapes death at the "monster's" hands, himself.
He manages, however, to obtain a clue that convinces him that the
monster was one of the townspeople in disguise. Through further
investigation Holmes establishes that the killer was a paranoiac
ex-actor, an escaped murderer, who sought vengeance on a group of
people connected with his conviction, among whom was Cavanaugh's wife,
who had been a former actress. After several subsequent killings,
Holmes succeeds in trapping the murderer and ridding the townspeople
of their fears.
Edmund L. Hartman and Roy William Neill wrote the
screen play, and Mr. Neill produced and directed it. the cast includes
Arthur Hohl, Lou Harding, Miles Mander and others. Morally
—Harrison's Reports, May 13, 1944, p. 78
Holmes enlists Journet's help to set a trap for the killer.
The killer aims a gun at Holmes.
Audience Slant: (Family) Excellent Sherlock Holmes
tale with speed and suspense.
Box-Office Slant: Strong support on
any bill; best of the series to date.
Plot: The famous sleuth, vacationing in Canada is called in to help
solve several murders believed to have been caused by a legendary
monster who is terrorizing the countryside again. While searching for
the monster, Holmes narrowly escapes death on the fog-shrouded
marshes. By working out a clever trap, Holmes captures the beast and
surprises everyone when he reveals the true identity of the killer.
Comment: Actually developing the flair that has characterized the
Sherlock Holmes tales and delighted several generations of detective
story readers, Roy William Neill, producer and director, has here
added improvement to an already well presented series. Despite the
transfer to the present time by laying the scene in Canada, talking
about a plane trip, and riding in an automobile, there isn't the
slightest conflict with the Holmes the Conan Doyle addicts remember so
fondly. Here, Holmes makes an ectoplasmic ghost and monster come to
life and pay the penalty for murder, while Dr. Watson supplies the
foil for his comments and for such smiles and laughs which are run in
without impeding the pace of the action. Like most good mysteries,
suspicion is thrown on several people, but in each case Holmes dispels
the suspicion with a neat deduction. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
have fallen into the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson so
perfectly that one no longer thinks in terms of a good acting role
well done. They are the characters to the life. The excellence of
their work should not distract from the fact that Roy William Neill,
who produced, directed and joined in the writing of the screenplay,
has almost fallen into the part which traditionally goes to A. Conan
Doyle, author of the famous tales. Sell this newest of the series like
its predecessors. The theme of occult phenomena is a good one to rig
up a debate between spiritualists and those who deny its existence.
Such a debate will attract many people and would be worth the small
loss of time from your continuous run.
—Showman's Trade Review, April 29, 1944, p. 13
Holmes and Lord Penrose
Universal has resorted to original stories to
continue the Sherlock Holmes series, but it is very apparent they
don't measure up to the Conan Doyle plots, despite the presence of
psychic phenomena, apparitions and premonitions, with the result that
the entire thing wears thin. Picture should be fair for the duals.
This one finds the indomitable Holmes and blundering Dr. Watson in a
French-Canadian village, investigating the mysterious reappearance of
a legendary monster. Of course, there are the usual number of grisly
murders and suspects, fog-shrouded marshes and deserted houses to lend
the proper atmosphere to the proceedings, together with a very
talkative murderer, and a thoroughly detached ending, in which Holmes
delivers a Churchill speech eulogizing Canada.
Basil Rathbone is his customary grim and infallible Holmes, with
Nigel Bruce a good foil in providing a few droll scenes, while the
others are all properly suspicious looking.
—Variety, May 24, 1944, p. 10
Holmes questions Journet.
See Page Two for screenshots from the
film. See Page Three for pictures of posters,
lobby cards and promo photos.
Nigel Bruce ...
Arthur Hohl ...
Kay Harding ...
Miles Mander ...
Ian Wolfe ...
George Kirby ...
Frank O'Connor ...
Harry Allen ...
Olaf Hytten ...
Hotel Desk Clerk
Charles Francis ...
Brandon Beach ...
member of Occult Society
William Desmond ...
member of Occult Society
Eric Mayne ...
member of Occult Society
Count Stefenelli ...
member of Occult Society
Norbert Muller ...
Roy William Neill, Howard Benedict
Roy William Neill
Roy William Neill, Edmund Hartmann
Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg
Film Editing ...
Music Director ...
Art Directors ...
John B. Goodman, Ralph M. DeLacy
John P. Fulton
Russell A. Gausman, Ira S. Webb
Jack P. Pierce
Sound director ...
Bernard B. Brown
Sound technician ...
Dialogue director ...
this page and pages 2 and 3 are from the film The Scarlet Claw.