The Scarlet Claw
(1944), 74 min. b&w

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 facts.

"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: "Canadalynchpin 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. Canadathe 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 Churchill.

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 February!
  • 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 screenplay.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in spiritualism; he would have been interested in the Occult Society meeting that Holmes and Watson attended.


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 unobjectionable.

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.


Basil Rathbone ... Sherlock Holmes
Nigel Bruce ... Dr. Watson
Gerald Hamer ... Potts
Paul Cavanaugh ... Lord Penrose
Arthur Hohl ... Emile Journet
Kay Harding ... Marie Journet
Miles Mander ... Judge Brisson
David Clyde ... Sgt. Thompson
Ian Wolfe ... Drake
Victoria Horne ... Nora
George Kirby ... Father Pierre
Frank O'Connor ... cab driver
Harry Allen ... Taylor (storekeeper)
Olaf Hytten ... Hotel Desk Clerk
Charles Francis ... Sir John
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 ... Page-boy
Production Company ... Universal
Producers ... Roy William Neill, Howard Benedict
Director ... Roy William Neill
Screenplay ... Roy William Neill, Edmund Hartmann
Story ... Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg
Cinematographer ... George Robinson
Film Editing ... Paul Landres
Music Director  ... Paul Sawtell
Art Directors ... John B. Goodman, Ralph M. DeLacy
Special Effects ... John P. Fulton
Set Decoration ... Russell A. Gausman, Ira S. Webb
Makeup artist... Jack P. Pierce
Sound director ... Bernard B. Brown
Sound technician ... Robert Pritchard
Dialogue director ... Stacy Keach

Images on this page and pages 2 and 3 are from the film The Scarlet Claw.


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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2016