The Pearl of Death (1944)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1944
Case: The Six Napoleons


Loosely adapted from Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, The Pearl of Death pits Holmes against a master thief bent on stealing the Black Pearl of the Borgias. At times suspenseful, at times humourous, The Pearl of Death is quite enjoyable, despite differing significantly from the original story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Rathbone once again lives up to his reputation in this film. He’s charming, clever, amusing, and very much in keeping with the character of Sherlock Holmes. This film is particularly noteworthy as it features Rathbone as a disguised Sherlock Holmes (on several occasions, actually). Rathbone easily slides into Holmes’ characters; a reflection of Rathbone’s talent as an actor. In fact, there were several occasions when I questioned whether an introduced character was in fact Holmes in disguise.

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

Bruce’s Watson has always been significantly more bungling than the Watson of Canon. While true in this film, it is not nearly as jarring as it has been in previous films. It is, however, quite obvious that Bruce’s Watson exists largely for his comic relief. Sadly, this tends to be slapstick, which, while amusing to a good number of fans, is not at all in keeping with the humour found in Canon.

Delightful Elements

Oddly enough, one of the things I liked about this film was that Holmes was portrayed as fallible. In fact, it is Holmes’ mistake that causes the pearl to be stolen in the first place. Too often Holmes is portrayed as being incapable of error, and we know from Canon that this is not the case –Holmes often made mistakes. It was interesting, then, to see an original take on Holmes blundering.

This theme had the added benefit of showing the fallout. Holmes’ reputation gets dragged through the mud, and it’s left to Watson to defend his Holmes. Indeed, Watson goes so far as to punch a reporter in his defence of Holmes.

I was also quite fond of the costumes in this film. Usually I find myself bothered by the era change, but the mid-forties era costumes allowed Holmes to adopt a faux fur fedora, which was easily the most pimping hat I have ever seen. This hat, of course, appears moments before Holmes and Watson are shot at. This is quite the brilliant scene, for Holmes grabs Watson and drags him around a corner, and then, in a show of great chivalry, Holmes cowers behind Watson, seeking his protection. It was quite amusing, and yet, quite adorable at the same time.

I want to touch on the plot, now, for it presented several interesting elements. The plot itself was quite ridiculous, but the mystery was well portrayed. I often couldn’t tell where the story was going, and so I was kept in a sort of perpetual suspense. Although the story was meant to be an adaptation of The Six Napoleons, it deviates significantly, until only the core of the story is recognizable. That being said, again several elements from Canon were pulled into the film, and this was exceptionally well done.

In one scene we have Holmes examining cigar ash, and this calls to mind several of the stories found in Canon. There is a scene involving a knife hidden in a book with a coil trigger, the knife meant to shoot outward when the book is opened. This is very reminiscent of The Dying Detective. Then there is Holmes’ joke, Holmes stating that if he can’t get the pearl back, he will retire to Sussex and keep bees. There are several dozen or so such nods to Canon, and these elements were quite enjoyable.

Finally, the story ends with Holmes and Watson, and this, combined with their tactility, Watson’s concern for Holmes, and Holmes’ vulnerability in this film, makes for quite the slash friendly adaptation.


While I was initially amused by the scene in which Watson hides the pearl in his mouth (it did tie in well with an earlier complaint I’d made when I suggested that Watson’s mumbling made me think he had a mouth full of marbles), they did this twice and on both occasions I found it rather odd. I know it was intended for comic relief, and yet, while the first time would have been fine, the joke became redundant after the second occurrence.

There is also a scene in which Watson and Lestrade knock heads, and this was quite depressing. While this type of comedy was very much in style at the time (viewers will immediately call to mind The Three Stooges) it is not at all relevant in terms of Canon. While I confess that I do not enjoy Dennis Hoey as Lestrade, I still feel the character of Lestrade was due more respect. Watson, too, although this will hardly come as news to those who have read my previous reviews. Interestingly enough, I do believe Hoey’s Lestrade had somewhat of a crush on Holmes, so his character was not without merit.

One of the deviations from the original story that did not work for me was the addition of The Creeper. I’m not entirely certain what this character’s role was intended to be, but his inclusion seemed out of sorts. Then, of course, there was the fact that they refused to show him, keeping him in shadows and showing only his silhouette. This was meant, no doubt, to create suspense, and perhaps I am simply too far removed from the era, but I found it quite frustrating.

Finally, and I couldn’t quite decide whether to include this in quibbles or delightful elements, but there is a scene in which the police are trying to break down a door and get to Holmes. Holmes opens the door a moment later to announce that both The Creeper and Giles Conover (the master thief) are dead. Before this happens, however, Lestrade is barking orders to his two uniformed officers, and they are throwing themselves against the door. The scene goes a little something like this:

Lestrade: That’s it.

Officers: (thrust at door in unison)

Lestrade: Give it some more.

Officers: (thrust at door in unison)

This sounds quite innocent, and yet, there was something in the lack of force that made the officers look as though they were simply dry-humping the door. With Lestrade cheering them on, this was both amusing, and distracting. With Watson standing back and watching (quite eagerly, I might add), this was quite alarming. It was as though Lestrade was directing a bad porn movie, while Watson was filming it.

Overall, though, I quite enjoyed the film. It’s not quite as good as The Spider Woman, but it’s certainly better than a lot of the other Rathbone/Bruce films I have seen. It earns 3 out of 5 pipes.