The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
Dr. Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1944
Case: original script


In a tribute to wartime Canada, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson find themselves in a small Quebecois town investigating the seemingly paranormal death of several of the town’s inhabitants. Borrowing heavily from the atmosphere found in The Hounds of the Baskervilles, The Scarlet Claw pits Holmes against the supernatural, but, whereas Hound felt genuine, it is quite obvious that this story is a pastiche. Still, The Scarlet Claw is a highly entertaining film, and can easily be classified as one of Rathbone’s better SH films.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

As always, Rathbone shines in this film. Perhaps it was the return of his pimp hat, or perhaps it was simply the way he gazed longingly at Bruce throughout the film; either way, Scarlet Claw sees Rathbone at his best.

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

On occasion, Bruce is quite charming in this film. Sadly, these occasions are few and far between, and the rest of the time we are merely reminded of how diminished this Watson made these films. Although Bruce does manage to portray Watson’s fierce loyalty and never-ending devotion to Holmes, this side of Watson takes a backseat to Bruce’s bungling and mumbling.

Delightful Elements

I must first confess that this film appeal to me, first and foremost, for its location. As a Canadian, with a Francophone background, I was delighted to see that this story was set in a small Quebecois town. I will confess that I was a little disappointed in the lack of accents, but as the quaintness of region was explored, I soon forgave the film for populating a northern Quebec town with Anglophones. The fact that the entire supporting cast were clad in toques and plaid certainly helped their cause.

Location aside, this film also managed to carry off an incredibly thrilling (and often suspenseful) atmosphere that was very reminiscent of The Hound of the Baskervilles: a long favourite story of mine, and many other Sherlockians, I am sure. I was instantly drawn, not just to the tale, but to the dark, foggy, and often sinister-seeming sets.

The plot, too, was quite gripping. In fact, of all the original Holmes adaptations found in Rathbone’s films, this certainly felt the most authentic. The story was engaging, unpredictable, and told at a pace that kept the film suspenseful and yet never left the audience wanting. The theme of a natural explanation behind a supernatural event was also well handled; and, indeed, quite in keeping with Holmes’ character.

The supporting characters were also quite interesting, and this I wasn’t expecting from a Rathbone film. These stories are, after all, about Holmes, and so a strong supporting cast is not often necessary. I rather enjoyed the amusing backdrop of characters found within Scarlet Claw.

Finally, while not quite as slashy as some of Rathbone’s previous (and later) films, the chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce is still quite apparent. Rathbone remains quite tactile, and touches Bruce often. He also manages to drag his eyes over Bruce’s form on several occasions.

Indeed, Holmes spends a good deal of time teasing Watson (mercilessly, at times, but it’s done with what appears to be genuine affection). Perhaps, however, the most slash-worthy scene occurs in their (single-room) hotel. Holmes informs Watson that he intends to go to sleep, and then proceeds to strip in front of Watson before climbing into one of two twin beds, situated literally a foot apart. That this scene is soon followed by Holmes ordering Watson out of his clothes amuses me beyond comprehension.

There are a dozen or so such scenes, each of them featuring Holmes and Watson as a loving (and clearly married) couple, and while these scenes are not as prevalent as some of Rathbone’s other films, they are still quite enjoyable.


Perhaps the biggest quibble which comes to mind is that this film did not feature a lot of Holmes/Watson. There was a lot of Holmes, and a lot of Watson, but the two rarely appear together on screen. As my interest in viewing these adaptations is largely fueled by my interest in Holmes/Watson (as a couple), films that neglect their interaction do not generally appeal to me. That being said, there was certainly enough slash to keep me entertained, but overall I would have preferred for Holmes to have demonstrated a little more faith in his Watson.

The lack of Holmes/Watson I can easily forgive, but it is far more difficult to forgive (or even forget) Watson’s bungling. It is Watson’s bungling (and, indeed, mumbling) which distracts the most from this film, turning what would otherwise be an ideal SH film into one that does not rank high on my list. Sadly, Watson’s idiocy is not limited to one or two scenes, but reoccurs again and again throughout the film.

There is the scene in which Watson gets drunk; this despite the fact that his antics inevitably let Holmes down (something Watson would never do). There are the two ‘Watson falling in the bog’ scenes, which were so horrific I can barely stand to recall them. There was the ‘Watson falling down the stairs’ scene, and while we should mention that it was this act which saved Holmes’ life, it was still quite disparaging to see Watson abused in such a manner.

Finally, the ending was a touch over-dramatic, and a tad predictable, both of which seemed out of place compared to the rest of the film (which managed the climb to climax with a good deal of grace). I was not fond of Holmes’ Churchill speech, either, but this should come as a surprise to no one. Finally, I still can’t quite figure out why Holmes and Watson were in Canada to begin with. It certainly made for an unusual vacation destination.

Overall, I quite liked this film, but sadly there were elements which I simply could not forgive. For this reason, it earns a mere 3 out of 5 pipes.