The Sign of [the] Four (1932)

Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Wontner
Dr. Watson: Ian Hunter
Year: 1932
Case: The Sign of the Four


A note on plot

This film, more or less, depicts the Sign of [the] Four. It’s not quite accurate in terms of Canon, but enough that it’s recognizable. I think IMDB’s summary describes it best: A young woman turns to Sherlock Holmes for protection when she’s menaced by an escaped killer seeking missing treasure. However, when the woman is kidnapped, Holmes and Watson must penetrate the city’s criminal underworld to find her. It should be noted, however, that this adaptation is set in the 1930s, rather than the 1880s.

Delightful elements

Arthur Wontner, as Sherlock Holmes:

Sound repetitive? Well, it bears repeating. I adore Wontner as Holmes. Adore him.

The fight scenes:

Okay, these weren’t so much delightful as they were hilarious. And there was a bunch of them, too. It was odd, though, because they took place in utter silence, except for the grunting and panting. I’m enjoying these movies, though, because it’s interesting to compare what the various generations required in terms of entertainment. Today, if you were to make a movie with these scenes, people would demand their money back. And yet, at the time, I can well imagine they were incredibly intense and dramatic.

Less delightful elements

Ian Hunter as Watson:

I should probably preface this by saying that he wasn’t a bad Watson. In fact, as Watsons go, he was fairly decent. But the actor himself was entirely too ‘pretty’ for my tastes. Combine that with the fact that they really played up Watson’s supposed womanizing and it just didn’t work for me. I much prefer Flemming with Wontner, when compared to Hunter with Wontner.

The deviations from Canon:

All of my problems can be summed up with the following question: what was up with [blank]?

Where blank is filled in by:

The tattoo guy.
The circus.
The ending.
The power-boat chase scene.
The era change.

Because, alone, I probably wouldn’t have minded, but when I was asking this question every three minutes, it started to toy with my patience.

The slash

Despite the fact that this is the story where Watson ‘supposedly’ falls in love and marries, the adaptation still managed to sneak in the slash. They did this by focusing a lot of energy on Holmes’ reaction to Watson’s interest in Mary. Namely; they portrayed Holmes as scornful, jealous, and irritated by it.

In fact, every time Watson is interacting with Mary, Holmes interrupts them and demands Watson’s attention. In fact, several times he goes so far as to roll his eyes whenever Watson is swooning over Mary. For the crowning touch, as Watson’s interest increases, so too does the number of times Holmes touches Watson. Holmes becomes protective, and possessive, and even goes so far as lean over Watson’s should (to distract him, no doubt) when Watson’s in the process of proposing. It’s… yeah.


Overall this movie is a little slow, a lot awkward, and kind of weird, but the slash element really rung true for me, so I didn’t mind it. Still, it only earns 2 out of 5 pipes, because, for as much as I love Wontner, the Canon deviations were just too much for me to take.