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Movie Review - Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four (1987)

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Deerstalker Hat

                                                              Deerstalker Hat - Wikimedia


A beautiful young lady named Miss Mary Morstan (Jenny Seagrove) asked to see Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) and Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) because of strange happenings that had occurred since the death of her father, Captain Morstan, ten years ago.  The Captain was the senior officer of his regiment in India and had come home for a twelve-month leave.  She was to meet with him and he never showed up.  No further word had ever been heard of her father.

Four years later, Mary Morstan received a cardboard box in the mail.  It contained a large lustrous pearl.  Every year on the same date, for the next five years, she received another exquisite pearl.  Just that morning, a letter arrived for her saying “You have been wronged and should have justice.”  She was asked to meet with a Mr. Sholto and could bring two people with her.


Jeremy Brett

                                                          Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes                                                                                                                                   Wikimedia

News of a Treasure

The trio went to the designated house to meet Thaddeus Sholto, who said that he also had a twin brother.  He related that his father, Major John Sholto, had come home ten years ago with several items of value from India.  He was very fearful, especially of men with a wooden leg.  Major Sholto received a shocking letter which had the Sign of the Four on it, which brought on his death.  Before he died, he told his sons of coming upon a treasure. He showed them some pearls and asked that Miss Morstan should get her share of the treasure.  “We decided to send her a pearl at regular intervals.  We were her trustees.  We had plenty of money ourselves.  It would have been in bad taste not to do it.  Yesterday we found the treasure.”

Murder by a Poisoned Arrow

Thaddeus Sholto said that all three of his visitors would have to go to Norwood with him to learn more about this story.  At Norwood, Thaddeus showed them where they had dug up every inch of the garden without finding the treasure.  They made measurements of the building and found that a certain section near the ceiling stuck four feet out.  The treasure was sitting across the rafters behind the plaster and was worth one-half million in Sterling.  The Sign of Four was there.  They opened a door to a laboratory and Thaddeus’ twin brother Bartholomew was sitting at a table, his body stiff as a board from a poison that produces tetanus.  Holmes and Watson found a foot mark and the mark of a boot on the ground below the laboratory.  Holmes deduced that a one-legged man with an able and efficient ally had been there.  It also appeared that the ally could have pulled the one-legged man up the side of the building with a rope.  The ally could have come through the roof to the room where the treasure was found.  The entrance was so small, the men believed that a child could have done this horrible thing.  Holmes spoke his signature saying at this point: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, the highly improbable must be the case.”


Jenny Seagrove

                                                                          Jenny Seagrove                                                                                                                                                      Wikimedia

Escape by Boat

Holmes noted that the little ally had trod in creosote which could possibly allow them to track his steps.  They were able to obtain a dog who could follow a scent.  Inspector Jones from the police force entered the picture and remembered Holmes from previous cases in which he had been a tremendous help.  He was bent on arresting Thaddeus Sholto for the murder of his brother until Holmes intervened with his own theories.  The dog led them down to the shore where there were several barrels of creosote waiting to be shipped.  Holmes deduced that the perpetrators left by boat.

The Suspects’ Boat is Located

Holmes put out a call for as many young boys as he could get to search for the steamboat “Aurora” which was the suspected getaway boat.  Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, was overwhelmed when more than a dozen boys showed up at 221b Baker Street.  Holmes promised a guinea to the boy who would find the boat.  One lucky boy found the boat in a repair shop and received his reward.  When the boat was made ready, they received a signal from the boy that the boat had left the land.  It was a foggy night, but Holmes, Watson, and Jones were able to enlist a boat owner to follow the “Aurora.”


221b Baker Street

                                              Sherlock Holmes' Residence - Wikimedia

What they thought was a small ally turned out to be one of the Aborigines from the Andaman Islands who were smaller than normal human beings, and proved to be a terror to ship-wrecked crews through their use of poison arrows to kill their enemies.

Holmes’ boat used a spotlight to track the “Aurora,” and noted that the two men were fighting.  Watson shot the Aborigine, who was readying his poison arrows, and he sank into the water, while the peg-legged man headed for the beach which was muddy, curtailing his movement even more because of his peg-leg.

When Holmes and Watson reached him, the man said that his name was Jonathan Small (John Thaw).  He informed them that the key to the treasure went down with “Tonga,” his Aboriginal ally.  They brought him back to 221b Baker Street after Inspector Jones handcuffed him.  He promised to tell his story.

The Story Unfolds

Mr. Small told them that a crocodile had bit off his leg while he was bathing in the Ganges River.  He was in charge of one of the many gates to Fort Agra.  There were three of them; one of the men was Captain Sholto, Thaddeus’ father.  A mutiny occurred at the Fort.  They plotted to get half of the treasure hidden in Fort Agra.  Small stayed there until Captain Morstan arrived.  He pointed out that the Captain was a good man.  They shared their find with him, which was the beginning of the Sign of Four.  There were more gems in that box than he had ever seen.  One of the gems was the largest stone in existence.  Small brought out the box. 


Sherlock Holmes

                                                        Sherlock Holmes - Wikimedia

No Spoiler Here

What was in that box when they opened it to show to Mary Marston?  No spoiler here.  This was a fascinating story, one of the most popular of the Sherlock Holmes series.  Jeremy Brett (Holmes) did an excellent job in his role here, far better than I have seen him in other later Sherlock Holmes films, when he was ill just before his death in 1995.

Hardwicke’s Excellent Portrayal

I was even more impressed with Edward Hardwicke who has played the role of Dr. Watson in eleven Sherlock Holmes films.  He brings to the role his own mien of a stately and dashing older man in contrast to Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of Watson as a bumbling foil for Holmes’ deductive discourse while thinking out loud.  Hardwicke died in 2011 at the age of 78.



Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four
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  1. "“Sherlock Holmes” Actor Edward Hardwicke Dies at 78." The Hollywood Reporter. 1/02/2016. 1/02/2016 <Web >

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