THE PEARL OF DEATH. Universal, 1944. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Evelyn Ankers, Rondo Hatton. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Roy William Neill.


   One indisputable “B” Classic is The Pearl of Death, seventh in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and my favorite of the set.

   Holmes purists object to the modernizing of the series, and to the portrayal of Watson as a buffoon, but I find the atmosphere of these things charmingly old-fashioned — no car-chases or shoot-outs, and very sparing use of phones and electric lights — and I appreciate Nigel Bruce’s shtick for its own sake; every “B” series had to have Comic Relief and his was rather good of its type.

   At that, Watson’s a couple laps ahead of Dennis Hoey’s delightfully dense Inspector Lestrade, whose exchange …


      HOLMES – “Two persons found with their backs broken and smashed crockery all about. What do you make of that?”

      LESTRADE – “Coincidence, I calls it.”

… seems impressively obtuse even for a Movie Cop.

   But Pearl scores points mainly as an atmospheric horror movie. It offered Rondo Hatton his first “starring” part, in the expert hands of director Roy William Neil, who exploited “the Creeper” with real Gothic flourish. Here, as never before or since, there’s someone using camera angles, lighting and background to lend the character a screen presence that the actor never really had.

   There’s also a particularly fine climax — memorable enough that it appeared again later that same year in the better-known Murder My Sweet.