A Study in Scarlet (1933) **½
One thing I absolutely never expected was that my continued delving into slasher-film paleontology would one day lead me to a Sherlock Holmes movie. The importance of A Study in Scarlet as a distant precursor is undeniable, though, however unlikely that might seem to those who are familiar only with the novella from which it takes its title (and scarcely anything else). Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet was among the longest of the Holmes tales, and the first to see publication, appearing originally in the 1887 volume of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. It belongs to that little-explored (and, oddly enough, largely British) pulp genre that I like to call Mormon-panic literature, hinging as it does upon an obsessed man’s globe-spanning quest for vengeance against the Utah polygamists who abducted his virtuous fiancee, and positing (among other interesting departures from recognized fact) that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints operates a gestapo that would do any 20th-century authoritarian dictator proud. Hardly an obvious contributor to Michael Myers’s memetic DNA, I must admit. But unlike the apparently rather faithful film adaptations from 1914 (both of them believed lost now), the Study in Scarlet we’re discussing today retains only some character names and the skeleton of a crime-scene investigation from the novella. Instead, either writer Robert Florey (who had recently directed another in-name-only adaptation of a landmark detective story— Murders in the Rue Morgue— for Universal) or somebody in authority at the Tiffany studio (which had also produced The Drums of Jeopardy) pasted the presumably marketable title of the Holmes book onto a body-count mystery so plainly akin to And Then There Were None that it would be tempting to dismiss A Study in Scarlet as a quickie rip-off were it not for one startling fact. Not only was this movie made more than a decade before that one, but it even predates by some six years the Agatha Christie novel from which And Then There Were None was derived! A rather astonishing hint of possible influence for a mostly forgotten cheapie representing the death rattle of a similarly unremembered Poverty Row studio.
A train pulls up to the end of the line at London’s Victoria Station, but one passenger, a wealthy gentleman called James Murphy, seems to be in no hurry to get off. He’s locked himself in the bathroom, and there is no answer from within no matter how forcefully the either the cleaning ladies or the ticket taker knock. A peek through the outside skylight reveals that this is because Murphy is dead, evidently having strangled himself by affixing his necktie to the pipes.
The next day, a coded advertisement in the Daily Telegraph calls five men and one woman to a dilapidated Limehouse tenement to meet with attorney Thaddeus Merrydew (Alan Dinehart, from Supernatural and The Sin of Nora Moran). (One assumes this is the “Merrydew— of abominable memory” mentioned in passing in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House.”) The men are Malcolm Dearing (Halliwell Hobbes, of The Undying Monster and The Invisible Man’s Revenge), William Baker (Cecil Reynolds), Jabez Wilson (J. M. Kerrigan, from The Wolf Man and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Captain Robin Pyke (Wyndham Standing), and a reticent Chinese named Ah Yet (Tetsu Komai, from Island of Lost Souls and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, perpetually smoking an opium pipe and done up in such awful makeup that you’ll assume he’s one of the usual Hollywood CaucAsians, even though he’s the real thing). Murphy should have been in attendance, too, but had to bow out for obvious reasons. He isn’t the only member of the group to call in dead, either, and that brings us to the woman. She is Eileen Forrester (June Clyde), daughter of one Colonel Forrester, and she is in on this otherwise secret meeting only because the pact that bound her father and the others together stipulated that their children (but interestingly not their wives or any other kinfolk) should succeed them in the event of their deaths. When Merrydew learns that Eileen has no idea what any of this is really about, he says that he will in that case respect the late colonel’s apparent wishes, and continue to keep her in the dark as to the details. One thing is obvious, though— there’s a great deal of money in back of all this outwardly neurotic secrecy. The colonel’s death has cut Eileen in for a share of it, and Murphy’s suicide has increased that the size of that share by about 14%, as the pact also provides for equal reapportionment in the event of a member’s death without successors. As the meeting breaks up, Merrydew swears Eileen to reveal nothing that transpired there to anyone— not even to her fiancee, John Stanford (John Warburton), who brought her there.
Meanwhile, Murphy’s widow, Annabelle (Doris Lloyd, from Night Monster and the American version of The Lodger), pays a visit to 221A Baker Street (not 221B Baker Street, as one versed in Doyle’s writings might expect) for a consultation with ace private detective Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen, graduating from the role of Watson in the previous year’s Sherlock Holmes). She is incensed that her husband’s will left his entire fortune to some trust she’d never so much as heard of, sparing not a farthing for her, and she wants the famed investigator to prove that she has been stiffed and defrauded by her husband’s lawyer, Thaddeus Merrydew. Holmes is already acquainted with Murphy’s death, but he disagrees with the official verdict of suicide. He believes the man was murdered, and when Annabelle mentions that her husband was mixed up with Merrydew, he gets a pretty good idea who did it, too. As Holmes will later tell his flatmate and perennial sidekick, Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble), the attorney is London’s arch-blackmailer, and Holmes has come close to putting him out of business on several previous occasions. If Merrydew has turned to killing now as well (and how else to interpret the cryptic note that apparently summoned Murphy to London: “Six little black boys playing with a hive; a bumble-bee stung one, and then there were five”), then this looks like the perfect chance to square up that old account.
Now obviously one does not start sending out messages about six little black boys if one intends to stop with a single murder, and Eileen Forrester is about to witness that principle in action at close quarters. Before she has a chance to leave Merrydew’s secret hideout, Captain Pyke comes bursting in through the alley door, hollering about someone being after him; a moment later, he is gunned down through the window to the street. Merrydew confirms Pyke’s death, then orders Eileen to stay put while he investigates outside. Yet the lawyer does no investigation; he merely stands in the alley for a decorous period of time while somebody wearing an overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat looms up and frightens Miss Forrester into a faint. When she comes to, there is no sign of Pyke’s body, and Merrydew suggests that the man Eileen saw was the killer’s accomplice, intent upon making off with the corpse. Merrydew, demonstrating that his “suspicious behavior” knob goes to at least eleven, now admonishes Eileen to extend her vow of secrecy regarding the meeting to cover the attack on Pyke as well.
Nevertheless, the police— as represented in the person of Inspector Lastrade (Alan Mowbray, from The Phantom of 42nd Street and Terror by Night)— do eventually catch on to the murder, for Pyke’s body washes up under a wharf on the Thames. The face has been mashed to a pulp, but Pyke’s widow (Anna May Wong, from The Thief of Bagdad and Daughter of the Dragon) identifies the corpse by the ring on its left hand, an old family heirloom which she gave him upon their wedding. Lastrade, thoroughly stumped, calls in Sherlock Holmes for a consultation, and as soon as he sees a piece of paper retrieved from the dead man’s pocket— a little couplet about how five little black boys were winnowed to four— Holmes knows approximately what he’s dealing with. He also takes advantage of this chance to interview Mrs. Pyke, from which he derives two interesting facts and one vital surmise: the Pykes’ country mansion is up for auction and currently unoccupied, Thaddeus Merrydew is the widow’s lawyer and confidant, and Mrs. Pyke is up to her neck in the recent villainy. Lastrade calls upon Holmes a second time when Malcolm Dearing is gunned down in his home (“Four little black boys, etc., etc.”), and soon thereafter, John Stanford puts in an appearance at 221A Baker Street, concerned for Eileen’s safety. Miss Forrester has been less tight-lipped than Merrydew would have liked, and although she didn’t know enough herself to say anything really incriminating, what she did say sufficed to let Stanford know that her father’s associates were apt to land her in serious trouble. Finally, a short visit to Merrydew’s office gives Holmes what he needs to decipher the coded message in the Telegraph the other day (What? You thought maybe Sherlock Fucking Holmes wasn’t going to notice a thing like that?), and to learn thereby about the existence of an organization called the Scarlet Ring. If it hadn’t been before, the game sure as shit is afoot now…
It wasn’t just the body-count structure (or the uncanny foreshadowing of Ten Little Indians and And Then There Were None) that got me thinking, “Holy shit! This really is practically a slasher movie!” when I watched A Study in Scarlet, although that obviously had a great deal to do with it. Of equal importance are the mechanisms whereby the filmmakers keep the killer’s identity hidden from the audience. The overcoat and the wide-brimmed hat pulled down low to shadow the face are sure to remind modern audiences of the murderous Gorton’s Fisherman in I Know What You Did Last Summer (to say nothing of the villains in half a hundred obscure films from the 70’s and 80’s). The recurring visual refrain in which each slaying is followed by a closeup on the killer’s right hand as he crosses another name off of his Scarlet Ring membership roster has giallo written all over it. (Most obviously, it prefigures the bits with the old nudie puzzle in Pieces, though again the list of movies that echo it is virtually endless.) But most importantly, A Study in Scarlet makes striking use of the modern slasher movie’s most recognizable visual calling card, the first-person camera taking the killer’s point of view. It isn’t used in any of the murder scenes (although the shadow thrown against the wall during Eileen’s initial brush with the murderer suggests that the camera is standing just to his right when he looms out at her), but right around the changeover between the second and third acts, there’s a scene in which the killer meets with Merrydew to discuss the extermination of the Scarlet Ring, and it is pure POV from the first second to the last.
All of which tells you more about my own personal obsessions than it does about the movie, though, right? I enjoyed A Study in Scarlet a bit more than I was expecting to, and only partly because of the aforementioned similarities to what would come 40 and 50 years later. To start with, unlike all too many subsequent Holmes movies, it takes the time to show the famous detective doing a bit of detecting. It has the CSI bit at Dearing’s house (this is the one scene that much resembles anything from the novella), and there’s also a lengthy sequence in which Holmes goes undercover and in disguise to snoop around the Pyke mansion on the pretext of inspecting it in preparation for placing a bid at the forthcoming auction. Reginald Owen may not have the screen presence of a Basil Rathbone or a Peter Cushing, but I rather like his take on the character. Among other things, Owen is much more subtle about being a self-impressed dick than I’m accustomed to seeing from actors portraying Holmes; he delivers the detective’s trademark slights against other characters’ competence and intelligence with a deadpan understatement that allows one to believe their targets wouldn’t notice the insult. Owen’s Holmes shows a dry sense of humor in other unexpected ways, as well. Alan Dinehart, meanwhile, makes a terrific antagonist as Merrydew. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a bit of Professor Moriarty to the character (or at any rate, a bit of the usual movie Moriarty), but not enough to short-circuit the pleasure of seeing a big-screen Holmes adaptation with somebody other than “the Napoleon of Crime” wearing the black hat. Merrydew is much more credibly scummy than any Moriarty I’ve seen, too; he’d be as much at home in a Warner Brothers gangster picture as he is here. Finally, I’m just a great, big sucker for Anna May Wong, even when, as here, she doesn’t get nearly enough to do.
The fact that more wasn’t made of Wong’s part is one of the major things I didn’t care for about A Study in Scarlet. Another is Warburton Gamble, whose rendition of Dr. Watson is so god-awful annoying that I frequently found myself wishing for that old doofus, Nigel Bruce. Nearly every Sherlock Holmes movie I’ve seen has left me wondering either how Holmes could tolerate Watson or how Watson could tolerate Holmes, and A Study in Scarlet falls firmly into the former category. Also, Gamble is unfortunately not the movie’s only purveyor of coarse comic relief. In addition to him, we get Doris Lloyd as the Widow Murphy, then Billy Bevan (from The Invisible Man Returns and The Return of the Vampire) as the drunk who gives the disguised Holmes a lift to the Pyke place, and then Leila Bennet (of Doctor X and Mark of the Vampire) as Daft Dolly, the Pykes’ halfwit housekeeper. That’s really too much for 71 minutes. June Clyde makes a fairly serviceable damsel in distress, but John Warburton is as tiresome a romantic lead as ever David Manners was. And although this is seems a small thing, A Study in Scarlet really could have used a musical score. They were back in favor by 1933, so the only excuse for this film not to have one is penny-pinching on the studio’s part. Such niggardliness is understandable (they didn’t call it Poverty Row for nothing), but all those long silences really do adversely affect the movie’s sense of pace, and the extra money would have been well-spent. In any event, the economy measures didn’t stop Tiffany from going out of business almost immediately upon this movie’s completion, leaving it to be picked up for distribution by Fox instead.