“What about Mr. Sherlock Holmes?” asks Watson.
“Oh, go on… I’ve seen his picture in the Strand magazine” counters Mrs. Bernstone.
“Those garish illustrations do distort my profile, my dear woman, but surely there is some
resemblance?” replies Holmes.
Indeed there is some resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Muse Entertainment’s lush new version of The Sign of Four, far more in fact, than was seen in last year’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sure, Frewer still mugs shamelessly and occasionally drifts into a camp caricature of Holmes, displaying an annoyingly smug smile all too often, but in the less frenetic moments, he is showing distinct signs of improvement. The same can be said of writer Joe Wiesenfeld, who has concocted an interesting variation that is about 70% Conan Doyle and 30% pure invention of this classic adventure tale. As with The Hound, full marks must be awarded to Jean-Baptiste Tard for his evocative production design. His work continues to be a highlight of this series.
Spoilers Ahead: Review Contains Detailed Synopsis
The film opens with a beautifully mounted India sequence, effectively setting the tone of intrigue and murder as we are introduced to Jonathan Small and his Indian accomplices. From India we flash forward to London, where we find Frewer’s Holmes looking very much like Sydney Paget’s illustration of “…a common loafer…” from The Beryl Coronet. This, of course, would be wonderful, were he not standing in the Baker Street sitting room scraping away at his violin while awaiting Watson’s verdict on a manuscript he has written. Fortunately we aren’t left to ponder this unlikely scenario for long, as Sophie Lorain’s Mary Morstan quickly appears to divert our attention. Lorain provides an adequate interpretation of the character, but is occasionally hampered by her distinctly French-Canadian accent, giving the dialogue some rather bizarre emphasis. It is later stated that her mother was a French woman, which may explain the anomaly. Sticking very closely to the Doyle story, Morstan relates her tale of woe. Watson later express his interest in this “admirable” young woman and Holmes, in an odd display of jealousy, retorts with the “most winning woman he ever knew” bit and lectures the stunned Watson on the need for emotional detachment while investigating a case. We then move along to the Lyceum and from there to our meeting with Thaddeus Sholto.

Marcel Jeannin, as both Sholto brothers, provides the stand-out characterizations of the film. In what is the film’s most natural, of too many, comic moments, Jeannin’s suitably eccentric Thaddeus shows a complete lack of recognition to the name Sherlock Holmes, but waxes enthusiastically over the discovery that Watson is a Doctor. The flashback sequence involving the death of Major Sholto is faithfully rendered, allowing us an all too quick glimpse of Jeannin as the markedly wretched brother Bartholomew. The action then shifts to the darkly forbidding Pondicherry Lodge and the game is truly afoot!

After a short comic interlude with Una Kay’s stock cockney housekeeper, Mrs. Bernstone, the film shifts markedly in tone.  Frewer suddenly snaps into no-nonsense Sherlock mode on discovering Bartholomew Sholto’s ghastly corpse. This is Matt Frewer at his very best. He is the controlled, yet eager Holmes that we recognize, working quickly to discover the clues before the arrival of the inept police. No mugging or silliness here, just a demonstration of what might have been, had Frewer played it like this throughout the production. It is indeed a sad moment when the magic dissipates with the arrival of Michel Perron’s truly tedious Inspector Athelny Jones. This is not the slyly cunning Welshman of the original, but a broad Scots character, overplayed with sarcastic venom as he wanders about the crime scene spouting off about “
Facts, Mister Holmes, facts”. To get Jones out of the way, Holmes indicates, to Watson’s dismay, that Thaddeus is an obvious suspect. An irate Mary Morstan protests Sholto’s treatment but is taken away and dropped off by Watson on his way to fetch Toby. Strangely, the comic sequence between Watson and old Sherman falls distinctly flat, although Dennis St. John provides a very Eric Idle/Monty Pythonesque characterization.

It is at this point that the story parts company with Conan Doyle and drifts into distinctly new territory. While Watson is away, Holmes meets with Professor Morgan (Noel Burton) who appears to be Scotland Yard’s resident chemist/coroner. The Professor explains that the poison on the dart found in Bartholomew’s neck is “
…distilled from the venom of the Black Widow spider and mixed with various plant extracts…” to increase it’s deadliness. It is also revealed that the creosote, found in Bartholomew’s chambers, was being used by the deceased Sholto  to develop an antidote. Holmes asks the Professor to use Bartholomew’s notes and finish the antidote. The foreshadowing of the antidote’s later use is hard to miss.

Watson arrives with Toby and the traditional tracking sequence takes place. As we head to Mordecai Smith’s boatyard, Holmes brings both Watson and the audience up to date. The exchange with Mrs. Smith is another quick comic moment ending with Holmes decision to bring in the Irregulars. Back at Baker Street we have the familiar sequence of the young urchins over-running the rooms with Mrs. Hudson suitably distraught and fussing in the background. Wiggins, who is played like a refugee from the Dead End Kids, then heads off to discover the whereabouts of the steam launch Aurora. He finds the launch at Jacobson’s Yard and has a nasty run in with the brutish Jonathan Small. It is here that the audience gets its first glimpse of Tonga (Fernando Chien), only to discover that he is not a savage pygmy, but rather a serene Asian with sinister facial markings. Wiggins duly makes his escape and heads off to Scotland Yard to tell Holmes of his discovery, only to face an uncomfortable encounter with Inspector Jones. Fortunately Holmes steps in just in time to avert what looks to be a good demonstration of Police brutality. Unfortunately Wiggins chooses to reveal all in Jones’ presence, tipping the Inspector off to Small’s hideout.

The result of all this is that instead of a thrilling river chase we are treated to an Elliot Ness-style police raid on Jacobson’s yard. Sure the changes were designed to avoid having to film a difficult and expensive river sequence, but surprisingly, the result is a very tense and thrilling sequence as Holmes aims to beat the irksome Inspector to the climax. In the end both arrive at nearly the same time. Holmes calls the Inspector’s behavior foolish, which results in our heroes being disarmed and placed under guard. Wiggin’s provides a quick distraction and our intrepid duo run off to discover a decidedly sticky scenario being played out. A standoff has occurred, with Small taking a boy hostage while the acrobatic Tonga, using his blowpipe, picks off the police from the rafters. Watson now armed only with a minimum amount of anti-venom moves to aid the fallen officers. The inevitable occurs, and Watson is of course himself struck by one of the lethal darts. Holmes administers the antidote in the nick of time, allowing Watson to warn Holmes that Tonga is directly behind him. Holmes spins and draws a swordstick (?) disarming Tonga of his blowpipe, only to have the Andaman Islander backflip his way out of reach. Holmes picks up the blowpipe and gives chase, eventually killing Tonga with his own weapon., He returns just in time to apprehend a gun-wielding Small in a recreation of the old Clint Eastwood "
How many shots did I fire" bit. Edward Yankie provides us with the most unsympathetic Small of any filmed version of SIGN. His manic laughter and brutish appearance are not missed as he pricks himself with one of Tonga’s darts, avoiding justice to the last. In a plot hole large enough to drive a steam launch through, the treasure is revealed as lost and the dénouement ensues. After a momentary hospital sequence involving Holmes and Watson, we return to Baker Street to discover that Miss Morstan and Thaddeus Sholto are together heading off to India to open a school for the…ahem…Orphans of Agra. Watson’s faith in Miss Morstan is vindicated and Holmes nods off to sleep as sitar music rises and the end credits roll…
Aside from Frewer’s silly moments, the film is a far more engaging product than the previous effort. Thankfully, Kenneth Welsh continues to portray Watson in a faithful, and more importantly believable, manner. It is hard to credit, but the traditional comic relief duties, traditionally afforded to Watson since the Nigel Bruce days, has now switched to Holmes, making Welsh’s staunch influence all the more rewarding. Traditional Holmes fans will likely blanch at the liberties taken with the plot and squirm at Frewer’s characterization, but I have to confess, I found myself enjoying both in this off-beat production of my very favorite Doyle story. If Matt Frewer can just manage a bit more restraint, perhaps assisted by strong direction and dialogue, who knows…he just might reach the potential that peeked out during this production. Whether he achieves it, we shall just have to wait and see…
"The Sign of Four" Priemiered on
The Odyssey Network 
March 23, 2001 - 9PM ET/PT
"The Sign of Four"  is now available on NTSC VHS video tape.
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"
Sherlock Holmes in The Royal Scandal"
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Disclaimer: All images on this page are copyright © Muse Entertainment Enterprises 2001 and are reproduced here for publicity and review purposes only. Images appear courtesy of Joan Behan and the Hallmark Channel . Layout, design and original text on this page are copyright © Charles Prepolec 2001.