Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) is hired by Mary Morstan (Jenny Seagrove), who is receiving gifts from a mysterious stranger in the shape of valuable gems after the disappearance of her father. Holmes and Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) accompany her on a meeting with Thaddeus Sholto, the son of an officer who served with her father in India. Sholto breaks the news of Colonel Morstan's death and tells her about a fabulous treasure, which had been entrusted by his father to him and his brother...
The Sign of Four is the second of only four full-length novels of Arthur Conan Doyle's altogether sixty stories about the victorian master detective Sherlock Holmes. Although it is one of the more complicated and confusing stories of the Holmes canon, there are many film adaptations at least in the double digits. Two television versions belong to the best versions of the story - an American-British co-production from 1983 with Ian Richardson and the 1987 film made by Granada with Jeremy Brett for the centenary of the first publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.
The 100th Anniversary
In 1986, Granada Television already had adapted twenty Holmes short stories for ITV and the production company had originally planned to produce two feature-length movies until the end of 1987. Unfortunately, the lead actor Jeremy Brett suffered from a serious nervous breakdown after the tragic death of his wife, battling depression and a heart disease. This shook up all the plans, but the production team relied on the recovery of the actor because a re-casting was out of the question. As the only active Sherlock Holmes producers at that time, ITV and Granada really wanted to contribute something special to the 100th anniversary of the first short story publication and were determined to start production again with a full-length feature film before the end of the year.
The Sign of Four was mainly chosen because John Hawkesworth, who had started the television series at the beginning of the 1980s together with producer Michael Cox, already had written a brilliant adaptation of the novel some time ago just waiting to be filmed. Jeremy Brett's health had thankfully improved just in time to start the production of the first double-length episode of the series in 1987. As director Michael Cox and executive producer June Wyndham-Davis had chosen Peter Hammond, a newcomer to Granada's Sherlock Holmes, but a veteran of British television and cinema active since the early 1960s and therefore ideal for the first full-length outing of the series.
Sherlock Holmes goes Treasure Hunting
When the short stories were adapted, the team of writers had already developed a great respect to Arthur Conan Doyle's originals and this was not changing in the least with The Sign of Four. John Hawkesworth wrote his script extremely close to the original and did not even have to make any serious abridgements or cuts due to the generous runtime of 105 minutes. There was actually enough time to stage a sizeable proportion of the introduction and the long flashback in the finale instead of just letting the protagonists tell about it. Some necessary deviations were however needed: the story does not begin with Conan Doyles rather drastic description of Holmes' drug addiction, but with a somewhat weakened depiction of the detective's agony of idleness.
Another important part of the plot also had to be sacrificed, because at the beginning of the series' production the decision was made to deny Doctor Watson a wife for continuity's sake and to better show the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In the original novel, it is John Watson who falls in love with Mary Morstan and marries her at the end, but in the Granada version of the Holmes universe this was not possible. But Watson is at least allowed to admire the young woman, but in the end the plot leaves it at that and the good doctor always remains the perfect gentleman towards Holmes' client.
A Very Special Casting
Meanwhile, Jeremy Brett's health had so much improved that the production of The Sign of Four was finally able to begin. Despite his grave personal crisis the actor was able to return to his signature role and play Sherlock Holmes even more brilliantly as ever before, not only showing the positive aspect of the character, but also delving deep into his eccentricity and strange moods. Edward Hardwicke had only taken over the role of Doctor Watson since seven episodes from David Burke, who had withdrawn from the series for personal reasons. But the actor was by no means a second-rate choice, because he played his role every bit as good as his predecessor without actually copying him.
A very careful and thorough casting of the supporting roles had already been a signature feature of Granada's Holmes productions since the beginning and for the Sign of Four the producers had doubled their efforts. Mary Morstan had been cast with the British actress Jenny Seagrove, who had already established herself as a character performer in sophisticated dramas like A Woman of Substance and the sequel Hold the Dream. In The Sign of Four she plays the quintessential victorian damsel in distress very emphatically, but without all the typical clichés, joining the many other actresses who have played the numerous female protagonists of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories in brilliant ways. Only shortly after The Sign of Four, Jenny Seagrove joined another master detective on the big screen in Michael Winner's Rendezvous with Death, starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.
The further characters were also cast very close to the original. For the Sholto twins the producers were able to engage the British actor Ronald Lacey, who had mainly come to fame in his signature role of the Nazi villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but his career hat actually started on the stage and in television, even crossing paths with Sherlock Holmes at one time: he had played Inspector Lestrade in the rival 1983 television adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Ian Richardson. In The Sign of Four he is someone completely different and depicts Thaddeus Sholto as a wonderfully eccentric bundle of nerves and fits the description of the novel perfectly - in contrast to many other versions of the story here he is not a handsome young man at all, but a very odd fellow indeed.
Surprisingly accurate was also the casting of Jonathan Small, one of Arthur Conan Doyle's more interesting antagonists. The one-legged villain only comes into his own in the last half of the story, but in this adaptation he has a bigger appearance because of the extensive flashback sequence. For this role John Thaw was chosen, a real star of the British television industry, who was often seen in major roles like in the police series The Sweeney, but here thoroughly seemed to enjoy to play a villain for a change, taking care not to neglect the complex background history of his character that makes him human after all.
The police authority was, exactly like in the original novel, not represented by the often overused Lestrade, but by Inspector Athelny Jones, who - like envisioned by Arthur Conan Doyle - is played wonderfully hefty and humorously bumbling by Emerys James, another veteran of British television and theater. Tonga, the mysterious wild ape-like creature, is not portrayed here as drastically as in other versions of the story, but Kiran Shah, one of the most prolific small-statured actors in the world, looks appropriately fierce with a simple, but very effective makeup in the very few scenes he appears in.
Granada's Big Effort
Despite the somewhat limited budget of the series, Granda had dug deep into its pockets and for the first time in the history of the company commissioned a production on 35mm instead of the otherwise usual 16mm. After twenty episodes in the smaller, more economic and, above all, very reliable format the switch was not easy for the film crew, because in addition to the much larger camera equipment, the lighting had to be designed in a completely different way. Cinematographer Ray Goode, who had been with the series from the start, was nevertheless able to create a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of the victorian scenery, which now looks even more detailed and realistic with the help of the 35mm format.
The production did not limit itself to the existing Baker Street sets, but also used a dark and brooding castle in Norfolk for location shooting. The impressive big hunt all over London was filmed in suitable places along the Thames, which had been transformed into victorian England with the help of clever camer angles and well-placed matte paintings. Also contributing to the distinct atmosphere was, as always the melancholic and sometimes even gloomy music of Patrick Gowers. Like in his later movies and episodes, director Peter Hammond tends to use a somewhat acrobat camera work, but actually embraces the calm and measured, but still very suspenseful style, which had been one of the most recognizable trademarks of the first twenty episodes of the series.
The Anniversary Premiere
At the end of November 1987, The Sign of Four was broadcast on ITV and received good reviews and ratings throughout, ensuring the future of the series and giving the actors and filmmakers a very special place in the history of the Sherlock Holmes film adaptions. In Germany, however, the movie was only shown much later in the 1990s on some private television channels under the somewhat strangely translated title Das Zeichen Vier (The Sign Four), although the dubbing with Michael Narloch speaking for Jeremy Brett and Werner Ehrlicher for Edward Hardwicke was quite good.
Of the altogether five feature-length episodes of the Granada series, The Sign of Four remained the best because of its very careful and true to the original adaptation, overshadowing most other versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's book. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, together with an excellent supporting cast, showed in a brilliant way how even the more difficult works of Arthur Conan Doyle can be adapted without neglecting the original.
The Sign of Four had already been released on DVD in Germany in 2004 by Polyband together with the four other Granada feature films before the series itself came out from Koch Media a year later. Despite the earlier release, Polyband had been obviously able to secure the restored image masters from the british Granada release, which only had some superficial limitations. In addition to the German dub, this DVD of course also contains the original English soundtrack, but there are no extras at all, although the cover and menu design is very nice. This DVD is also available in a boxset together with the four other movies of the series from Polyband in Germany.
Polyband seems to have successfully licensed an image master from Granada, probably from the newly transferred version which was released in the UK on DVD around the time of this release. The quality is surprisingly good and a distinct step above the 16mm episodes of the series, but not entirely without fault. The image has small overscan bars at the sides, making it a bit narrower than 1.33:1, but the compositions seem to be exactly made for this format.
The transfer surprises with a very clean image, exhibiting only very infrequent smaller dust particles. The transfer itself looks very new and is certainly not any old video master - while sharpness is not on the highest level, the 35mm source material is distinctly noticeable. No noticeable additional sharpening seems to have been applied, so the image may look a little soft sometimes, but still has a lot of detail. There is only a little bit of film grain visible and only is really noticeable in dark scenes, making the transfer look like real film and not digital video.
The only problem is the sometimes slightly unstable image - some edits exhibit a noticeable jump and there is some wavering and fluttering in some scenes, but most of the transfer is actually rock steady. The colour timing looks very natural, albeit intentionally a little subdued. The 103 minute movie has been squeezed onto a single layer with less than four gigabytes, but the very variable bitrate ranging from 4 to 7 mbit/s, ensures that there are no noticeable compression artefacts.
The Sign of Four had been only mixed in mono in 1987, because there were no television broadcasts with stereo sound yet in the UK and a cinema release was not planned. For the German DVD release, no true remixes were made, but both the English original and the German dub were slightly modified into a fake stereo format.
The original English version has a very solid, but unspectacular sound, which has about the same quality as the episodes of the series. The voices, almost always recorded directly on set, have a very natural sound and are always perfectly intelligible. Sound effects and especially the music sound fine too and even have good bass and trebles, although the dynamic is slightly limited. A little anoyying is only the slight phase shifting of the two channels, which apparently tried to create some sort of stereo sound. Because this was made with the complete soundtrack including the dialogue, this sounds very strange and playback in ProLogic results in the sound being spread over all channels. Pushing both channels together back into mono works quite well, however, so that this track can be listened to as originally intended.
The German dub exhibits the same fake stereo upmix, but also has a noticeably worse sound than the English original. Music and sound effects are much too loud and exhibit a lot of rumbling, while the dialogue has a very sterile sound stuido atmosphere. Dynamic is so limited that the whole soundtrack leaves the impression of having been pushed through a massive compressor, it sounds like it was recorded from a terrestrial broadcast onto cheap magnetic tape.
There are unfortunately no subtitles on this disc, which is especially bad news for non English speaking viewers, who have no chance of listening at least to the sound of the original voices.