Sherlock Holmes (Ian Richardson) is hired by Mary Morstan (Cheri Lunghi), who is receiving gifts from a mysterious stranger in the shape of valuable gems after the disappearance of her father. Holmes and Dr. Watson (David Healy) 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...
In 1982, the American producer Sy Weintraub and his British counterpart Otto Plaschkes had acquired the rights to the stories about one of the most famous detectives in literature, television and cinema: Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The two producers planned to do a series of television movies with both the USA and Europe as a target market, but at the same time, the private british television channel ITV had commissioned the production company Granada to do a Sherlock Holmes series too, because the copyrights of some of the earlier stories had expired in England. This prompted a lawsuit, because Weintraub and Plaschkes thought they owned the rights worldwide. During the legal dispute, their production went forward, but in the end only two movies of the originally planned thirteen were made after the parties settled out of court and Granada was allowed to produce their own series.
The first of the two movies was The Sign of Four, based on one of the only four full-length novels in the Sherlock Holmes collection. Because of its length, the book was ideal for a feature-length adaptation and had every ingredient of a classic Sherlock Holmes story, albeit a relatively complicated plot. Nevertheless, there had been many previous film and television versions of the story and Granada would also make their own adaptation a couple of years later. The script was written by the american Author Charles Edward Pogue in his screenwriting debut, while Desmond Davis, who had begun his career as a cinematographer, but was very familiar with both small television productions and big cinema projects, was chosen as director.
For Sherlock Holmes, the producers had made a surprisingly good choice and persuaded the scottish actor Ian Richardson to join the project. He was mainly a passionate classical stage actor, but had also become a familiar figure in many British television series and even a few big cinema productions. His Sherlock Holmes was a friendly and warm version of the character, displaying more of the humorous and quirky aspects of his personality and thereby distinguishing himself very much from Jeremy Brett's more moody and cynical later incarnation. Ian Richardson, who reportedly had a lot of input in his role, depicts Sherlock Holmes in his own style and while he does not ignore the original roots of Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, he sometimes appears to be all too human and has an impish humour that seems to be there mainly for the benefit of the American audience.
Each Sherlock Holmes adaptation has to make the choice to interpret John Watson as a competent, intelligent, middle-aged medical doctor or, as had previously been popularized in the Rathbone-Bruce movies, as a bumbling, slightly foolish older man. In this adaptation, it seems like the filmmakers were not quite able to make up their mind, because David Healy's Watson has elements of both incarnations - he plays his role relatively straight, but has more of the looks and manners of Nigel Bruce then David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, the actors portraying the character much more true to the original later in the Granada series. This is, however, not the fault of the very fine actor himself, who unfortunately does not have all too much to do in this version of the story with the script sadly neglecting him in favour of Sherlock Holmes.
The casting of the further secondary characters is quite successful, but on closer inspection not really inspired. The british actress Cheri Lunghi could have been a wonderful Mary Morstan, if the script would have given her better dialogue and she would not have to endure such a ridiculous costume, in which the actress seems visibly uncomfortable. Her role, which should have been absolutely crucial in the plot, is sadly reduced to the bare minimum of a weak damsel in distress. Jonathan Small, played very ham-fisted by Joe Melia, was made into a cruel, abyssal villain, which he really isn't in the original novel, although in this version of the story the viewer hears only little about his background. The Sholto twins have not been cast with one actor, but with the little-known Clive Merrison and Richard Heffer, who are too bland to make much of an impression.
Charles Edward Pogues script takes a lot of liberties to make the story palatable for the American audience. The prologue was drastically shortened and simplified, but due to the relatively complex nature of the original story, this is quite understandable. Less excusable are some added elements, which are mostly there for the sensationalism: Jonathan Small's mysterious companion, originaly just a fisherman, was turned into a cannibalistic monster shown as a fairground attraction by his master. There, Sherlock Holmes is facing a whole cabinet of curiosities and has to prove his strength like originally in the episode The Speckled Band - while this may be a great scene for Ian Richardson, it does not have much to do with Arthur Conan Doyle's idea of Sherlock Holmes anymore.
Other parts of the story have also been heavily neglected and some characters are complelety different as in the novel: especially the Sholto twin brothers are no excentric oddballs, but elegant young men, who seem not of much interest for the script, which rather likes to focus on Jonathan Small and his monster. Even Mary Morstan and the police inspector remain pale minor chharacters so that they don't overshadow Sherlock Holmes - in stark contrast to the later Granada adaptations, the master detective is always front and center here. Completely left out was the long flashback sequence which is described in the novel in great detail, but is only seen here in some quick expositional dialogue at the end of the movie. Even more disappointing is the proverbial Hollywood ending, which does not bring Mary Morstan and Doctor Watson together, but brings the treasure back with a cheap plot twist completely untypical for Arthur Conan Doyle.
While the sets leave a very detailed and expensive impression, their design, especially in the case of the Sholto residence, is not really original. The famous interior of Baker Street 221b looks much better, but a little too old-fashioned victorian, cheerful and tidy. The chase after Jonathan Small was filmed with considerable effort at original locations in London, even going under the Tower Bridge at one point. In many other location shots modern buildings are are very effectively disguised by heavy fog, so that the illusion of a late-victorian London works quite well. One big disappointment is, however, that there is no dedicated Baker Street exterior set and Sherlock Holmes' residence is only shown in closeup around the entrance. The movie even borrows two shots from Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which don't match the following footage at all.
Desmond Davis has directed the script with a lot of momentum, choreographing the plot to dramaturgical perfection. This is further helped by the playful music of Harry Rabinowitz, which sometimes lets the movie be even cheerful, although it really is supposed to be more of a drama. This version of The Sign of Four is not really a full comedy, but the many concessions made to make the movie suitable for the American market are all to obvious. Despite the weaknesses of the script and casting, this version of The Sign of Four is still one of the better adaptations thanks to Ian Richardsons successful and entertaining interpretation of the master detective and the tight direction of Desmond Davis.
Together with its companion The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four was first broadcast in the USA in December 1983 on the pay-tv channel HBO and only much later in the UK on ITV's competitor Channel 4. Because the Granada series with Jeremy Brett had already aired by that time in England, it failed to make much of an impression and the American audience was likewise not particularly impressed. In Germany, both movies had been licensed and dubbed by the ZDF, whose first broadcasts at the end of the 1980s even included the original soundtrack alongside the dub in multichannel mode.
In the end, the appearance of Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes, who had sadly died in 2007 at the age of only 72, was only short-lived because the producers Sy Weintraub and Otto Plaschkes had chosen to rather take the settlement money from their lawsuit with Granada than continuing their own series, which would have to work hard against the British competition. It would have been interesting to see how other stories were filmed in this series, but Granada's takeover with Jeremy Brett was exactly the right thing to happen.
The Ian Richardson incarnations of The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles had already been released on DVD in the USA and England in 2000 and while the British release reviewed in this article seems to be out of print, it might be worth tracking down instead of the overpriced US disc. Despite being a low-budget release from an unknown studio, image and sound are acceptable, if not perfect on this disc, but certainly watchable. There are numerous releases in Germany, some of which do not contain the original soundtrack and even one Blu-Ray which was upconverted from and old analogue videotape, so these are best avoided in favour of this British disc.
Although this DVD seems to be a low budget production from a license dealer, the image quality is not as bad as expected. According to the british rights owner Zia Films the movie was remastered in 1999, so that this DVD does not contain an old video master from the 1980s, but an at least somewhat newer transfer of the 35mm material.
The film sources were not completely clean and sometimes exhibit dropouts in the form of white and black dust and dirt, but has otherwise no other noticeable damages and looks surprisingly clean. For a 35mm production, sharpness is not the best, but this is probably caused by the older transfer equipment. Detail is, however, still on an acceptable level for a digital transfer and there is still a healthy amount of film grain visible. No additional sharpening has been applied, which also causes the transfer to appear slightly soft.
The image is not always completely rock steady, but there is no problematic wobbling or shaking at all. The colour timing is excellent, looking very natural, if sometimes a bit subdued like the Granada series, but not faded at all and very accudate on skin colours. Brighness and contrast are well-balanced too and even the compression is faultless, using an average bitrate of more than 5 mbit/s, causing no problems at all.
It may not be the best-looking DVD, but considering how terrible the earlier television broadcasts of the movie once looked, this transfer is still more than acceptable and certainly does the movie justice.