Synopsis: In the small Canadian town of Le Morte Rouge, the townspeople speak darkly of a supernatural force that is slashing the throats of sheep in the area. Late at night the bell of the church begins tolling. At the local pub, none of the men have the courage to go see what is happening, believing it to be a bad omen. The town’s priest finally goes up to the church to investigate, and finds a woman dead, her hand grasping the bell pull.
At a paranormal society meeting in a Quebec City hotel, believer in the occult Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh) is asserting that a series of grisly killings of sheep in his hometown of Le Morte Rouge are of supernatural origin. Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his friend Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) express skepticism that such things have supernatural origins. Holmes maintains that even the strangest occurrences can be traced to rational causes. An urgent message arrives for Lord Penrose, who excuses himself to take a call in the lobby. A few minutes later he returns and announces that he much return immediately to Le Morte Rouge — his wife has been found murdered, her throat cut out in same way the sheep were killed.
As Holmes and Watson prepare to check out from the hotel, the desk clerk hands Holmes a letter that was just delivered that afternoon. In it, Penrose’s wife says she is experiencing a feeling of impending doom, and implores Sherlock Holmes to come to her aid.
Holmes cancels their plans to fly back to London and the two travel instead to Le Morte Rouge. Going to the manor of Lord Penrose, they get a frosty reception, but Watson is able to briefly examine the body of Lady Penrose and determines that she was attacked by a claw of some kind — or a garden implement that resembled a claw — but he also determines that no major arteries were severed.
At the local police station, the sergeant avers that the wounds suffered by Lady Penrose were exactly like the ones inflicted on the local sheep, which many in Le Morte Rouge believe to be of supernatural origin. But Holmes says he is certain the deaths have no mystical cause. He tells the sergeant of an actress named Lillian Gentry, an English actress who toured for many years in the United States and Canada, but who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The sergeant asks what bearing that has on the case, and Holmes replies that Lillian Gentry and Lady Penrose were one and the same. He also asks if anyone living in town has a criminal record, and the sergeant says no, though he mentions that Emile Journet, owner of the local hotel, recently arrived in town with his daughter.
Checking into the hotel, Holmes and Watson find that young Marie Journet (Kay Harding) is in tears — the reason, she says, is that she has just learned her father Emile (Arthur Hohl) is abruptly preparing to leave town. When Journet learns that his daughter has blurted this out to a stranger, he is angry with her, but Holmes questions him closely about his motives for wanting to leave town so suddenly after the death of Lady Penrose.
Journet swears he had nothing to do with the murder, but claims that he felt an unnatural sensation of impending doom — exactly the same impulse, Watson notes, that gripped Lady Penrose before her death….
Comments: The Scarlet Claw is often cited as the best of Universal’s cycle of Sherlock Holmes thrillers, and it’s easy to see why. The central mystery is compelling, the horror elements are vividly rendered and Watson’s obligatory comic relief is (thankfully) kept to a minimum. In fact, the good doctor’s medical expertise actually comes in handy for a change.
This opus doesn’t claim to be based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story. Other films in the series were ostensibly based on Holmes stories, but in fact only borrowed the occasional story gimmick in order to fulfill a contractual obligation with the Conan Doyle estate (for example, the clay busts from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” were used in Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death, while the cipher in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” turned up in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. All the same, The Scarlet Claw clearly borrows from The Hound of the Baskervilles, with the Canadian countryside subbing for the Scottish moors, and some familiar running around after glowing assailants who prove to be wearing phosphorescent clothing.
The Canadian setting is a welcome change of pace, and we have some very good actors checking in this time. Paul Cavanagh brings a good deal of gravitas as Lord Penrose, Kay Harding is sympathetic as Marie, and Gerald Hamer deserves a great deal of credit for his multiple roles in the film. Ian Wolf, who seemed to spend his entire career playing aging domestics, adds a bit of color to a blandly written role.
As in Sherlock Holmes in Washington and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon we have a stirring speech from Holmes in the end, this one about the importance of Canada to world affairs.
[…] Many of the films broadcast on the show were familiar to me, but many were not. I’ve now seen all of the golden age Universal monster titles, even the most obscure ones, along with most everything in the original Shock! and Son of Shock! TV package. And I’ve seen a number of very good movies I’d never even heard of, such as Isle of the Dead, Return of the Vampire, The Death Kiss, The Devil Commands, The Maniac, Dead Men Walk and The Scarlet Claw. […]