The films that I’m always in the mood to watch typically aren’t great films or even the films I’d choose for my desert island list.
Like delicate bone china, masterpieces and passionate faves deserve special occasions. The films that I catch myself watching and rewatching remind me of the chipped and cherished Furnivals Quail set that holds my daily cuppa: well-made and pleasant to look at, without demanding too much attention or care on my part.
The best of Universal’s modern Sherlock Holmes movies, The Scarlet Claw has a place of honor in my collection of comfy go-to flicks. As a whole, Hollywood’s programmer mystery series achieved a mellow watchability that foreshadows television’s most enduring police procedurals. The studios excelled at rotating plot formulas, character actors, and settings among series installments, balancing sameness with piquant jolts of novelty.
It’s not hard to see why so many of these B detective movies exist (and have made it to home video). They’re concise, pacy, and twisty enough to sustain your interest, yet not emotionally taxing. You’ve got to brace yourself for the teary catharsis of a women’s picture, the bitter tragedy of a bona fide noir, and even for the whiplash wit and reversals of a screwball comedy. But, since the serial sleuth often stands apart from the drama, analyzing the situation without personal involvement, the audience doesn’t risk serious heartache by identifying with the hero. And it would be difficult to find a more aloof hero than Sherlock Holmes.
Neither as pulpy as Fox’s Charlie Chan run nor as sassy as RKO’s Falcon semi-noirs, Universal’s Sherlock films exuded quality largely due to their combination of star and director. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes manages to project unflappable dignity whether he’s sporting a curiously florid hairdo and hunting Nazis or thwarting insurance fraud in the Scottish Highlands.
Rathbone had a gift for making Holmes seem like less of a jerk than the scripts sometime painted him to be. In The Scarlet Claw, he barges his way into the murder victim’s home, examines her body even after her grieving widower tries to deny him access, then breaks in again to unlock the dead woman’s safebox and steal a clue. Nowadays an actor would be tempted to emphasize the detective’s brilliant-but-exasperating tactlessness. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the cultural cachet of knowing assholery has risen?) Instead, Rathbone’s stoic determination conveys that Holmes is simply doing his duty to truth and justice.
If Rathbone’s staid portrayal is less volatile and eccentric than the modern viewer tends to prefer in a Sherlock, the direction strikes a more familiar tone of brooding liveliness and Holmesian flamboyance. Towards the end of a career that stretched back into the 1910s, Roy William Neill helmed 11 installments of the Rathbone-as-Holmes series. The more I watch them, the more I appreciate Neill’s dynamic flair for creating atmosphere and a sense of action, even when not much was happening.
As The Black Room and The Ninth Guest show, Neill was a master of stoking slow-burning Gothic tension in period settings as well as modern. As early as 1934, Neill earned a reputation as a “dolly hound,” according to International Photographer. He was a director who knew how to keep your eyes busy with chiaroscuro lighting, artful compositions of bodies, and a nimbly moving camera.
The Scarlet Claw stands out among the Sherlocks because Universal plays to its strengths as a studio: fog, terrified villagers, and things that go bump in the night.
In a small Canadian town called La Morte Rouge (imagine the tourist brochures!), the locals whisper about a glowing monster that mutilates animals. Then the wife of an aristocratic occult specialist is found gruesomely murdered. Visiting Québec to argue with a conference of spiritualists, Holmes discovers that the victim sent him a plea for help shortly before her death. “Consider, Watson, the irony, the tragic irony,” Holmes ponders. “We’ve accepted a commission from the victim to find her murderer. For the first time, we’ve been retained by a corpse.”
After roaming the moors and encountering the luminescent spectre, Holmes deducts that the killer is no supernatural force, but a vengeful madman planning to strike again soon. Can our hero stop him before it’s too late? The answer may surprise you.
Universal had a knack for squeezing every drop of value out of its European village sets. Add lederhosen and snow, and you’ve got the alps. Add Claude Rains and ivy, and you’ve got jolly old England. In the case of The Scarlet Claw, add lots of flannel and you’ve got a Québéçois village. Think of it as the Universal horror aesthetic with gravy and cheese curds sprinkled on top.
For local color, the hatchet-faced residents of La Morte Rouge sit around the tavern, listen to “Alouette” on accordion, and wear flannel. Because what else do you do on a Friday night in a haunted Canadian town, eh? If you love flannel, this movie will not disappoint you. There are flannel shirts and blankets and shawls and scarves to indicate the cuddly Canadian-ness of the proceedings. Flannel is even integral to the plot. A hand-me-down flannel shirt—treated with phosphorescent paint, of course—provides a key clue to our intrepid detective.
However, lest you form a negative impression of Canada as some den of flannel-clad iniquity, The Scarlet Claw closes with Holmes reciting an inspirational Churchill quote about “the linchpin of the English-speaking world.” (Bien que l’on parle français au Québec.)
Despite the maple-flavored silliness, The Scarlet Claw does conjure an ambiance of foreboding and evil. With virtually no daytime scenes, the movie seems to take place in a land that sunlight dares not penetrate, in some twilight limbo or unholy kingdom of night. I live close to the great northern expanse of Québec, and I recognize the oppressive, soul-chilling darkness that descends upon this part of the world in the autumn.
The Scarlet Claw sets a deliciously spooky atmosphere from the opening scene. A bell tolls over shots of misty moors. It tolls over a matte painting of a sleepy hamlet. It tolls over deserted streets and tense townspeople, holed up in the country inn. But why does it toll? It’s no call to prayer, and the fraught silence of the villagers indicates that something is very wrong. Neill’s camera sizes up the townspeople. A long take scans over the tavern, slips startlingly from a long shot into a close-up of the the innkeeper’s face, then back to the door as the postman enters, and finally over the cast of characters again. “Who could be ringing the church bell at this time?” The postman quiveringly asks the parish priest. “Maybe it ain’t a who, father. Maybe it’s an… it.”
The reluctant postman and the stouthearted priest decide to investigate. There, on the floor of the church, lies the body of a woman, still clutching the bell rope that she desperately pulled for help.
Those first 5 minutes of The Scarlet Claw summon the magical anticipation that we feel at the beginning of a great campfire ghost story served with s’mores on a brisk, starry night.
In my more philosophical moments, I wonder what is it about grim stuff like this that I find so soothing. Well, Freud did say that the uncanny emerges from the familiar and the homey. It seems that the eerie and the unsettling can boomerang back to their origins among cozy and comfortable things. The counterintuitive warm and fuzzy feelings delivered by murder yarns may be difficult to untangle or explain, but it’s a phenomenon strong enough to support a whole industry of mystery consumption. Dorothy L. Sayers captured the close relationship between sinister and cozy in my favorite bit of her novel Strong Poison:
“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavor seems to be.”
The details are indeed ghastly in The Scarlet Claw. The phrase “with their throats torn out” repeated over and over in the dialogue luridly highlights the bloodiness of the murders and animal mutilations. In discreet 1940s style, the camera never shows us any gore, but often lingers on the murder weapon—a gruesome 5-pronged garden weeder. Your imagination can do the rest. You might catch yourself fiddling with your collar or rubbing your neck protectively during the many close shots of that hostile implement.
Though firmly footed in the rational, good-versus-evil moral universe of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Claw manages to deliver a few shocks. (Spoiler alert!) Firstly, our genius hero fails to prevent not one, but two heinous murders.
Despite Holmes’s precautions, the paranoid Judge Brisson succumbs to the death he’d guarded against for so long. To make matters worse, the murderer strikes as Holmes waits helplessly outside. As the camera creeps around the isolated house (Neill, you dolly hound, you!), the dark silhouette of a woman, presumably Brisson’s housekeeper, closes the shutters. The tiny figure of the judge sits huddled in the background.
Holmes knocks at the door. The Judge calls to his housekeeper, deep in the recesses of the room’s shadows, to let him in. But she doesn’t. Instead she drifts forward, stiffly and strangely, a mass of darkness adorned by a white bow. As she approaches the judge, the dim lamplight reveals her old-fashioned clothes and gives us an indistinct glimpse of a gaunt face with deep sockets. A face that shouldn’t be there. Not the housekeeper’s face at all.
She—he?—reaches into a pocket. And then we see it, the vicious weapon raised high in the air, angled as if to strike the viewer, abstracted and awful in the blackness. The killer in disguise brings the sharp claw down on the judge.
Startled by the judge’s desperate groans, Holmes shouts and pounds vainly against the door. Inside the house, the outline of a matronly hairstyle—brushed tightly back against the head with a bun at the nape of the neck—slowly turns, as the killer concludes his bloody work.
Hm. A cross-dressing killer in an old dark house viciously plunging a sharp implement into a vulnerable victim. Sounds a bit like Psycho, a movie that Universal would release over a decade later, doesn’t it?
Hitchcock made a point of monitoring the thriller market. I wonder if The Scarlet Claw stayed with him like it’s stayed with me over the years.
Even more disturbing than the judge’s death is the slaying of Marie Journet, murdered because she refuses to betray her father. This pretty, kicked-around girl does nothing wrong according to the code of classic movies, yet she dies. As the men in Journet’s tavern sing a merry song, Holmes goes looking for the innkeeper’s daughter. He opens a door to the office and hesitates for a beat. A caged canary twitters pathetically. Watson cluelessly bellows, “MARIE!” But we know that she can’t answer.
It’s a testament to the Rathbone-Neill partnership that a man standing in a door can fill me with such a sinking feeling, no matter how many times I’ve seen this shot.
A moment later, as Watson bends to examine the body, Holmes make a slight movement forward that unfurls his silhouette in the lamplight, like the materialization of his regrets. “Poor innocent little child,” he laments. “I should’ve prevented this.” Thus The Scarlet Claw stretches the unspoken we-won’t-provoke-intense-emotions promise of the programmer mystery, and that’s partially why it’s so good. Holmes had better pull out all the stops and deliver a spectacular last-minute “gotcha” to redeem himself. And, fortunately, he does.
The Scarlet Claw is less a cozy whodunit than a cozy slasher movie. Its shape-shifting killer, nightmarish gloom, unexpectedly fallible Sherlock, and abundance of flannel somehow succeed in warming and chilling my heart at the same time. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times in my life and enjoyed it every one of those times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make some tea and watch it again.