Meet Brother Bartholomew -
"The Sign of Four" (1983)



Have you ever wondered what Bartholomew Sholto from "The Sign of Four" is like?

In the original story his brother Thaddeus only mentions him in conversation.
Then Holmes and Watson find his dead body at Pondicherry Lodge.

In this movie we finally get to see the infamously greedy brother Bartholomew still alive and in action.

The Plot

This movie is based on the second Sherlock Holmes novel "The Sign of Four".

Unlike the novel, it starts at Pondicherry Lodge, the home of Major John Sholto.
He lives there with his two sons, Bartholomew and Thaddeus.

Sholto used to be an officer in India. He served at the convict colony on the Andaman Islands.
Together with four convicts and his fellow officer, Captain Morstan, he stole the Great Agra treasure and brought it back to England.

He left behind some very angry prisoners who swore revenge.

Eventually Captain Morstan also returned to England. He visited Sholto to demand his share of the treasure.
But the Major was too greedy. They argued. During this fight, Morstan had a heart attack and died.
Sholto was afraid and he buried the body.

Now, Major Sholto’s last wish is that Morstan's daughter, Mary, should get her father's share of the treasure.

After his death, Bartholomew and Thaddeus not only find a piece of paper with the "The Sign of Four" on it. They also discover the Great Agra treasure.

Thaddeus honours his father's last wish and sends the "Great Moghul" to Mary Morstan.

His brother Bartholomew is angry with him. The diamond is worth half the whole treasure.
He tells Thaddeus to bring Mary Morstan to Pondicherry Lodge so that they can split up the treasure more equally.

After Thaddeus leaves, Bartholomew Sholto (played by Clive Merrison) is killed by a poisonous dart.

The death scene is remarkable and a credit to Clive Merrison's acting talent.
Bartholomew's struggle against the influence of the poison is filmed in slow motion. The spasms that wreck the body are painful to watch. I feel sorry for the greedy brother. In my opinion this is the best death scene in any of the Sherlock Holmes movies.

Meanwhile, Holmes impresses Watson with his deductions about the latter brother's watch. This is one of the most memorable scenes from the novel "The Sign of Four".

Then Miss Mary Morstan arrives. She tells them about a mysterious letter and package she received. She also found a map with the "The Sign of Four" on it along with four names.

Holmes and Watson accompany her to a meeting with Thaddeus Sholto. He tells them about Captain Morstan's fate and the Great Agra Treasure.

Together they leave for Pondicherry Lodge; they only find Bartholomew's corpse. On his body lies another piece of paper with the sign of four on it.

While Thaddeus fetches the police, Holmes and Watson investigate the room.
They find the means of entry as well as traces of creosote. One of the murderers stepped in it.
The detective and his companion can now trace him.

As Holmes talks to Inspector Layton, Watson brings Miss Morstan home. They flirt. But Watson must leave to fetch Toby.

Toby, a mongrel with the best nose in London, leads Holmes and Watson to Mordecai Smith. He owns a steam launch called "Aurora".

Smith and his older son are away with the boat.

Holmes brings in the Baker Street Irregulars. The gang of dishevelled boys can search undisturbed for the boat.
But they have no luck. The "Aurora" remains missing.

Meanwhile, Inspector Layton arrests Thaddeus Sholto. Mary Morstan is angry about this unjustified action. She visits Holmes and Watson and leaves the "Great Moghul" with the detective for safekeeping. Thaddeus Sholto is eventually released.

In order to find the steam launch, Holmes disguises himself as an old sailor. He finds some vital clue.

At Baker Street the detective pulls Watson's leg with his disguise.
But the little bantering is cut short. Holmes realises why Small is still in London.
He wants the "Great Moghul". Of course, Small thinks that Thaddeus Sholto still has it.

To be on the safe side, Watson goes to Mary Morstan's home and Holmes leaves for Thaddeus Sholto.

But Small and Tonga are quicker. They already question the Sholto brother.
He lies and tells them that his father sold the "Great Moghul".
At that moment, Mary Morstan enters the house and discovers a dead servant.
A fight between Small and Thaddeus ensues. Small eventually kills Thaddeus Sholto.

Tonga attacks Mary Morstan. She flees to the rooms upstairs and locks the door. But Tonga nevertheless enters the room.

Fortunately, Holmes arrives in the nick of time. He shows off his martial arts skills and saves his client. Small and Tonga flee.

An awkward moment between Holmes and Mary follows as she cries on his shoulder.
Both then go looking for Thaddeus Sholto, but they find only his corpse.

Holmes sends Mary to safety at 221 B Baker Street.
He investigates the nearby fairground which is an excellent hiding place for a pygmy like Tonga.

Small and his accomplice are indeed at the fair. The ex-convict asks the other entertainers for help. Holmes has to compete against the strong men.

After a carousel ride as well as a chase though the haunted house and the mirror labyrinth, Holmes loses Small and Tonga.

But the Baker Street Irregulars finally have located the "Aurora".
So, the famous boat chase along the Thames follows.

During this chase Watson shoots Tonga. Holmes jumps ship and engages in a hand-to-hand combat with Jonathan Small.

Later, all are assembled at Holmes's rooms. Jonathan Small tells his story. But he denies having the treasure. He claims to have thrown it overboard during the chase.

Holmes reveals the valuable gems in Small's hollowed wooden leg. Inspector Layton claims the treasure for the Queen.

The detective still has the "Great Moghul" in safe keeping for Mary Morstan. After the police has left with the prisoner, Holmes hands the diamond to his client. But she refuses at first, before accepting the gem.

Differences to the original story "The Sign of Four"

This movie adds some extra material to the original story:

  • The most important one is Bartholomew Sholto's appearance as well as his remarkable death scene.
  • Jonathan Small's cover as an artist on a fairground has been done before. For example in the black and white version of "The Sign of Four" with Arthur Wontner as Holmes. It is nonetheless an original idea.
  • Inspector Layton does not appear in the original story. There it is Inspector Athelney Jones who patronises Holmes.
  • Small's appearance at Thaddeus Sholto's home and the murder of the second Sholto brother are original ideas.
  • Mary Morstan's and Holmes's struggle against Tonga as well as the chase on the fairground are also new additions to the original story.
  • Small's hiding place for the jewels in his wooden leg and the "Great Moghul" which Holmes eventually hands to his client.
  • The original "The Sign of Four" is also most famous for introducing Mary Morstan and John Watson. They fall in love and become engaged at the end of the story. In this movie they flirt, but nothing further happens.

These additions improve the story. I especially enjoy seeing Bartholomew Sholto and the outstanding death scene which all other adaptations miss.

The Actors

Ian Richardson delivers an unique first performance as Sherlock Holmes in this "Sign of Four". His deductions seem natural. His sunny disposition is contagious.

David Healy is the perfect complement as Dr Watson. His demeanour is pleasant and friendly.
Watson's infatuation with Mary Morstan is endearing.

In my opinion Cherie Lunghi is a bit too attractive to play the part of Mary Morstan.
In the original story, Watson describes her as a woman with a face which has, “neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic".
Or in other words, Mary Morstan is a plain person.
Nonetheless, Lunghi delivers a great performance, especially in her confrontation with Tonga.

Richard Heffer plays Thaddeus Sholto not as the hypochondriac, nervous man we know from the original story "The Sign of Four".
Instead he defies his brother's wishes by sending the "Great Moghul" to Mary Morstan.
He is also really courageous in his fight againt Small and Tonga. It is a pity he has to die.

Clive Merrison plays the greedy brother Bartholomew Sholto in all his morose glory. He is condescending towards his father and strict with his twin brother. His acting in the death scene is truly remarkable; a real credit to his talent.

Besides his part in this movie, Merrison is more deeply connected to Sherlock Holmes.

At present, he is one of only two actors who have starred in all Sherlock Holmes stories.
The other one is the late Michael Williams. He played Dr John Watson opposite Merrison's Holmes in the BBC radio dramatizations of the original stories.

Michael Williams in turn was married to actress Judi Dench.
Judi Dench played a part in "A Study in Terror" with John Neville as Sherlock Holmes.
And of course, she is still the boss of James Bond.

As you can see, Sherlock Holmes is everywhere :o)

But let's return to the other actors in this movie, shall we?

Joe Melia's portrayal of Jonathan Small is very realistic. His desire for revenge is believable. He is a worthy villain in this "Sign of Four".

Terence Rigby plays Inspector Layton, a new addition to the story.
He replaces my favourite Scotland Yard Inspector, Athelney Jones.
Nonetheless, Layton is also quite condescending towards Holmes and very sure of himself.
Rigby also played Doctor Watson opposite Tom Baker in the TV mini series "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1983.

Thorley Walters adds dignity to his short performance as Major John Sholto in "The Sign of Four".
He is also a veteran in the world of the Sherlock Holmes movies.
In 1962, he played Dr Watson opposite Christopher Lee in "Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace".
In 1975, he showed his comic talent as Dr Watson in the parody "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" with Douglas Wilmer as Holmes.

Conclusions

The film is not as close to the original story as many other adaptations.

But this "The Sign of Four" is fun to watch.

It has a good-natured Holmes, a faithful Watson, a handsome client, a fantastically greedy brother Bartholomew and a courageous Thaddeus.
Last but not least, Jonathan Small is an impressive villain.

What more can you ask for?

Highly recommended.

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