*. The Pearl of Death is one of a group of films in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series that are usually regarded as the best, including such highlights as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, and The Scarlet Claw.
*. The series starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, backed up by a stable cast that rotated in and out of the supporting parts. Of this particular sub-group of films all were directed by Roy William Neill and were shot one after the other on a tight schedule. Indeed, Neill was very busy at the time, also shooting Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in quick succession in the same two-year period. That was the assembly line for B pictures at Universal.
*. Despite being made on an assembly line, the Holmes films were turned out with not just professionalism but art, and they each have their unique and endearing features to go along with their recurring elements.
*. I suppose the best known thing about this film today is the debut of Rondo Hatton’s “Creeper” character. Hatton, who died just a couple of years after The Pearl of Death came out and whose other Creeper films were released posthumously, has gone on to become a bit of a tragic cult figure for fans of the Hollywood fringe. He even appeared in the Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards book as a nominee for The P. T. Barnum Award for the Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity (he didn’t win).
*. What I find remarkable is how unremarkable Hatton’s acromegaly seems today. The movie keeps him hidden in shadow or shot from behind until the final reveal, at which point one assumes contemporary audiences recoiled in horror. But in our own time his features don’t even shock. In part this is because we’re used to much more grotesque fare produced by latex masks and the like, but also because we’re familiar with this kind of facial structure from lovable actors like Andre the Giant. All the build-up (Holmes describes the Creeper as “a monster with the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla”) falls flat.
*. Nevertheless Hatton does play an important role, not so much in the plot as in balancing out the evil triumvirate. At the center is the weedy mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander), and on either side of him are his glamorous hench-lady (Evelyn Ankers, looking like she’s really enjoying herself in several parts that are played in disguise) and his muscle (Hatton). Both Mander and Ankers were series players.
*. Another nice addition here is that we get to see a lot more of Dennis Hoey’s comic Inspector Lestrade. He’s as much fun as Bruce’s Watson, though of a different flavour.
*. The plot stays relatively close to a source story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” There are no very memorable set pieces, but the game of cat-and-mouse between Holmes and Conover is a lot of fun and the whole thing is put on with the usual polish and charm. That the series didn’t have anywhere much to go after this is a judgment we could make in hindsight, but at the time it must have seemed like the franchise was in good hands and on a creative roll.