The Sleeping Cardinal (1931)

The_Sleeping_Cardinal_(1931)‘I say Holmes that does seem rather absurd. You know, Godfrey’s been making my shoes for years…’

Sherlock Holmes locks horns with Professor Moriarty after a series of apparently unsuccessful bank robberies. His investigations uncover a forgery ring, a talking portrait, and a rather unusual air gun.

Although hard to believe today, this rather creaky British thriller was an important step in the cinematic evolution of Sherlock Holmes. It was the first time that the role made a star of the actor who played it. In this case it was Arthur Wontner, a stage performer, who, somewhat ironically, got the part because of his appearance on the boards as Sexton Blake, who was a poor imitation of the Great Detective.

Despite the film’s general lack of action, and its rather laboured delivery, it was a worldwide smash, particularly in the U.S. where it appeared under the more box office friendly title of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour’. The success was probably all down to Wontner, who is a remarkably natural fit as Holmes, especially considering the era when the film was made. He perfectly captures the cool, laid-back deductive reasoner, his performance a study in understatement, completely at odds with the broader acting styles of the time. He also nails the sly humour of the Great Detective, even if he fails to hint at his more dynamic, darker qualities. lt also helps that he bears a remarkable resemblance to the original Sidney Paget drawings in the Strand Magazine.


‘Go for that pipe and you’re a dead man!’

Unfortunately, his skill is not matched by the clunky mystery itself, which is a combination of the stories ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House.’ The script isn’t entirely without merit, but the matter is so simplistic that Watson’s lack of understanding of events is hard to credit for a modern audience. Especially as Ian Fleming (not that one!) plays the good doctor as quite a sensible chap most of the time.

It is interesting to see that, even this early on, Moriarty is already the ‘go to’ villain, despite his rather brief appearance in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Perhaps it simply reflects the impact that Doyle made on the public with his duel between Holmes and Moriarty above the falls at Reichenbach.

It’s clear from Wotner’s third appearance as Holmes in ‘The Sign of Four’ (1932) that British filmmaking technique was moving on in leaps and bounds in the early 1930s. However, no comparison can be made with ‘The Missing Rembrandt’ (1932), which was the second entry in the series. Appropriately, enough it’s missing.


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