So, my DVD of Richardson's 1985 SIGN movie arrived, and I just watched it. It's a fairly good adaptation, and thankfully there's no domestic violence in it like in their version of HOUN. The movie even borrows a few things from other Holmes films, like the circus from Arthur Wontner's 1932 film.
Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto are not twins, and Bartholomew is played by Clive Merrison, who later played Holmes in the BBC Radio series. David Healy plays Watson, possibly because he looks younger (middle-aged) than Richardson's previous Watson, Donald Churchill, and they wanted to make his romance with Mary Morstan more believable.
The story begins at Major Sholto's house, with Jonathan Small lurking outside. Sholto is having dinner with his sons, when a mysterious note is delivered (tacked on his front door). It's a copy of the Agra treasure map, and Sholto suffers from shock when he sees it. Later that same night, he's already on his deathbed confessing to his sons about killing Captain Morstan six years ago. (He doesn't explicitly call it murder, but says they argued over the treasure and came to blows, then he hid the body.) There's no flashback to India, because the story's so compressed, but Sholto does manage to actually say the treasure is in the attic, and to ask his sons to give Mary Morstan a fair share. Sholto sees Small at the window, and he shoots at him. The sons think he was hallucinating, though, and then go upstairs to the attic. Thaddeus makes a token protest that they shouldn't go after the treasure while their father is dying, but he follows Bartholomew anyway when he goes to retrieve the treasure. Meanwhile, Small breaks into the sickroom and threatens Sholto, who dies, so Small leaves the treasure map on him and disappears.
Five days later at Baker Street, Watson is just arriving home when he sees smoke, and he fears a fire. He anxiously calls out for Holmes and rushes into the room. Holmes is actually using a smoking apparatus to research tobacco ashes for his monograph. This smoking apparatus is totally stolen from the 1970 Private Life of Sherlock Holmes! See? Holmes adaptations copy from each other all the time, and nobody's sued anybody about that. Anyway, instead of having a conversation about cocaine, Watson playfully asks Holmes to make deductions from his watch. He gets upset as usual, but Holmes apologizes, and actually convinces me that he's heartfelt.
Meanwhile, we see Jonathan Small at a circus, hawking his "Cannibal in Captivity" act to customers. As he lets them inside to see Tonga, a ship captain approaches him--Mordecai Smith, of course--and Small tells him to have the ship ready for tonight. (Apparently he waited until today to return to the house for the treasure.) Smith asks if "your friend" will be coming, as he looks with dread in the direction of Tonga's pit. Small says he's being paid plenty of money to just obey orders without complaint.
Back at Baker Street, Mary Morstan arrives wearing a sky blue dress that she'll repeat a couple of times, with other dresses. She shows them not six pearls but one huge diamond that was messenger-delivered to her this morning. This diamond is the Great Mogul, the 2nd-largest diamond known in the world, according to Holmes's gemology book. (Since Major Sholto just died, and there's no years of searching for the treasure, they couldn't do six pearls, so they replaced it with one huge gem.) Mary shows them a letter that came with the diamond, making the appointment at the Lyceum theatre, and they ask her about her father's disappearance. For some reason, she brought the Agra treasure map with her, even though she seems surprised that the diamond might be connected to her father's disappearance. Holmes keeps the map, and they agree to accompany her the next morning.
That night, Thaddeus and Bartholomew argue at dinner about the Great Mogul, which apparently is worth half of the Agra treasure. Thaddeus insists on giving her a third of the treasure (instead of half, as Major Sholto insisted in the book), or else he'll let her keep the diamond. Bartholomew reluctantly agrees to meet them all tomorrow to discuss it, though I'm sure he's planning some kind of treachery. After Thaddeus leaves the house, we see Jonathan Small and Tonga arrive. Tonga is played by a little person in black face, which I guess kind of makes sense to portray a cannibal pygmy character, but it inherently is just as racially offensive as the book. Tonga also frequently growls like an animal and is treated as such during the circus scenes. (Small throws raw meat to him, and dresses him as a primitive savage.) Anyway, we actually see them break into the house while Bartholomew is running his fingers through the treasure. Tonga kills Bartholomew, who in his death throes, kicks over the barrel of creosote. Tonga then goes to the window and throws down the rope to Small. Though the rope is anchored, Tonga still helps to pull him up. Boy, he's strong! Small is not at all angry about Bartholomew being dead (and has no problem killing other characters in the movie later); he's just mad that he can't find the Great Mogul in the treasure chest. They search Bartholomew's pockets, but don't find it, and they conclude that Thaddeus must have it.
Anyway, Watson is already smitten with Mary Morstan and wears cologne the next day to impress her. Holmes of course warns against the charms of ladies, and mentions that he found out that Major Sholto died five days ago. (I wonder if the Sholtos have been busy with funeral arrangements?) Anyway, Holmes and Watson leave with Miss Morstan, and Lal Rao approaches them at the Lyceum. During the ride to Pondicherry Lodge, Watson spots a dagger that Lal Rao is wearing, and gets suspicious, but of course nothing happens. When they arrive at Pondicherry Lodge, we see that the circus/fairground is right across the street! It's awfully convenient that Small and Tonga managed to get a circus so close to one of the Sholtos!
Anyway, Lal Rao leads the group inside to meet Thaddeus Sholto, who is dressed in Indian clothes this time (which he hadn't been in previous scenes with his father and brother). Oddly, a few different people pronounce Thaddeus's name without the "H", sounding more like "Taddeus." Is this really how English people say it, just like "Maurice" is spoken like "Morris" and "Irene" is spoken like "Irenie"? But the movie is Canadian-made. Nevermind. Thaddeus admits that his father died of guilt because of Captain Morstan's death. Mary stands up in shock, then faints.
At the circus, Small is feeding Tonga raw meat, literally treating him like an animal while he crawls about the pit like one. Captain Smith is annoyed about the delay in leaving. (Small and Tonga still want to get the Great Mogul diamond.) Smith wants to get back to his wife, but Small chokes him and threatens to toss him down to the cannibal.
Back at Pondicherry Lodge, Thaddeus apologizes for shocking Mary Morstan, and sums up the rest of his story. Holmes questions him a little about his father and the treasure, then they all go to Bartholomew Sholto's house. (Interestingly, Thaddeus changes out of the Indian clothes before they go; apparently he's not supposed to wear them in his father's house.) They have no problems getting in, but the housekeeper immediately comes downstairs, hysterical about what she glimpsed through the keyhole. So they break down the door and discover the body, with a "sign of four" note on it. After they realize that the treasure is gone, Holmes sends Thaddeus off to the police. He starts his deductions with the poisoned thorn, and then moves through the room. He deduces a little bit based on disturbed cobwebs, a detail I liked. They go to the attic and find the tiny footprint in the dust. Back in the room, Holmes discovers the creosote footprint and explains that the barrel was probably there so the Sholtos could periodically treat the old timbers. When the police arrive, Holmes sends Watson to take Mary Morstan home and fetch Toby from the kennel.
Athelney Jones is replaced by Inspector Layton, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for the name change. He acts just like he does in the book. Holmes treats him in an amused manner, giving him little nonverbal hints about the poison thorn and the ladder up to the attic. When Layton arrests Thaddeus for the murder, Holmes just shrugs and smokes his pipe, as if he's not concerned at all. It's Watson who assures Thaddeus that they'll do their best to clear him of the charge, and only then does Holmes describe Jonathan Small and suggest (obliquely) that Thaddeus is innocent. Anyway, Watson brought Toby, a sleepy bloodhound, and they start following the creosote trail. Holmes remarks that Watson's bad leg won't be able to take the six mile trudge, so we get a comical series of clips of them riding carts and bicycles while Toby walks in front, his leash held by them or a person walking in front of them. I guess Holmes felt like being considerate to Watson that day. They arrive at Mordecai Smith's boat dock, and Holmes cleverly questions Mrs. Smith. Soon they go home, apparently having returned Toby to the kennel. There's a brief scene with the Baker Street Irregulars, before he sends the boys away. Watson is tired and yawning, but leaves the room before Holmes starts playing the violin. We see a montage of the boys searching for the ship, to no avail.
The next morning, Watson is still shaving when Mary Morstan suddenly arrives, upset by the newspaper article saying that Thaddeus Sholto (and the servants) were all arrested. Holmes jokes that he and Watson narrowly escaped arrest, but Mary Morstan is a little annoyed that he doesn't seem concerned about poor innocent Thaddeus. Holmes assures her that Thaddeus is in no danger. Then Mary shivers and says part of Helen Stoner's line that "it is not the cold that makes me shiver." She gives them the bag with the Mogul diamond and says she feels it is cursed. She asks Holmes to keep it for her, "until it shines once more with light." I'm not sure what she means by that. Until Thaddeus is free, or the murderer captured? I think it would make more sense for her to repudiate the gem altogether if it's permanently cursed, but whatever. Holmes takes the diamond and assures her that all will be well. After she leaves, he wonders why the Irregulars still haven't found the ship. When Watson asks about Small's ally, Holmes points him to the gazetteer, and Watson reads out the description of the Andaman Island pygmies.
After Thaddeus Sholto is released from jail, Layton drops by Baker Street to inform Holmes of it (though he doesn't admit that the reason is that Thaddeus has an alibi). Layton reluctantly hints that he'd like Holmes to help him on the case, but Holmes won't reveal his theories or discoveries. Wiggins arrives to report no progress on finding the ship, and Layton is pleased that Holmes apparently isn't having any luck either. Later, Holmes goes in disguise as Captain Basil to Mrs. Smith. He pretends to have a message to her from Mordecai, saying the ship is being repaired, and she unwittingly gives him the name of the shipyard. He then goes home and pranks Watson briefly before revealing that he knows where the Aurora is. While Holmes is taking off his makeup, Watson wonders again why Small is still in London instead of leaving with the treasure. Only then does Holmes realize that Small is staying around to try to get the Mogul diamond. Watson is worried for Mary Morstan's safety, while Holmes says he'll go to see Thaddeus.
At Pondicherry Lodge, Thaddeus gets a message that Mary is coming to visit him, so he orders a late supper from Lal Rao. Meanwhile, Small and Tonga break into the house together. (I initially wondered why they didn't take this easier route when they stole the treasure, until I remembered that Pondicherry Lodge is not the same house as where Bartholomew died.) Anyway, they quickly murder Lal Rao, and Thaddeus discovers his dying servant. He runs to grab a decorative sword off the wall, but trips and falls. Small and Tonga demand to know where the Mogul diamond is, but Thaddeus claims that his father sold the diamond years ago to buy the house. Meanwhile, Mary Morstan is arriving at the house and finds the dead body. She screams, distracting Small and Tonga long enough for Thaddeus to pull the rug out and tell Mary to run for her life. He also gets the sword he wanted before and tries to fight Small, but is quickly defeated. Small kills him in revenge, while Tonga is chasing Mary Morstan upstairs. She briefly tried to get another sword, before just tossing furniture in the way and locking herself inside a room. Then she really becomes a silly damsel, standing there frozen while Tonga climbs in through a transom above the door. I mean, there are tables, chairs, and a wardrobe in the room. Why doesn't she think to hide from his dart or try to defend herself? Tonga climbs in, and Holmes arrives downstairs, discovering the chaos. He hears Mary scream and goes upstairs to save her. He actually has quite a fight with Tonga, who gets knocked out, but wakes up and leaps at them, only to fall out the window. And yet he's still indestructible, getting up again and running away with Small.
Holmes and Mary Morstan return downstairs and find Thaddeus's body. Poor guy. Holmes decides to send her in a cab to Baker Street for her own safety, while he remains to report the murders to the police. As she's leaving though, they hear the music of the fairgrounds, and Holmes suddenly realizes that the circus is the logical place for Small to hide Tonga. He still sends Mary Morstan away, and goes to investigate by himself. At first I thought the movie wasn't going to include the boat scene at the end, and that Watson would somehow arrive and help at the circus, but no, this is not the climactic chase at all.
For some reason, Tonga is now wearing the clothes of an Englishman; they fit well enough to be custom-tailored. So are they saying that Tonga isn't so savage at all, and that cannibal act he put on before was just for the circus? But he didn't wear English clothes when they were terrorizing the Sholtos and stealing treasure. He also doesn't speak any kind of verbal language and continues to growl like an animal. So is it just a disguise, since Holmes saw them at the house? But both Tonga and Small are too distinctive in appearance for a disguise to work. I don't get it, but I suppose it was nice for the actor to get to wear gentlemanly clothes for at least part of the film.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes has apparently explained what happened to Layton, who's a little angry about being left out. Wiggins arrives to report that he overheard Captain Smith at Jacobson's shipyard saying they would launch at dawn. Layton wants to go raid the place right away, but Holmes talks him out of it, and asks for a fast police steamboat instead. So we have the boat chase after all, but in daylight instead of at night. It's on the real Thames too, near the Tower Bridge, which is an anachronism with the book, but whatever. SIGN is a such a chronology problem anyway, I'm fine with shrugging it off. Apparently this film had no budget problems, to be able to afford both the elaborate circus and the boat chase scenes.
So anyway, Small and Tonga are on the Aurora trying to escape with the treasure. Mordecai Smith wants to pull over (or "heave to" as they say) when he sees the police following them, but Small insists they go on, and threatens again to sic Tonga on him. Then the Aurora runs out of steam, and Smith tries to attack Small with a coal shovel. Tonga leaps onto Smith and kills him. I'm not sure if his wound is from a bite or a thorn. Poor guy, and his wife and child. Small tells Tonga to take over steering while he unlocks the treasure chest with a key. The police boat gets nearer and Holmes prepares to jump on the other ship. However, Watson spots Tonga with his blowdart, and shoots him dead. So the tough little guy is not indestructible after all. Holmes leaps onto the Aurora and fights with Small until they both fall into the river. Holmes grabs him and announces his arrest.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes and Small are all dry now, and Mary Morstan is sitting with them, Watson, and the police. Layton complains that they shouldn't be here instead of Scotland Yard, but Holmes pours alcohol for them and Small starts talking. There's no flashback to India or the Andaman Islands, as Holmes deduces much of his story. Mary Morstan protests briefly, not wanting to believe that her late father agreed to help the prison convicts escape, but Holmes insists that it's true. Small says he doesn't resent Captain Morstan, who had been double-crossed by Major Sholto as well, though I've always wondered why Morstan didn't try to help the prisoners escape like he promised. And why did he wait so many years after Sholto "retired" to go confront him about it? Why not request leave to visit him beforehand? Oh well, that's a problem of the book.
Small mentions that the other three prisoners lost the will to live after Sholto's treachery, so they died, while he lived for revenge. He summarizes that he befriended Tonga and escaped the prison. Layton concludes that the Agra treasure is property of Queen Victoria. While I appreciate someone disputing Mary Morstan's claim to the treasure, it's sad that nobody apparently cares that an Indian rajah was murdered in the first place. But I suppose it's a likely British imperialist attitude. Watson feels bad for Mary Morstan, but she feels the treasure has brought nothing but misery. Holmes talks everyone into looking at the treasure out of curiosity. They open the chest with the key but find it empty. Small says he scattered it in the Thames, but Holmes says he's lying. He deduces that Small stuffed the jewels in his hollow wooden leg, because he kept sinking in the river before. Layton holds Small still while Holmes unscrews the leg and lets all the jewels pour out. It mesmerizes everybody with its sparkling light, until Layton orders a constable to scoop up the spilled gems and put them back into the treasure chest. Small is dejected, and he agrees with Mary Morstan that the treasure was nothing but trouble. The police take him away (I suppose we skipped seeing Holmes screw his leg back on), and Holmes reminds Layton to take the treasure chest.
Mary Morstan points out to Holmes that he still has the Mogul diamond, and Holmes hands it to her, saying she deserves it because she's innocent and not greedy. But she says she couldn't take it. Thaddeus was innocent too, and he died; he even lied about the diamond to protect her. Holmes insists that she has to take the diamond, to make Thaddeus's sacrifice mean something. Watson insists as well that the diamond can give her a new life. She hesitates, but finally nods and seems to accept it. Holmes sits back in his chair (in a Sidney Paget pose) and says it was a satisfactory case. The room is strangely empty again, and the credits roll. So we never get a firm conclusion as to whether Watson marries Mary Morstan, or what she spends the money on. (It's not clearly established that she's a governess in the film.) I would have hoped that Holmes would suggest giving some money to poor Mordecai Smith's widow and son. At least little Jacky could be a Baker Street Irregular? Well, I'm thinking too much about it.
There were a lot more murders in this version than normal, and Small was unrepentant about them, which I think was more realistic than trying to make him noble. I liked that Holmes pointed out that Captain Morstan was unethical enough to agree to split the treasure and let the prisoners escape. He's no perfect guy, and not necessarily more noble than Major Sholto, as far as we can tell. I also liked that Lal Rao was apparently a faithful servant instead of being a traitor, as in the book. That last bit always felt tacked on in the book, because there was no explanation about why Small would be able to talk Lal Rao into betraying the Sholtos. Overall I liked this movie much better than their HOUN (which would have been good without the disturbing themes of abuse), and Ian Richardson is good, though he never visually looks like Holmes to me. His voice is perfect, though, and he's convincing in disguise as well.