Thrillers set on trains have a special place in my heart. It’s not only because I love to travel by train. It’s also because I think a passenger train is the perfect setting for a mystery. It provides a single location and a set cast of characters/suspects, just like any good English country manor, but with the added excitement of constant movement and breakneck speed.
A short list of my favorite thrillers set on trains would include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1952) (the 1990 remake featuring Gene Hackman is worth seeing, as well), and Horror Express (1972). But even lesser efforts set on trains delight me, such as the Michael Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941) and the Steven Seagal slugfest Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995).
So when I saw that Roy William Neill’s tenth outing in the director’s chair for a Sherlock Holmes film (and the thirteenth film in the series overall) was set on a train, I was really looking forward to it.
Terror by Night, which stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his faithful friend Dr. Watson, does not disappoint. Loosely based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” from His Last Bow (1917), with a few elements taken from The Sign of Four (1890), Terror by Night follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil the theft of a diamond on a train bound for Scotland.
The diamond in question, the ridiculously ostentatious “Star of Rhodesia,” is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who is traveling with her fey son Roland (Geoffrey Steele). Also aboard the train is a young woman named Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey), who, in the first scene of the picture, has a special coffin prepared, supposedly to transport her mother’s body. The presence of a secret compartment in the coffin, however, alerts the viewer that Miss Vedder is probably up to no good.
Also aboard are an old friend of Dr. Watson’s from his time in India, Maj. Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), the dependably lunkheaded Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), Prof. William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock), whom the blustery Watson interrogates in a comical scene, and a skittish married couple (Gerald Hamer and Janet Murdoch).
Universal Pictures’s Sherlock Holmes series is my favorite mystery series of the ’40s. Except for a few duds early in the series that focused too much on World War II-era propaganda, the Holmes pictures with Rathbone and Bruce and some of the most thoroughly enjoyable, clever, and fast-paced mysteries I’ve had the pleasure to see.