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Tag Archives: Frank Gruber

Dressed to Kill (June 7, 1946)

Dressed to Kill was director Roy William Neill’s eleventh Sherlock Holmes film, and the fourteenth and final film starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick Dr. John H. Watson.

This was the year that Rathbone said goodbye to the character. His last appearance on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio program The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was in “The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher,” broadcast on Monday, May 27, 1946. The next week’s time slot was filled with the summer replacement program The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which starred Gale Gordon as an antique dealer and gourmand living in San Francisco who solved mysteries in his spare time. Like the Sherlock Holmes program, the scripts were written by Holmes aficionados Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. The show was fun, but Gregory Hood was no Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes returned to the airwaves in October, on the American Broadcasting Company. Nigel Bruce reprised his role as Dr. Watson, but Tom Conway took over the role of Sherlock Holmes (although Bruce received top billing). Rathbone, who felt that his association with the character, whom he had played on a regular basis since 1939, was killing his career, so he returned to New York City and the theater. He won a Tony in 1947 for his role in the Broadway play The Heiress, but little significant stage work presented itself to him in the years to come. He had bad luck with films, as well. When The Heiress was made into a film in 1949, Rathbone hoped to appear again as Dr. Sloper, the role for which he had won a Tony, but the part ended up going to Ralph Richardson.

Whatever Rathbone’s feelings about his iconic performances as Holmes, there is no question that he left an indelible mark on the character. (He eventually returned to the role in 1953 when he appeared as Holmes in an episode of the Suspense TV show, as well as starring as Holmes in a play that was written by his wife, Ouida. The play received lukewarm reviews and closed after just three performances.)

In the first scene in Dressed to Kill in which Rathbone and Bruce appear, Rathbone waxes nostalgic about “the woman,” Irene Adler, a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” while Watson sits reading The Strand, the magazine in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories originally appeared. (Later in the film, a smoke bomb will prove the undoing of Watson, and Holmes will taunt him, since Watson described an identical ruse in the story he wrote called “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s an enjoyable bit of metafiction of the type Conan Doyle himself engaged in.)

The boys receive a visitor to 221b Baker Street, Julian “Stinky” Emery (Edmund Breon), an old friend of Watson’s. Emery is an avid collector of music boxes, and was robbed the night before. Curiously, the thief (or thieves) knocked him unconscious and then took just one music box, a trifling little thing that Emery had purchased earlier in the day at auction for just £2.

We, the viewers, know that Emery’s music box was one of three manufactured in Dartmoor Prison, so we know that the trio of miscreants tracking them down in London have an ulterior motive, in this case, finding where a pair of original Bank of England plates are hidden, which they will be able to use to produce £5 notes that are not “counterfeit” in the traditional sense. The three music boxes all seem to play the same tune, but with his fine ear for music, Holmes will note minor variations in the melodies, which is the key to the code.

Dressed to Kill features many plot elements that will be familiar to long-time viewers of the series. Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) is a clever femme fatale in the mold of the eponymous antagonists of The Spider Woman (1944) and The Woman in Green (1945). And the plot device of a number of cheap trinkets holding a code was used before, and to better effect, in The Pearl of Death (1944).

Dressed to Kill is far from the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, but it’s far from the worst. The Rathbone Holmes pictures are remarkably consistent and terrifically entertaining, however, so the worst picture in the series is still better than most mysteries from the ’40s.

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Terror by Night (Feb. 1, 1946)

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.