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Tag Archives: Gerald Hamer

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.

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Pursuit to Algiers (Oct. 26, 1945)

Pursuit_to_AlgiersPursuit to Algiers, the twelfth film to star Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his boon companion Dr. John H. Watson, is a minor entry in the series, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It’s the ninth Holmes picture directed by Roy William Neill, and his sure hand and professionalism are fully in evidence.

The film gets down to business in a wonderfully circuitous fashion, as Holmes and Watson are handed cryptic directions by a series of strangers. In each case, it takes Holmes a few beats to catch on, while Watson is oblivious the whole time. Eventually they are led to a group of men from an unnamed foreign country whose king has just been assassinated. They want Holmes to guard the life of the heir to the throne, Nikolas, who was educated in England. Holmes suggests that Nikolas pose as Watson’s nephew on a steamship voyage to Algiers. Once at sea, the film introduces a worthy cast of drawing room mystery characters, including a trio of sinister but quirky assassins.

Elements of Leonard Lee’s screenplay are taken from an otherwise unrecorded affair mentioned in the beginning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” in particular the use of the steamship Friesland. And at one point in the film, Watson begins to share with his fellow dinner guests aboard the ship his adventure with Holmes that involved the “Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which is mentioned in Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” These references are similar to what Anthony Boucher and Denis Green would occasionally do in their scripts for the radio show The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and, like the film series, starred Rathbone and Bruce. For instance, in one program, Holmes is willed a patch of land in gratitude for his successful work on a case, and he tells Watson he plans to retire there someday and keep bees. (In Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, the background of Holmes’s retirement in 1903 to the Sussex Downs, where he engaged in beekeeping, was never supplied.)

At times, Pursuit to Algiers comes dangerously close to being a musical, as one of the passengers on the ocean liner is a young and beautiful pianist named Sheila Woodbury (Marjorie Riordan), whom Dr. Watson makes a bit of a fool of himself over. It’s all in good fun, though, and Bruce’s “silly old goat” act is always fun to watch, even if his portrayal of Watson is a bit more ridiculous than Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character. Sheila plays several songs on the piano, including the beautiful “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Watson even joins her at the piano toward the end of the picture for a lovely version of “Loch Lomond.” Director Neill always keeps things moving, however, and despite its minor status, Pursuit to Algiers is still a worthy entry in the Sherlock Holmes series.