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.