Monday, November 14, 2016

A Back on Baker Street Book Review: A Study in Terror

In which Nick reviews a pastiche which was seemingly lost to the sands of time. Should it have stayed there?


Ellery Queen is arguably one of the most famous names in detective fiction. The name - the nom de plume of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee - was also the name of their detective hero, himself a mystery writer. Queen - whose father in the stories is a NYPD officer - would solve an array of bizarre cases working alongside his Dad and other figures more often than not in the New York City region. By the mid-1960s, Dannay and Lee had begun to incorporate other ghostwriters into their team, including author Paul W. Fairman who wrote the sections of this novel which feature the great detective.

The novelization of the 1965 film A Study in Terror tells two stories at once. While suffering a crippling case of writer’s block, Ellery is visited by a friend who has wound up with a copy of a long-lost manuscript written by Dr. John H. Watson which chronicled Sherlock Holmes’ investigations into the Jack the Ripper murders. The manuscript details how - at the height of the Ripper’s reign of terror - Holmes receives in the post a surgeon’s medical kit; the postmortem knife missing. Divining some connection between the case and the killings, Holmes and Watson set off to investigate. As Ellery reads the manuscript, he endeavors to find out how the document ended up entrusted to him and what relevance it has eighty-odd years after the killings occurred…

What surprised me most about The Study in Terror is just how closely the plot followed the film. It is difficult to discuss that 1965 Holmes vs. Ripper film as it has not been formally reviewed on this blog, but its best central elements are all retained in the novelization which is welcome. As the story is told entirely from the perspective of Dr. Watson, this pastiche feels very real. At times, the Watsonian voice (very nicely captured by writer Fairman) goes a long way to making some of the more wild sequences more palatable. This method of presentation did end up restructuring a large portion of the story and omitting large chunks of the film’s original plot as well.

The cast of characters in the Holmesian sections are also rather diminished. It is actually easy to count on one hand the number of central characters in this story (including Holmes and Watson). The Ripper’s victims (who had a rather decent amount of screen time in the movie) are barely presented in the book’s pages and Inspector Lestrade’s involvement in the case is reduced to a mere cameo appearance.

The non-Holmesian sections are short and to-the-point; though Ellery’s snarky sense of humor is displayed fully herein and some of the descriptions of his writer’s block are genuinely amusing (especially to a writer such as myself). They are marginal however, and only really add anything to the plot come the finale when Ellery contests the identity of the Ripper which the manuscripts presents. While this is certainly a neat twist, the presentation with which this is done does leave something to be desired and one feels almost as though it was included simply for the sake of a twist ending.

Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) learns a surprising truth
from Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) in 1965's A Study in Terror

It should also be noted that while A Study in Terror is hardly the most historically accurate representation of the Jack the Ripper murders, it at times looks like a docudrama when compared to the novelization. While it will certainly not bother a casual reader, amateur (or seasoned) Ripperologists beware that the historical accuracy of this book is severely lacking.

While it would be hard to call A Study in Terror one of the cornerstones of the subgenre that is Sherlockian pastiche, it is an interesting take on the well-worn Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper story which has become something of a trope in the aforementioned subgenre. It’s certainly a curious book to be sure, but it would be cruel to Holmes fans if this book remained out of print like so much of Ellery Queen’s work.

Positives: Depiction of Holmes and Watson, fidelity to the source material, general sense of humor

Negatives: Rushed execution and twist ending, historical inaccuracies

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 deerstalkers

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Looking Before and After

In which we see why the Rathbone era works so well, why we love Nigel Bruce, and discover how “Who’s on First” is related to the great detective. Then, we discuss the future of Back on Baker Street.


Cat: So, with Dressed to Kill officially behind us, we have reached the end of the era of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It feels a little strange to know that we’re now moving on from the duo that we’ve stuck with since January, but, to do the time we’ve spent with them justice, it seems only right that we talk a bit about this group of movies on the whole: all the good, the bad, and the ugly (which, for Nick, basically is code for Pursuit to Algiers). And it would seem like the best place to start with is perhaps the most important part of any Sherlock Holmes project: the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson.

Nick: And what a dynamic duo they are. Before Rathbone and Bruce took on the roles of Holmes and Watson, the detective and his colleague did not receive equal treatment on film. It was not uncommon for Watson to provide little - if any - contribution to the plot of a Sherlock Holmes movie before Rathbone and Bruce became synonymous with the characters. They really managed to breathe new life into these characters who had already had quite a following. I think it is far to say, Catharine, that you were fond of the Baz from the beginning?

Cat:  YES, very much so. I’m not ashamed to say that I was very interested in his performance after just five minutes of him on screen. I found him to just be pretty awesome all-around, and after Hound, I was kinda hooked on his performance. (Nigel Bruce? Not quite so much.) I was very glad to see that he didn’t disappoint me once. I especially grew to love how he could present Holmes as brilliant and intelligent, but not obnoxious or a complete know-it-all or anything. (Keep in mind, I really only have Sherlock to compare him to - and I have to say, that’s not always true of that version of Holmes.) He had this charm to him that made him really compelling to follow. He had this way of rattling off deductions and explanations in a way that you just had to want to listen to him. I don’t know, Nick, the Baz just felt very, very right to me as Holmes - even from the beginning. You’ve obviously far more well-versed in the character and how others have portrayed him, so what are some of your thoughts on the Baz as Holmes?

Nick: I love Basil Rathbone and, for quite a long time, Basil Rathbone was my favorite Sherlock Holmes. I have since reshuffled my list, but the Baz still makes the top five. He really nailed the character, especially in the early films. I completely agree with you too: never did Rathbone’s Holmes seem overly obnoxious or sarcastic but he still managed to convey a sense of superiority and cold intellect which the character so needs. He was just so compelling to watch. Even when Rathbone was obviously done playing Holmes towards the end of the Universal series, you still could not help but look at him. He really had a wonderful screen presence. And, you know, I’m really glad to know that you eventually came around to liking Nigel Bruce. He will never be the definitive Watson (and you can argue that he did irreparable damage to the character of Dr. Watson), but he is really great in these movies. He’s a wonderful on-screen partner for Rathbone and he provides some wonderful lighter moments - especially in some of the series’ darker entries.

Nigel Bruce cannot understand your initial disappointment

Cat: Yes, my initial displeasure with Nigel Bruce as Watson was definitely no secret. (And I might have to take up that position in that argument, honestly.) But he really did make it hard to dislike him. Yes, he’s bumbling and not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but I grew to love him as Watson. That’s not really how I want to see Watson portrayed as, and it wasn’t what I was used to. I kinda sort of can’t help but roll my eyes and groan when I see idiotic Watsons, but here’s why it works for Nigel Bruce: he’s still endearing and likeable. There’s a clear fondness between his Watson and Holmes; the on-screen chemistry between Bruce and Rathbone is amazing. (Though I will say this, when you really think about it, it’s hard to think of a logical reason that Holmes would pick this kind of a person to be his assistant and flatmate, beyond the fact that he clearly likes him. Thankfully, that’s never really an issue that the films force you to fixate on.) I don’t think I’d be able to appreciate a similar portrayal of Watson if it wasn’t Nigel Bruce, honestly. He just has a charm to him that is something that can’t necessarily be replicated, I think.

Nick: Oh, I completely agree! Nigel Bruce has an almost indescribably likable quality to him. Once you get used to his antics, he is so endearing and so likable that you are able to overlook the buffoonery. And, Catharine, you are by no means the first to question why Holmes would wish to spend time with a character like Bruce’s Watson. (Also, based off of his retelling of “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” in Pursuit to Algiers, it’s sort of a wonder that Watson was able to record Holmes’ cases for The Strand Magazine as well as he did!) Along the way, there will be other bumbling Watsons (some not as bad as Nigel Bruce, some a bit more risible), but none of them are as endearing as Nigel Bruce.

Cat:  Good to know I’m not the only one who wondered that! And I had feared this would be the case, that Nigel Bruce was going to be the truly endearing idiot here. (Sigh.) I’m going to put forth a theory here and see if it holds to be true: all future bumbling Watsons try (consciously or unconsciously) to go off of what Nigel Bruce did that was so successful, but it won’t work as well because they just aren’t Nigel Bruce. And I’m just saying, if there are Lestrades who prove to be far more competent that Watsons, I’m going to be sad. (Arguably, Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade sometimes appeared to be a bit more capable at detective work, but still, at least they both looked ridiculous every other time!)

Nick: I can only think of one time when I ever thought that Lestrade seemed more competent than Watson. I will say nothing more, but know that such a freak occurrence does seem to exist in the long history of Sherlockian cinema!

Cat: Oh no… I can only imagine how strange a viewing that’ll be. But, on that note, shall we move our discussion to the reappearing characters and our thoughts on them?

Nick: Not a bad idea. The Rathbone/Bruce films had quite a supporting cast, and, while we have talked at length about Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade and the various Moriartys, I’d like to take a minute to highlight someone who also managed to add a bit of warmth to these movies: Mary Gordon’s Mrs. Hudson. Simply put, I think she was a delight! She may have never done much in these movies, but she was always a comforting presence and she gave the distinct impression that she was quite instrumental in keeping this version of 221b in one piece. (As we mentioned so long ago, I’m still angry that Universal had Lon Chaney Jr.’s Mummy kill Mary Gordon in the movie The Mummy’s Tomb. It’s truly shocking.) Mary Gordon is not quite the definitive Mrs. Hudson in my eyes, but in her own special way, she added a lot to the Rathbone/Bruce series.

Mary Gordon - Keeping the peace at Baker Street since 1939

Cat: I have to agree; her appearances, while brief and randomly scattered throughout the series, were very sweet. (I don’t think either of us made a note of this in our Dressed to Kill review, but I thought it was really wonderful that she got to show up in the last film! We got to see the whole “Baker Street Crew” all together one last time!) I truly love (and sympathize with) Mrs. Hudson, and Mary Gordon was quite simply adorable. She was really sweet and, even though not always seen, it was very easy to imagine that she was always downstairs during whatever case the audience got to see Holmes and Watson working out upstairs. (Honestly, I think it’s hard to even vaguely dislike Mrs. Hudson, in any form.)

Nick: I think you brought up a good point which applies to the Rathbone/Bruce series on a whole: these characters seem to have lives outside of the series. Whenever I watch a Sherlock Holmes movie, I always try to imagine that version of Holmes and Watson on some other case. If I can do that without too much trouble, I think that the movie/series has succeeded to some degree. And, your point about it being easy to picture Mrs. Hudson working downstairs while Holmes and Watson work to solve some mystery really solidifies in my mind that Rathbone’s and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson do seem to exist in their own world. For all of the incredible plotlines and character developments, this version of Holmes and Watson feel very real.

Cat: I agree with you 100% there! There is definitely a sense that the world and these characters exist beyond the runtime of the movies. (The only exception to that might be whenever mentions of Moriarty are made - while I could totally see Rathbone/Bruce going up against Moriarty on other occasions, I just don’t know which Moriarty they’re talking about!) All jokes aside, there is a definite realness to the characters and the world they reside in.

Nick: So, if there is something else worth discussing in this era: the overall feeling. I have seen the Rathbone/Bruce films included in lists of Universal’s other horror films and, aside from maybe portions of The Scarlet Claw and The Pearl of Death, I don’t know if I could ever call these movies horror films. Are you inclined to agree? (For the record, I’ve also seen people call 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles a horror movie and I find that rather difficult to get behind as well.)

Cat: I actually am. At the most, I think that I’d call some films of the era good suspense movies, but nothing I’d consider to be “horror”. But then again, I don’t know if I’d really call movies fixated on a series of murders to be horror unless it was scary; the Rathbone/Bruce movies really feel like really good crime/mystery movies, with suspenseful elements, more than anything to me.

Nick: And I think that really is what they were intended to be. Although, here’s an odd piece of information: more often than not, the Sherlock Holmes movies found themselves as the second half of a double-bill with Universal’s other big money-maker, the Abbott and Costello films! Now, I love Abbott and Costello, but that just seems like a really, really strange pairing.

Cat: That...really does? Huh. I don’t know, I think that, for me at least, it’s hard to think of the Sherlock Holmes movies being paired with anything like that, because they seem to be their own little unit. Does that make sense at all, Nick?

Nick: Oh, no, definitely! I would never think to pair the antics of Rathbone and Bruce with the very different antics of Abbott and Costello. Well, there’s one final bit that we need to discuss: the impact that these films had (both in their time and today). They were obviously commercial moneymakers (there are 14 films in the series, after all), but Rathbone and Bruce were really made movie stars through these movies. And, during World War II, they sold thousands of dollars worth of war bonds. Really, Basil Rathbone was the Benedict Cumberbatch of his day.

Cat: I’m just saying, if Basil Rathbone told me to buy war bonds, I would. But their impact is definitely there. Like you said earlier, Nigel Bruce arguably shaped how Watson is/was shown as a character. It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that Basil Rathbone essentially had the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch back in the day. Which, I think, brings up an interesting note (in my mind at least): like with Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock, the Basil Rathbone movies aren’t something that are meant to be enjoyed just by Sherlockians. They’re something that people with little to no real knowledge of the stories (like myself) can genuinely enjoy and be interested in. I don’t know about you, but I just think that’s really neat.

Nick: I definitely agree. 20th Century Fox and Universal really knew that they had a money-making series on their hands and they managed to cater it to all sorts: Sherlockians, casual movie fans, armchair detectives, etc. However, I think these movies had a real impact on genuine Sherlockians too. For every person who says that they read the original stories and picture/hear Jeremy Brett as Holmes, there is a number who would say the same for Rathbone. That’s quite a legacy there. And, I’d like to take a moment to quote from the truly invaluable book Universal Horrors (a must-have for any fan of Universal’s horror films) when discussing Rathbone and the Holmes series: “[Rathbone’s and Bruce’s] endearing charms have not been lost on generations of film fans. Until the popular television series with Jeremy Brett in the ‘90s, Basil Rathbone was virtually unrivaled as the quintessential incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective.”

Cat: Aw, that was beautiful, Nick. I have to say, whenever I get around to reading more of the original stories, it’ll be hard to not be hearing Basil Rathbone and co. in my head. Despite not being my first encounter with these characters, the Rathbone series has definitely furthered my appreciation for them.     

Nick:. That is truly fantastic. That really is. Okay, because I’m that guy, I’m going to pose one of those questions: If you had to pick only three of the Rathbone/Bruce films (20th Century Fox or Universal), what would they be?

Cat: You just love posing difficult questions, don’t you? Hmm...I think I’d just pick Pursuit to Algiers three times. ;) Just kidding! (I won’t ever let that go.) Personally, I think I’d go with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon? (Runner up was Dressed to Kill - I can’t stress how much I loved Mrs. Courtney.) What about you, Nick?

Nick: Well, it’s nice that a fair number of the Rathbone films turn up in my list of all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes films. However, if I could pick only three, I would pick Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (really, I love that one), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (I don’t care what you may say - the song and dance scene is amazing), and The Pearl of Death (one of the best plots and surely some of the series’ finest villains).

Cat: Ooh, good picks. (I did consider putting Pearl of Death on my list.)

Now that we have looked back, we can only look ahead…

Nick: I can honestly say that this project has blossomed tremendously since we began and I never thought it would turn out so well! It’s actually sort of surreal.

Cat: It really is! I’ll never forget when you came up to me that day and very cryptically said, “Catharine, I have a proposition for you…” (and then we got interupted like three times before I could finally hear what you were trying to ask me). It’s exciting to see that we’ve already made it to the end of an era! I’m so fond of our little blog, I really am.

Nick: I am too! And, the conclusion of this chapter of Sherlockian history has come at a good time because (as we write this), in a manner of days we will be embarking on a new chapter in our lives as well. Yes, your humble bloggers are college bound! Therefore, it rather goes without saying that content will be a little less regular than it has been in the past months. That in no ways means that we are done with Back on Baker Street or The Great Sherlock Holmes Experiment.

Cat: Yes, as we said the last time we “disappeared” for a bit - assume us to be still here and active unless you hear otherwise! Because of the distance and general “world-changing” nature of college, we won’t be able to get together to watch movies and have our experiments nearly as often as we have. We’ll still be posting, just not our typical full-blown movie reviews.

Nick: So, what exactly can you expect from us? Well, fortunately for us a great number of the early-1930s Sherlock Holmes films which we passed over to get to The Hound of the Baskervilles have turned up on YouTube. So, with any luck some short reviews of Murder at the Baskervilles (1937), Sherlock Holmes (1932) and A Study in Scarlet (1933) will make it onto this blog. (A Study in Scarlet is a particular curiosity and features what is probably the worst disguise the detective has ever adopted!) In addition, the 1954-1955 Sherlock Holmes television series starring Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford can be found on the Interwebs, so maybe I’ll be able to cajole Catharine into watching some of those. What’s more, we’ll try to stay as up-to-date as possible with Sherlock Holmes-related news (such as Sherlock Series 4 trailers/teasers/discussion). It wouldn’t be surprising if a trailer reaction or two finds their way onto the blog. I am also nearly always reading something Sherlockian, so I will start a series of Back on Baker Street Book Reviews. I think Catharine has even said that she is willing (time permitting) to continue making her way through the Canon?

Cat: I have indeed. (Time permitting is an understatement; but, nonetheless, an attempt will be made!) So even if we’ve got to pause our major reviews and all that, plenty of Sherlock Holmes goodness will still be discussed and coming out in its place. That’s not to say we won’t pick up the experiments, of course - those are just something we’ll have to plan out a bit more than saying “Want to watch Sherlock Holmes for a few hours on Thursday?”. Of course, we’ll let you know when to be looking forward to those too. (And who knows? We might even be back and through another era before Sherlock season 4! Hey, with how long they take to come out, anything could happen!)

Nick: It is certainly true! And, fear not: the full reviews will return sometime in the future. I’m already counting down the days until we get to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) with Peter Cushing. Ugh...I think the wait will kill me.

Coming Soon-ish

Cat: I think you’ll live, Nick. I mean, I hope so. I’d have to go looking for another Sherlock Holmes blogging partner otherwise! (Do you have any idea how specific that is?)

Nick: Well, to speak immodestly, I’m not entirely sure that anyone could replace me!

Cat: No, I doubt that they could! So you better not go anywhere! We may have finished an era, but we’ve got a lot to do here. (Besides...I don’t know anyone else who loves Peter Cushing as much as you. If you died, I’m pretty sure you’d haunt me if I tried watching those movies with anyone but you….there’s a scary thought.)

Nick: You’d never be able to get rid of me or my running commentary. Never!

Cat: Is that a blessing or a curse? The world may never know...

The Game is Still Afoot Back on Baker Street...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Experiment #14 - "Dressed to Kill" (1946)

In which we get all weepy...


An era of Sherlockian cinema has already come and gone. The actor who we have associated with Sherlock Holmes since January performs in one last film. It’s all strangely emotional.

Nick: You know, when you watch all of the Rathbone films in order, you really do see how this was an era of Sherlockian movies and I’ve ended up getting attached to these versions of Holmes and Watson all over again.

Cat: Whereas I’ve gotten attached to them for the first time. :( I’m really sad to be leaving them, I truly am. Correct me if I’m wrong (since I have limited canonical knowledge), but it seems like this cast and these characterizations are all very true to the overall spirit of Sherlock Holmes.

Nick: Uh...for the most part I suppose. Rathbone’s Holmes is pretty close. Nigel Bruce is not, but that I think you already knew. But, what you really need to remember is that even if these interpretations were not spot-on recreations of the Doyle originals, they worked really well in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And, to be honest, they continue to work well today.

Cat: Agreed. I don’t know, maybe I’m being weird and extra sentimental (certainly wouldn’t be the first time) now that it’s over, but this era just feels very “right” to me - even despite fighting Nazis, having “musical numbers”, and what might just be the most endearingly idiotic Watson ever.

Nick: Well, despite the fact that this era may be over, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes have only just begun. And, not to spoil the ending of this movie too early, but I’m sure that you didn’t see the regeneration from Basil Rathbone into Peter Cushing coming, did you? (I am, of course, joking.)

Sherlock Holmes post-regeneration

Cat: No, no I did not. But, like with Doctor Who, I’m sure it’ll take some getting used to before I embrace the change of actors and everything. But I have a feeling a phrase frequently used in the Doctor Who community will apply here for me: You never forget your first (Detective). :) (And yes, we’re going to ignore the fact that Basil Rathbone is technically not my first Sherlock Holmes. Shh, I’m being poetic.)

Vital Statistics:
Dressed to Kill (1946)
Major motion picture
Starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Patricia Morrison (Hilda Courtney), Edmund Breon (Julian Emery), Frederic Worlock (Colonel Cavanaugh), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson)
72 minutes, black-and-white


Nick: Well, before we get going an observation and why I love watching these movies with Catharine: Twice in the span of this movie’s 72 minute runtime, she pointed out two things which I have never noticed (and I’ve been watching the Basil Rathbone films for YEARS). The first of which was the fact that in the opening credits for Dressed to Kill, you can actually see the sides of the film strip. I found this very, very exciting. So, well spotted!

Cat: Thank you very much! I was quite proud of that! (And, I’m sorry, but I HAVE to say this: it was elementary, my dear Nick!) What was the other thing though? I can’t remember; I make so many brilliant remarks while watching these movies, and it all starts to run together after awhile. ;)

Nick: Oh, we’ll get to it. Don’t you worry. Anyhow, once the credits are over we open on Dartmoor Prison. Interestingly, this brings the Rathbone series full circle in that The Hound of the Baskervilles dealt with the escaped convict, Seldon, who is roaming the moors after escaping Dartmoor. Anyhow, we see a couple of prisoners making musical boxes which are then sold at an auction house. After the three boxes have been sold, a mysterious man comes asking about who bought those boxes and he walks away with two of their names and addresses. All-in-all, a pretty interesting way to open the movie.

Cat: Indeed! Though I have to say, music boxes seem like a very random product for a prison to put out. And like one that should take a bit of learned skill to make? But, who am I to tell the Dartmoor Prison what they should be doing with their convicts? (Especially when they dress their convicts in uniforms that literally have little trees/arrows on them. Clearly they have a very artistic warden.)  
Nick: I’m inclined to agree. A good musical box seems like something which should be crafted by an artisan. But, who knows? Anyhow, the next scene is possibly one of the film’s best. It opens at Baker Street with Holmes seated, playing the violin as Watson peruses the latest copy of The Strand Magazine. They reflect on Watson’s recently-published account of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and Holmes remembers Irene Adler. Now, there is nothing which makes this scene special. It doesn’t impact the plot. The writing and direction isn’t spectacular, but it feels so right. Not often do we see domestic life at 221b Baker Street, but this quiet scene of the two friends just works so well. It really captures the spirit of the two detectives without really doing much at all. I just really like it.

An evening at home at 221b (from the colorized DVD)

Cat: I entirely agree with you here. For me, knowing that this was the last Rathbone Era movie, that just made this scene all the more special. It really has no effect on the plot and isn’t even all that important, it just feels so satisfying and is really nice. It’s them being, as I affectionately refer to them, “The Baker Street Bros”. Honestly, it’s hard to really explain why it’s so satisfying other than it feels “right”. And the other great thing about it is that they don’t make it shortchange it or make it stretch on forever; it’s quite literally just right before the plot comes along right through their own front door.

Nick: And the plot is in the form of Julian Emery, an old friend of Watson’s who has recently burgled by someone trying to make off with a music box. Emery collects them and is confused in the extreme why the thief should wish to steal one of the least valuable in his collection. Holmes and Watson join Emery for a drink and we are re-introduced to the musical box which was sold at auction. It bears a striking similarity to the one which was just stolen. As the plot begins to take shape, I’ve really got to admit that there is something decidedly Doylean about the whole thing. It’s as if there was some missing story from the canon called “The Adventure of the Three Musical Boxes.”

Cat: Who knows? Maybe it’s sitting in some desk somewhere collecting dust. Admittedly, I’m not much of a musical box fan, but Emery’s actually got some pretty cool ones. The one that’s supposed to be made of glass so that you can see the mechanism on the inside is actually a nifty prop. While the three men marvel at why the thief would go after one of the boxes of lesser value, Emery plays for Holmes and Watson the musical box from the auction that wasn’t stolen. Then we are treated to something truly wonderful: Basil Rathbone’s whistling talents. I’m not surprised that Rathbone is man of many talents, but he truly is skilled in the whistling department. (He puts me to shame - I used to think being able to do the Indiana Jones theme and the William Tell Overture was impressive, but not anymore.)

Nick: To be perfectly honest, I find myself whistling the tune from time to time. I am surely not as good as the Baz, but I think my whistling skills aren’t bad. Well, Holmes and Watson depart and, only moments after they do so, Emery receives a telephone call from a woman. Inviting her over for a drink, we are introduced to the film’s femme fatale, Mrs. Hilda Courtney. And, while the series has had other femme fatales (to varying degrees of fatality), Mrs. Courtney - in my mind - reigns supreme. She’s so cold and evil, especially after her henchman brutally stabs Emery to death and she makes off with the musical box.

The most fatal of femme fatales?

Cat:  I. Freaking. Love. This. Character. Oh my god. There’s this incredible ruthless quality to everything she does that is just amazing to watch. And you can tell that she’s smart, that she is thinking through every action she takes. She comes over to Emery’s house, acting all sweet and innocent and charming, and she’s trying to get him to give her the music box he had just shown to Holmes and Watson. But before she can convince him to just give it to her, her henchman comes out of nowhere and offs Emery. And in SECONDS she drops her whole act and snaps at her henchman for killing him, leaving a body and evidence and all! I was blown away but the clear cunning and and stone-cold nature she showed, all within her first few minutes of screentime! I have thoroughly enjoyed the femme fatales that have come before her, but I have to agree - she might be the most supreme of them all.

Nick: She really is and Patricia Morrison does a great job with the role. What’s even neater is that we get another glimpse of her cunning very soon afterward. With Emery dead, Holmes and Watson vow to get to the bottom of the business and track down the other musical boxes. Tracing one of them to the Kilgour household, the detectives run into their departing charwoman on the way in. Searching the house, they discover, quite to their surprise (and ours for that matter), a little girl tied up and locked inside a closet. It dawns on Holmes that the thief was in fact the charwoman who slipped out right between his fingers. And, it soon transpires, that the old woman was Mrs. Courtney in disguise!

Cat: I have to give the girl credit though - hearing that there are other people in the house, she has the good sense to kick at the wall to get their attention. Once she’s untied, they manage to get the story out through her starting to cry: Mrs. Courtney asked her to see her music box - and then forcefully took it from her and tied her up in the closet. Holmes rushes off to see if he can figure out where Mrs. Courtney went, leaving Watson to deal with comforting the little girl, which he does...in the way that only he can. Which means he gives the girl a very strange, unasked for….duck impression. The girl looks as confused as we felt. “Uncle John” ends up looking very disappointed. (Admittedly though, it was a decent impression!)

Nick: It is quite good, albeit a little terrifying. By this time, though, the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to come together for Holmes. Knowing that the musical boxes were constructed at Dartmoor Prison, he figures that there must be some message conveyed to the prisoner’s confederates in the musical boxes. Later, at Scotland Yard, Holmes begins to believe that the criminal responsible was the same man who absconded with the Bank of England’s five pound note plates. With this information in hand, Holmes is ready to find out just what the message might be and bring the criminals to justice.

Cat: So, Mrs. Courtney is in the process of tracking down the third and final musical box. She traces it to a toy store that the third owner works at. While perusing their music box stock, she realizes that the box she seeks has already been bought - and is in the hands of Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile at Baker Street, Holmes and Watson are trying to essentially put together a puzzle without having all the pieces. What they’ve got is Holmes’ memory of the tune of Emery’s box and the box in their possession. It’s noted that there are slight differences in the music - but what this means for the code is still a bit unclear. (My guess was that it had to do with the letters of the music notes spelling something out.) Watson, in his very absent minded way, talks about what a tough time he had learning to play the piano as a kid and that he had to have the keys numbered to help him. Suddenly inspired, Holmes has a feeling that that might just be the key (get it? Key? Music? I’m hilarious) to the whole matter: it might not be the physical box, but the music that holds the message. Thus, he and Watson head out to an actors’ pub to talk to a safecracker about it.

Holmes, Watson, and a safecracker extraordinaire

Nick: The safecracker just so happens to be an old acquaintance of Holmes’ (apparently, Holmes acquitted him of murder by proving that he was breaking into a safe elsewhere at the time), and he identifies the tune as an Australian song called “The Swagman.” Because I have too much time on my hands, I have looked the tune up to see if it actually exists. I have not been able to find anything, but my research was decidedly minimal. So, if anyone knows for sure, I’d love to know. With the notes for the song in hand, Holmes sets off to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He manages to decode one part of the message which suggests that the plates have been hidden in the home of a “Dr. S.” What we also ought to mention at this point is that 221b has been broken into already. Obviously, Mrs. Courtney and her cronies were in search of the musical box, but they didn’t get their hands on it. However, in the process, someone dropped a cigarette (and we all know how Holmes gets when it comes time to identify tobacco).

Cat:  (Also, for the record? I recognized that that same acquaintanceship exists in Sherlock with Angelo, who says the same thing in A Study in Pink. Look, guys, I’m learning!) But yes, Holmes rather quickly and easily uses this cigarette to track down Mrs. Courtney - aaaand once he gets to her house, it becomes very quickly apparent that she had sort of been counting on him doing that. Meaning that he played right into her hands a bit. Whoopsie. I’d also like to point this out: in this scene at Mrs. Courtney’s house, she’s wearing this lovely gown - which has POCKETS. I’m not kidding when I say I got very, very excited about this. I get excited enough about dresses from this time period that have pockets, so seeing that they technically had them in 1946 makes so happy. Pockets are awesome, and more pieces of clothing need them. But, getting back to the plot, I have to say, I was pretty surprised and impressed that Mrs. Courtney had thought to plant that cigarette so that she could lure Holmes to her for her to dispose of him. It was kinda brilliant. And, as she says, she knew that he wouldn’t be able to resist that clue specifically. In hindsight, I suppose that should have seemed a bit obvious - but seriously, this woman’s cleverness seems to know no bounds in the movie! I love it!

A gown...with pockets!

Nick: Well, my knowledge of gowns is relatively limited. Though, I’m glad that my continual Mystery Science Theater 3000 reference “Gowns! There’s going to be gowns in this movie!” paid off in a big way this time around. And, once again, Mrs. Courtney proves herself as the most fatal of the femme fatales. Holmes is handcuffed and led away by her henchmen who drive the detective to a large garage. There, Colonel Cavanaugh (one of Mrs. Courtney’s henchman), holds Holmes at gunpoint as he asks Hamid, the hired muscle, to attach a cannister to the motor of their car. And then, he speaks possibly the most chilling line of dialogue in these 14 films...and I never caught it. What is it? “That little attachment, my dear Mr. Holmes, contains the deadly fluid known as monosulfide. The Germans used it with gratifying results in removing their undesirables.” Oh...my….that got dark.

Cat:   Yeah, I still can’t believe you  never caught that even once. At first, it gaves me pause to hear the chemical name, because that was ringing a bell from somewhere. The second I paused the movie after the line was finished, we both sort of had the same realization at the same time: they were using the one of the Nazi gas chamber gases. It really went to a dark place really quickly. We both had a moment of, “Did...did they really just say that?!” It honestly left me a little speechless. Once we collected ourselves, we got on with the show. So they turn on the car and the attachment, hang Holmes by his handcuffs off of a hook screwed into a beam, and leave. Nick swears this was a stunt double pulling this off, but Rathbone or not, Holmes pulls off some American Ninja Warrior skills and swings his legs up to grab around this beam so he can unhook himself. Either chasing after criminals is a really physically intense exercise, or Holmes was secretly a body builder.

Holmes ought to compete 

Nick: And people thought that Robert Downey Jr. was the first action hero Holmes! Well, while Holmes manages to escape the deathtrap, Mrs. Courtney returns to Baker Street in an effort to retrieve the last musical box. Of course, Watson is not much of a match for the conniving Mrs. Courtney and, after she sets off a smoke bomb (not unlike a trick which Holmes used himself in “A Scandal in Bohemia”), she discovers the musical box’s hiding spot. She makes off with it and, with her cohorts, puts the last pieces of the coded message together. Holmes returns to 221b and Watson makes an off-handed reference to Dr. Samuel Johnson which sets the cogs in Holmes’ brain going.

Cat: Watson really tries though, he really does. Next thing we know, we find the gang of criminals joining a tour through the house of Dr. Samuel Johnson (Nick, please tell me that I made you tiny bit proud once the tour guide mentioned Boswell and I grinned because I understood the reference? A teeny tiny bit?) and shortly sneaking off to linger in one of the rooms of the house - the bookshelf apparently being the hiding place of these oh-so-important Bank of England plates. (This left me with many questions though. True, a museum is a good place to keep them safe until you can send people after them - but how on Earth did they get there? When did they get there? Did no one notice them? Or the bookshelf being disturbed slightly? I think the museum needs better security.) Then, right when Mrs. Courtney and co. think they’re finally in the clear, Holmes and Watson are there at the doorway to stop them.

Nick: In terms of the Dr. Johnson and Boswell reference, yes I proud. You’re making good progress in picking up Sherlockian references. As for your questions, I cannot possibly answer them, but they are all valid and very good points. And, Holmes is on hand to sort matters out. Hamid attempts to throw a knife at the detective, but Holmes calmly shoots him in the shoulder. The plates are returned to the authorities and, after Holmes insists that it was Watson who provided the all-important clue, Watson says that he couldn’t have done it without Holmes, and away they go. Roll credits for the last time.

Cat: And cue pathetic whimpering from me as Holmes and Watson as played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce walk off laughing after a successful case for the last time. Truly though, it felt like a very fitting ending for the series. I sort of have closure. Or, at least, I will once the clostre truly sinks in. The “Baker Street Bros” go out on a high note. What pleasantly surprises me though is that it’s not evident that this was planned to be the last movie of the series (which, as I understand it, it never really was planned to be anyway?) - it’s a very natural sort of sentimental ending without any extra “farewell fanfare”, which fit better than any “grand send off” could in my mind.

Nick: As to whether this was supposed to be the last one, I have heard conflicting things. As I understand it, this was certainly Rathbone’s final film, but Universal still held the rights to the Sherlock Holmes stories until the mid-fifties. I believe that there was some talk about recasting Holmes (Universal considered actor Tom Conway and they intended on giving Nigel Bruce top billing throughout the rest of the series), but they ultimately decided against it and let the series go entirely.

Cat: I think they entirely made the right decision, if that is how that all went down. No one would have been able to replicate the magic of Rathbone and Bruce’s chemistry as Holmes and Watson. The whole dynamic would feel weird, I think. Having multiple one-off Moriartys with no explanation is one thing; a completely different Holmes is another. Sad as it is, sometimes I think it’s best to just let things end. So I’m glad they did that, and let this series end where it did.

It’s time for Final Thoughts:

Nick: Well Catharine, the honors are yours: Your Final Thoughts on Dressed to Kill.

Cat: The fact that these are my final Final Thoughts for the Rathbone Era is upsetting. :( I’m really trying to keep my views bias free from an sentiment coming from the fact that this is the final Rathbone movie, but I thought this one was really, REALLY good. I think they ended the series on a high note (pun intended). I thought Mrs. Courtney was a great antagonist and I loved every second she was on screen. Bruce and Rathbone were, as always, fantastic. I think the best way to sum up my thoughts for this film is to borrow from what you said about that early scene with Holmes and Watson in Baker Street: the whole thing just felt right. There was a familiar feeling to the whole movie that made me all warm and fuzzy inside. It all just felt like a perfect sample of the best of the Rathbone Era, and a great send off for the “gang” of the era (even though Lestrade was technically MIA). What about you, Nick? What are your final Final Thoughts on the closing film of the Basil Rathbone Era?

Nick: Going into this, I must admit that Dressed to Kill was never one of my favorite films in the Rathbone series. However, in the context of this blog and, being the culmination of a seven-month process to watch all of these movies, I have gained new appreciation for it. It’s hardly the best film in the series, but it is actually quite good. The introspective moments with Holmes and Watson are great and the plot certainly has a Doylean flavor. Mrs. Courtney is surely one of the series’ finest villains, and the whole scheme just feels really cool. While it may not be the perfect entry in the Rathbone/Bruce series, it is truly a fitting end.

Cat: I feel very similarly - and am glad I could afford you the chance to gain a new perspective on it! It really does feel strange though, to be transitioning at last to another set of films after all this time. It’s sort of the end of an era for us too, in a way. We’re not exactly “newbies” to this anymore. It’s exciting, but bittersweet at the same time. So, Nick, time for the ultimate question: especially considering your new appreciation of the film, how many deerstalkers would you award Dressed to Kill?

Nick: I had fully intended on giving this one a 3.5 out of 5, however I think I have been persuaded to give this one a solid 4.0. It is actually quite a bit better than I remember it being. In all: a really solid ending to the Rathbone/Bruce series. And you?

Cat:  I too have to give this one a 4.0 - specifically a solid one. While it’s not quite a 4.5 for me, it is a very strong and good 4.0. I think that, as the last one of the series, this one will always have a bit of a special place among the series for me.

Nick's Rating

Catharine's Rating

Next Time: The Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series may be at an end, but we’re not quite through with these “Baker Street Bros.” We’ll have a good, old-fashioned, Sherlockian retrospection. We’ll relive the good, the bad, the funny, and the just plain ugly. We’ll also give you a glimpse into the future of Back on Baker Street.