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.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Experiment #13 - "Terror by Night" (1946)



When you picture Sherlock Holmes a few images naturally spring to mind. It’s not hard to picture the detective, dressed in his Inverness cloak and deerstalker hat, rushing out into the foggy London night, a pipe clenched between his teeth and a magnifying glass to his eye in search of clues to solve a baffling mystery. As painfully stereotypical as this image may be, it feels right. So, there’s something decidedly not right about Sherlock Holmes singing and dancing. And yet, Sherlock Holmes musicals do exist.

Nick: While they may not be very popular, there have been a number of Sherlock Holmes musicals which have done their best to show that Holmes can sing and dance. By far, the most famous Sherlockian musical in Broadway history was 1965’s Baker Street. The show premiered on Broadway in 1965 and was written by Jerome Coopersmith with music and lyrics by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel. The plot involved Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler romancing Sherlock Holmes. The show was not a runaway success, but its soundtrack can still be found online, including one song sung by the great detective called “It’s So Simple.”

Cat: Which is...an interesting listening experience. Now let it be known, that I am definitely a fan of musicals and I like the way music expresses stuff a lot. And I have to say...it’s not really as bad as you’d imagine. The tune is actually really catchy. The song itself is Holmes rattling off some deductions about a new client, and it’s almost has a feeling of “so wrong, it’s right”. On one hand, some might find the idea of Sherlock Holmes singing to be extremely appalling - but on the other, if he had to sing and dance, this seems like it feels pretty accurate (especially given that this is a song from 1965). I’m honestly a bit conflicted here. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. (And it’s now stuck in my head. Thanks, Nick.)

Nick: Sure thing Catharine. And, to be entirely honest, I actually quite like the song. When I first listened to it I thought that I would not, but it’s fun. It sounds very much like your typical song from a musical of the ‘60s, but it works. Now, Baker Street may have been the most famous legitimate Sherlock Holmes musical, but there were many others including one which adapted the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and had Holmes sing a version of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” However, my personal favorite Sherlock Holmes musical technically has nothing to do with Holmes: My Fair Lady. Based, of course, on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the character of Professor Henry Higgins has a very Sherlockian vibe to him as is evidenced in some of his songs (particularly “Why Can’t the English” and “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man”).

Cat: I’m actually not really familiar much at all with My Fair Lady, so I can’t comment on this too much, but after listening to “Why Can’t the English”, I guess I can see that a little bit? I’m not going to deny that I could see a similarity, but it’s nothing that jumps out at me on a first-listen.

Nick: Well, maybe with a bit more context the Sherlockian connection does become a little more apparent: Higgins knows dialects and accents like the back of his hand, is best friends with a military man recently back from India, lives an eccentric lifestyle, and is cruel to his long-suffering housekeeper. My Fair Lady also has an interesting Sherlockian connection: Young socialite Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who falls in love with Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle, is played by a young Jeremy Brett! Though Brett was an accomplished singer, his voice is dubbed in the film. All-the-same, Freddy's song, "On the Street Where You Live" is a genuine highlight.

Cat: Indeed it is, because Baby Jeremy Brett is pretty adorable. Can’t help but wonder why it was that they dubbed him over though. It would seem that Sherlock Holmes will appear in musicals, whether people like it or not. (And that’s not even counting the handfuls of serious and out-there fan-made “musicals” people have put together with clips of songs and various Sherlock Holmes media!)

Nick: Yes, some of those fan-made musicals can be pretty clever and fun. And, it’s a good point that Sherlock Holmes will appear in musicals whether people like it or not because, as we saw last time in Pursuit to Algiers, musicals will appear in Sherlock Holmes whether people like it or not...FOUR MUSICAL NUMBERS! Ugh...
Cat: Nick, some things you just have to let go...and a song lasting not even minute doesn’t count as a musical number!

As you can see this is still a touchy subject around these parts. Perhaps it would be for the best if we moved on with the subject of today’s review.

Vital Statistics:
Terror by Night (1946)
Major motion picture
Starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Alan Mowbray (Major Duncan Blek), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Renee Godfrey (Vivian Vedder), Frederick Worlock (Professor Kilbane)
60 minutes, black-and-white


Nick: I don’t know about you Catharine, but I just think this one has a bit of a weird vibe. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s one of the more unusual entries, I think, in the Rathbone/Bruce series.

Cat: You too?! I was going to ask you the same thing. It’s hard to even put why it’s weird into words for me. I kind of think it’s because the movie starts off with Holmes and Watson already engaged in a ‘case’ that we just jump into. That made it feel a bit off from the beginning for me at least.

Nick: Yeah, it is a little in medias res one supposes. It’s also interesting that we start out meeting one of the film’s suspects first; Renee Godfrey’s Vivian Vedder who is buying a special coffin from a coffin-maker in London. Not to criticize the movie too harshly right off the bat, but it’s fairly obvious that the movie is trying so hard to make her out to be a femme fatale in the style of some of the earlier women antagonists, and it just never really comes off. (The scene isn’t helped by the obviously overacting coffin-maker’s assistant who seems to be utter awe at the sight of Godfrey as he stands with his mouth open, his tongue practically hanging out of his mouth.)

Cat: Yeah, I thought that was a little odd because then, once the action picks up on the train - the main setting of the movie - they don’t really do too much with her. So they don’t even successfully turn her into a femme fatale character. Her character seems to be quite literally for show and little else. Though there wasn’t much character development done with anyone else, so it’s not like that’s a problem for just her character.

The Client, The Femme Fatale, and The Detective

Nick: It is true. Her character delivers one bit of important information to Holmes and little else. As Catharine alluded to above, the majority of this movie does take place on a train where Holmes has been tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the priceless diamond, The Star of Rhodesia. I must take a moment to thank Catharine for pointing out that Rhodesia is the same kingdom where King Nikolas was from in Pursuit to Algiers which, I suppose, sets up some kind of internal continuity in the series. And, quite like Pursuit to Algiers, once on the train, Holmes and Watson are introduced to a number of odd characters who act as suspects and red herrings throughout the entire film.

Cat: So perhaps it’s just the involvement of Rhodesia that is what makes these movies so boring for you? Perhaps the country just has this dull-air that touches all that involves it? ...Or maybe it’s just a weird little coincidence and I get easily carried away. But like Nick said, it’s essentially the same type of a story, but this time it’s on a train. Although this film is already better than Pursuit to Algiers because, as we find out in the first few minutes, Inspector Lestrade happens to be on the same train so he can go on a fishing trip! Oh, Dennis Hoey, how I’ve missed you. I can’t express how much joy he brings me every time he’s on screen.

Nick: Having Dennis Hoey around does make any movie a little bit better. And, though he’s nothing like the canonical Lestrade, Hoey’s inspector is just a lot of fun. To this day, I always read Lestrade’s dialogue in a Cockney accent as a bit of an homage to Hoey. In the same way as Nigel Bruce, his bumbling and buffoonery is endearing and enjoyable. It’s also amusing that he’s trying to travel incognito but drops the guise as soon as the Star is stolen and the man carrying it is murdered (which is, in a nutshell, the plot of this movie).

Cat: Having Dennis Hoey around makes EVERYTHING better! Oddly enough, while it took some time for me to warm up to Nigel Bruce’s “buffoonery”, as you call it, I loved Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade from just about the moment I met him. He absolutely cracks me up. Watching him try to take over the investigation of the theft and murder was pleasantly amusing - especially since he’s the only one on the train who, legally speaking, should be in charge of such an investigation. (Now, if we’re speaking about capability, that’s something a bit different…) At least he tries to get to the bottom of things.

Nick: It is true; Lestrade is hardly capable of handling this investigation. But, since he is in charge, he insists on questioning everyone in the train car and employs Holmes and Watson to help. This leads to, what I think, is actually one of the film’s funnier running gags. Watson begins to question a couple who admit to a theft and, believing that he’s caught the culprit, excitedly reports it to Holmes and Lestrade only to discover that the theft in question was a teapot from a London hotel. The look of disappointment on Watson’s face coupled with Lestrade’s repeated, aggravated mumblings of “Teapots!” is really quite amusing.

Lestrade and his teapots

Cat: It truly is. Especially because Nigel Bruce and Dennis Hoey have this beautiful dynamic where they keep trying to prove themselves smarter or more capable around Holmes - very much like two small children stubbornly competing for affection and praise. (Poor Holmes.) So every time Watson messes up like that, Lestrade gets all high and mighty about it and vice versa. While perhaps not the most accurate characterizations, they certainly are true. Watching that play out makes all the questionings very entertaining. I think my personal favorite parts of this gag was when Watson also tried to question Professor Kilbane and only succeeds in aggravating him and getting himself sent out of his train compartment. Watson really does try to be helpful, but it so rarely turns out well.

Nick: Not only does Watson get himself sent out of the compartment, but Kilbane turns the tables on the good doctor and actually accuses him of the murder! All-the-while though, Holmes is beginning to believe that the theft of the Star of Rhodesia may have been committed by the late Professor Moriarty’s right-hand man, Colonel Sebastian Moran. As he comes closer to the truth, Watson’s friend - and fellow traveler - Major Duncan Bleek decides to throw his hat into the detecting ring and try to give the detectives a hand but, as it soon transpires, Bleek is actually Colonel Moran!

Cat: Yeah...I’m still trying to make sense of that twist. It comes out at the end of the film, though Holmes suspects it for a bit before that, but we never get any real explanation about the unspoken implications about that. You hear Watson and Bleek/Moran talk about their military past together, but once the reveal of Bleek’s true identity happens, you never get Watson’s opinions or feelings on the matter. I don’t think they even specifically mention what the motive here was supposed to be?

Colonel Sebastian Moran!

Nick: That is true. Moran is sort of just being evil for the sake of being evil. It is cool that Sebastian Moran turns up as the major villain in this movie though. So often he’s overlooked as a villain, but he has such a fascinating story in the canon. There’s even a neat anthology of short stories which are told by Moran as he acts as Moriarty’s sidekick as they go committing crimes all over London. It’s a lot of fun! There’s another nice canonical reference in this movie in that the coffin which Vivian brought aboard has a secret compartment allowing Moran to smuggle his confederate aboard the train. The secret-compartment-in-the-coffin trick is lifted from the story “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.”

Cat: Ooh, cool! But yeah, it feels a bit strange because you find out “whodunit” - but without any “whydunit”. That threw me a bit. But here’s how it works out: the train stops and picks up a few Scottish police officers (or as I like to call them “the real Scotland Yarders”) and Holmes gathers them, Watson, “Bleek”, and Lestrade to spell out how everything has occured in the dining car. Through this explanation, he tells everyone that Bleek is indeed Moran and after denying it for a moment, he admits it as true. Though, as I said earlier, we don’t get much of a reaction from Watson over this news, though he happened to be seated on a bench next to where Moran was standing. In a rare moment of sheer awesome-ness for Bruce’s Watson, he punches him and initiates a scuffle that ends with Holmes overpowering Moran in the dark and handing him off with his jacket pulled over his head to the Scottish officers, who exit the train with Moran in handcuffs….or so it would seem. Only once they’re gone does Holmes reveal that the police officers were really some of Moran’s comrades, who were hoping to take him with them, but they ended up getting Lestrade. While Lestrade takes control of that situation, Holmes puts the real Moran (who was stashed under a table in the fight) in handcuffs and everything seems to work itself out alright. Keep in mind though, this all happens in roughly seven minutes or so? It’s a bit of a rush.

Nick: Seven minutes is a very accurate estimate. Like a lot of these latter Rathbone films, they end really, really quickly and this one is no exception. However, this whole finale is actually pretty well-done and interesting and it throws in one last twist to keep the audience on their toes. I also really like the reference to the Scottish Inspector MacDonald who assists Holmes in the novel The Valley of Fear. Of course, this Inspector MacDonald is not all he seems to be.

Inspector MacDonald...or is it?

Cat: It definitely is, and I enjoyed it, but it felt very quick and almost as if there were multiple things that went unresolved. I would’ve really liked to see it stretch on for just a few more moments to wrap things up just a bit better. And on the note of Inspector MacDonald, I thought it very funny when Holmes informs Moran that he has been entirely thwarted that he says that he actually knows Inspector MacDonald, so his attempt was in vain practically from the beginning. That made me giggle a bit.

Nick: That is a pretty amusing bit. The other bit which made Catharine and I laugh was the random sarcophagus which can be found in the train’s baggage car. It’s just standing there as if it were a completely normal item to cart around. I like to think that it’s the mummy which the two archaeologists in Pursuit to Algiers dug up.

Cat: Wouldn’t be surprised, as there was apparently some unintentional continuity here. (Though we can’t keep straight the fact that there have been three Moriartys, who all have had on/mostly onscreen deaths...just saying...)

Nick: Well, they’re obviously three brothers named James…

Cat:  Oh, of course. No other possible explanation. (Though technically they have to still be siblings with a somewhat logical age gap that spans the typical Victorian era and the 40s. But it could still work. Maybe George Zucco was a cousin or something...or the other two Moriartys’ father! ….Or maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.)

Nick: Yeah. Not a bad idea...   
It’s time for Final Thoughts:

Nick: If it seems like we really have not had much to say about Terror by Night it’s because there isn’t much to say. It’s really one of the most straightforward films in the series with a simple plot and simple consequences of the plot. Really, when you sit back and think about it, this movie is comprised of going back and forth down one stretch of hallway questioning suspects. And, while something like Murder on the Orient Express springs to mind as an obvious similar story, that story had a more complex plot and a fascinating cast of characters which really held your interest, I don’t know if I can say the same for Terror by Night. It is, I think, a distinct step up from Pursuit to Algiers, but it just feels a bit dull and, even though it’s the shortest movie in the Rathbone/Bruce series (clocking in at just one hour), it actually, at times, feels longer. That is not to say, however, that this movie is all bad. The inclusion of Colonel Moran is a definite plus as are the references to Doyle and the complex finale. The scene where Moran attempts to kick Holmes from the train is also a neat one. It’s not especially suspenseful or exciting, but it’s a welcome breath of fresh air in the plot. So, overall, I think Terror by Night is pretty ho-hum. And you Catharine? Your thoughts?

Oh...yeah, Holmes was almost pushed off the train...

Cat: For the most part, I have to agree. While I didn’t think that Pursuit to Algiers was the painful bore-fest that you did, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, this did feel like a definite step up. I liked the scene where Holmes get pushed out of the train - a moment we glossed over, but it had me on the edge of my seat - and I definitely liked the ending. I thought it was cool that they used Moran as an actual character, because even with my limited knowledge, I know that’s not exactly frequently uttered name. It got a bit dull at times leading up to the ending, with the dead ends and the going in circles with the suspects on the train, but even still, it wasn’t awful. It just wasn’t particularly exciting. Even still, though I did really enjoy the ending, I still wish there had been just a bit more resolution - especially with the revelation that Watson must’ve had that he had served with the right-hand man of the Napoleon of Crime! And, even in the less exciting moments, there were the antics of Lestrade and Watson to keep me giggling and entertained (if not interested). I think that about sums it up for me, actually. Entertained, if not always interested.

Nick: That’s an excellent way of summing up this movie. Well, I guess the last bit of business would be to give it our deerstalker ratings. I’ll go for a 3 out of 5 with this one. Not bad, but this is one which I seldom find myself going back to. And you?

Cat: I think I have to go with a 4.0 at the most and a 3.5 at the worst. After the movie was over, I had felt decently enough satisfied with what I had seen, and I really did like that ending and the use of moran as the culprit of it all. I’m only really noticing some of these duller moments now that I look back on it and pick it apart. I would have liked a bit more from it, but with what I got, I really did like it alright enough!

Nick: Wow! A 4.0! That’s pretty high. I must say that if this movie ends up with a higher rating than Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Seven Per-Cent Solution, or Murder by Decree, I’ll end up rather upset!

Cat: Nick, I will rate these movies as I please. And besides, if that’s all that I do that upsets you on this blog, I’ll be rather disappointed in myself. ;)

Nick's Rating
Catharine's Rating

Next Time: The Basil Rathbone era ends on a rather poignant note. (That’s a pun because the plot of Dressed to Kill involves musical boxes. Get it?)