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.)
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.
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.