Terror by Night (1946)

The Holmes and Watson series picked itself right up again with this train-bound adventure that comes as very welcome after the disappointment of Pursuit to Algiers. It was also the swansong for Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade.

Holmes: The Inspector’s going to Scotland to fish for salmon!
Watson: Oh really? The season doesn’t start for another month, but you wouldn’t know that, would you?
Lestrade: ‘Oo says I’m gonna fish fer salmon?
Watson: ‘Oo? ‘Im!

The following review is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 11
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “Oh, yes, curry! Horrible stuff!”
Original filming dates: 9 October 1945 to early November 1945
Sherlock in disguise: no
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have: Harry Cording, appearing in the sixth of his seven appearances in a small role as the coffin-maker; Frederick Warlock, Gerald Hamer and Leyland Hodgson made the fifth of their six appearances in the series.

Sherlock Holmes: Did you discover anything, Watson?
Dr. Watson: Yes. He’s a very suspicious character. He tried to put me off the scent.
Sherlock Holmes: From the little I heard, he seemed reasonably successful.

Holmes and Watson have accepted an assignment to protect the ‘Star of Rhodesia’ – a huge diamond – that is being transported by train to Edinburgh. It transpires that Holmes accepted this rather routine assignment in the belief that Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s most senior confederate, will attempt to steal it. The only trouble is that Holmes has no idea what Moran looks like! And soon enough there is a murder and the diamond is stolen – but who could it be? The pompous professor (Frederick Warlock)? The suspicious married couple (Hamer and Janet Murdoch)? Or even the actual owner of the diamond (Mary Forbes) – would she kill her own son as part of an insurance scam? And what about the woman in black (Renee Godfrey) taking her mother’s body to Scotland for burial? And what about Dr Watson’s old friend (Alan Mowbray)? Surely it can’t be him, can it?

There are plenty of red herrings here and there is a wonderful scene in which Bruce goes to interrogate the professor about his movements. In a fun reversal the other man refuses to play ball and quickly attacks the unofficial status of Holmes and Watson (this is especially amusing as apparently Bruce, when it came to his role in the British community in Hollywood, was known to take a somewhat patrician approach). But this was also to be the last appearance of Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade and he gets a very decent-sized role for his farewell – there is an especially good, extended scene with Rathbone in which the two of them sit in a carriage alone and go over the case.

This is not based on a Doyle story but draws on elements from several canonical works. Moran appeared in ‘The Empty House’ and the coffin with the false bottom is from ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Fairfax’ – but otherwise Frank Gruber’s lively script is his own. It mainly follows in the tracks of such popular films as The Lady Vanishes (1939), which in fact Roy William Neill was initially assigned to direct before the production was delayed and later taken over by Alfred Hitchcock. The basic story is solid enough but is livened up by an unusual murder method and pulls off a couple of genuine plot surprises in the final reel that many viewers won’t see coming, and you can’t say that very often in this series.

Frederick Warlock has a great time as the grumpy professor while Renee Godfrey, it has to be said, is highly unconvincing, not least due to a wretched attempt at an English accent. But she is every inch the glamorous femme fatale and looks wonderful throughout, so she is easily forgiven (well, at least by me).

At barely sixty minutes, and with a fair amount of stock footage being used (mixing real trains and models with considerable dexterity), this is a very fast-paced adventure. A few red-herrings probably could have benefitted from some additional running time and it would have been nice if our duo had been seen in Baker Street – indeed, it does feel like the first reel of the film, which would have introduced the McGuffin and the main story, has simply been omitted. But then shooting was disrupted by industrial action and this was already the most expensive entry in the series (a quarter of a million dollars) with its longest schedule (22 days of shooting), in part due to the demands of back projection, so perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised.

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent and this one looks absolutely terrific, one of the best in the set.

For my microsite devoted to Universal Studios’ Holmes and Watson series, click here.

Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Frank Gruber
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Abraham Grossman
Music: Frank Skinner (theme music), Milton Roser (musical director)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Alan Mowbray, Renee Godfrey, Mary Forbes, Janet Murdoch

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, London, Scotland, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Terror by Night (1946)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I love it that these episodes are being so well-preserved, Sergio. Even if there are some – ahem – less than stellar examples in the series, I think it’s just so much a part of literary and film history that it’s good to know it’s being curated.

  2. Colin says:

    It’s a solid B mystery and neatly cast. The setting helps a lot, I think, but that wouldn’t be enough on its own. The puzzle is diverting and, as you say, some of the interaction bumps it up a notch.

    • I think ti works a bit harder than such a late entry would, which earns it brownie points. On the other hand, it sticks closely to the train genre template. But Hoey’s Lestrade gets a nice sendoff, which is important.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, as I say, solid – that train genre template is a sound formula and ought to form the basis of an entertaining enough movie, but of course that’s only one aspect to consider.
        There is a temptation to focus on the two leads and that means the supporting players, who either turned up frequently in different roles or (like Hoey) appeared regularly as the same character. I really like how you single out those recurring faces film by film. Hoey added a lot of value to the series and does deserve particular mention.

  3. Jeff Flugel says:

    As a matter of fact, Sergio, I just watched this one the other week for the first time. It is a fun ride, not what I’d recognize as particularly true to Conan Doyle, of course, but as a B-programmer, it was very enjoyable, with the regulars on good form. And Renee Godfrey, as you say, was extremely easy on the eyes, atrocious accent and all.

  4. Mike says:

    Excellent stuff Sergio. I decided to rewatch the film after seeing your review was up (and before reading it), because it’s only an hour and honestly, there aren’t many better ways to while away an hour, I feel.

    Nothing to disagree with in what you said – it’s a very fine late entry, several good red herrings, especially nice to see Dennis Hoey given something useful to do rather than act as second blunderer to Watson, Rathbone determined to give nothing away while even that act tells the viewer everything about what he’s thinking. It’s a very subtle performance, as always, and I love little moments like that sideways glance he gives to Renee Godfrey in the dining car, nothing sexual about it, more the sense of absolutely being sized up for her potential as a murderer. Great stuff. Thanks for posting. I enjoyed your comments and the film a great deal.

  5. tracybham says:

    I would watch this just for the train setting. Thanks for the review. I have added it to our Netflix queue.

  6. Sergio, a murder and a stolen diamond seem like a common enough plot though it’d be interesting to see how Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce go about solving the case. I have never seen Rathbone as Holmes, and that’s something I must do one weekend. Rathbone’s Holmes appears to be rather witty in this episode.

    • I hope you get to watch some of these eventually Prashant, I have really enjoyed watching them all again. This is not the best, and absolutely follows the standard rules for trains films, but is very entertaining. Good way to spend an hours I;d say 🙂

  7. There are somethings about this film that I love and also something I don’t. I disliked Watson being made a fool of (with Holmes’ indulgence) by that university professor – I always fast forward through that scene which, by the way, runs on too long. I love the scene where Holmes is attacked and has to hang on to the outside of the train – very well done. I also love the actor who plays that nasty, snobbish woman’s son – so damn sad.. She is played as an enigma – I still don’t get her. I also like the actress who plays the dark haired woman accompanying the coffin on the train. She is unintentionally hilarious but in a good way. Her accent – HA! I too love seeing all the stock company of supporting actors. Fun to pick them out in every film. Enjoyed your review, Prashant. I’m so glad you’re a fan of these films too.

  8. Pingback: Dressed to Kill (1946) | Tipping My Fedora

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