Dressed to Kill (1946)

The Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson mysteries came to an end with this, their 14th entry, in which the Baker Street duo battle suave criminals searching London for the secret hidden within three music boxes. No prizes for guessing who the victor will be – but then, the fun is in the journey.

“It’s so fearfully awkward, having a dead body lying about. Don’t you agree, Mr. Holmes?”

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

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 12
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “The truth is only arrived at… by the pain staking process of eliminating the untrue.”
Original filming dates: 22 January to February 1946
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 “The Henchman” Cording in his seventh role, playing, well, “Hamid the henchman”; Frederick Warlock, Leyland Hodgson and Gerald Hamer appeared for the sixth time in the series; as did Olaf Hytten, here seen as the assistant in the auction house. Ian Wolfe made his fourth appearance, as the police Commissioner; and this was Sally Shepherd’s third appearance, as the tobacconist.

Sherlock Holmes: If you must record my exploits, I do wish you would put less emphasis on the melodramatic and more on the intellectual issues involved.

The story, originally announced as Prelude to Murder, is not directly based on any of the original stories, though there are strong elements taken from “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Solitary Cyclist” (which are referenced directly by name) as well as “The Six Napoleons” which was the credited source for the seventh film in the series, The Pearl of Death. This is not nearly as good as that film and is only an average entry in the series – but then, having made a dozen films in less than four years, a bit of fatigue was bound to become evident eventually, as well as a tendency to perhaps look back for inspiration. And certainly there is a ‘greatest hits’ feeling to much of this film. The central plot is modeled very closely on The Pearl of Death, so much so in fact as to almost constitute a remake.

As in that film, a thief steals a valuable object but is captured so soon that he has to hide the item and then sets about recovering it by sending messages to confederates while in jail. The confederates are made up of trio of villains: an older man (Warlock), a young woman with a penchant for disguises (Patricia Morrison, wonderful as the title character) and a murderous henchman (Cording) who is madly in love with the woman. To find the stolen object, they enter into a race against time as they must search in several places to get what they need, with Holmes trying to get there first of course. Dressed to Kill also followed in the pattern of many of the most recent titles in the series by having Holmes square off against a femme fatale – and once again, Holmes and the female villain have a mutual admiration for their skills.

In addition, the basic structure of the story goes back to the second film of the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, in which a code has been split up in three locations and must all be brought together to be deciphered (this is derived from Doyle’s “The Dancing Men” incidentally). So while the plot is a bit tired and overly familiar, there is much to enjoy here too. There is some great dialogue and Patricia Morison is a wonderful villainess – indeed, she rather steals the show as Hilda Courtney even if she does seem to be channeling Gale Sondergaard sometimes (in one scene she lets off a smoke bomb in Baker Street as part of her plans to best the detective, which is taken from The Spider Woman). There is a great scene in which she seduces an old friend of Dr Watson’s (a very droll performance by Edmund Breon who even removes his toupee on camera to make his scenes even more fun) to retrieve a music box (which is the McGuffin instead of the busts of Napoleon from Pearl of Death). This is capped by a great visual flourish when, after he is killed by her henchman (Harry Cording, sadly no match for Pearl‘s Rondo Hatton), she has to retrieve her fur stole from under him.

On the other hand, while the (admittedly, fairly silly) attempt to kill Holmes by gassing him is fun due to its unnecessary over-elaboration, the film has no real climax, just a confrontation with all the parties. Which is a bit of a shame. On the other hand, Watson gets to do his imitation of a duck to try and cheer up a frightened young girl and, along with the inevitable bumbling, provides the two major triggers for Holmes to solve the case. Plus the film ends with this sweet dialogue, which really does give it a valedictory feel:

Inspector Hopkins: I still don’t understand how you solved it, Mr. Holmes.
Holmes: It’s entirely due to Doctor Watson. He gave me the clue when he mentioned Doctor Samuel Johnson.
Inspector Hopkins: Well, congratulations, Doctor.
Watson: Oh, thank you, Inspector. I don’t think I could have done it entirely without Mr. Holmes’ help, you know.

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 very good indeed. Not quite up to the standard of Terror by Night, but very close all the same.

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

Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Leonard Lee, 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), Mary Gordon (Mrs Hudson), Patricia Morison, Edmund Breon, Patricia Cameron, Carl Harbord

***** (2.5 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.

32 Responses to Dressed to Kill (1946)

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    I do love these. For several reasons–not least that they were the first visual Homes experience I ever had. I really like Rathbone as Holmes and fervently wish they had done the stories in period–though I do understand what they were doing with the updating during the war years. And–though I do like Nigel Bruce–I wish Watson hadn’t been so bumbling.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    As always, Sergio, a thoughtful and well-written review, for which thanks. I’m always surprised, really, at how much Rathbone and Bruce accomplished with these films. As you say, they did several in a short time, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Of course, that does risk impacting the quality, but it was ambitious!

  3. Sergio – Thanks for the review. Even with its flaws, this Holmes series was always enjoyable, and Rathbone as Holmes should be required viewing. Director Roy William Neill gave the films a great, moody look. Do you think the series came to an end in 1946 because Neill died that year? Or, do you think the series just ran out of gas?

    • Rathbone decided to quit and gave his notice long before Neill’s death. They might have re-cast as they did on radio with Tom Conway but Neill’s passing probably put the final kibosh on it

  4. Colin says:

    It’s been a good while since I last saw this film – I’m not entirely sure why but last entries in series always leave me a little melancholy, I think, so that may partially explain it.I do recall that feeling you mention, the mash-up aspect, where there are elements of the story that seemed familiar but just not as successfully executed as they had been before.

    • I’ve been putting this one off in fact but it’s a decent send-off, which did matter to me, must admit. I mean, sure, getting Zucco back as Moriarty and a climax in the British Museum, say, would have been better, but one suspects they did not quite have the energy reserves any longer …

      • Colin says:

        Yes, you really don’t want a series you enjoy to go out on a bum note. Recycling aside, I don’t recall this film as being a poor one, just a bit weaker than the mid-series high pots.
        Glad you made your way through reviews of the entire run of movies too!

        • If the series had ended on Pursuit to Algiers that would have been a huge disappointment. Instead we have a film that works perfectly well and is a gentle summary of many of the series’ best qualities, with its splendid two leads and never-never land England. Bestride would have made it perfect but you can’t have everything and he did get a really good send off in the previous entry after all.

          • Colin says:

            Indeed. All told, the series holds up pretty well. The are a few peaks and troughs but the quality is reasonably consistent from start to finish.

          • At Fox the Moto and Chan series are the only other ones I can think of that were as consistent – even the Thin Man series, which I loved, tailed off pretty badly at the end.

          • Colin says:

            I agree on the Fox movies, although the Chan titles did dip noticeably after the move to Monogram, even more so in my opinion when Toler departed.
            I seem to remember The Falcon being quite solid, if unremarkable at times, but I’d really need to watch them in sequence again to see if the memory cheats.

          • Well, I liked the Saint and Falcon films with George Sanders a lot – I though the Falcon films got a bit ropey quite quickly once Tom Conway took over. There are those who say they really like the Monogram Chans, but the Fox films, right to the end, were really superior in every way.

          • Colin says:

            The Fox films benefited from much stronger production values, and everything that went with that. The Monogram stuff is still entertaining for the most part, although some are very weak indeed, but just look and feel a whole lot cheaper.

          • The Fox B unit was probably the most impressive in those terms, I agree. Deep down MGM never really admit to even having a B unit until the 1950s … There are several other series, like the Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, the Crime Doctor, et al, that I wish I were much more familiar with. Saw some on TV in the 1980s probably on Channel 4 late at night but that’s about it really.

          • Colin says:

            I’ve seen all of those, but a long time ago on Irish TV and my memories really can’t go further than to say I’ve watched them. The Whistler series has been released on DVD but as expensive Sony MOD jobs when they really need to be collected together in a more economical form.

          • Yeah, you tell ’em Colin! 🙂 Actually, not re-watched any of the Chans in ages and really want to now …

          • Colin says:

            I know the Oland titles are generally more highly rated but I’m very fond of the ones Toler did at Fox, superbly atmospheric stuff in general.

          • The production values for Toler at Fox is really impressive – love the episodes directed by Norman Foster and Harry Lachman especially

          • Colin says:

            At Treasure Island is just marvelous, although I’m quite fond of Murder Cruise as well.

          • Yes, no argument from me at all. Really must watch some again during the hols!

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    Pretty sure I never saw this one.

  6. tracybham says:

    This one sounds like fun. We watched The Spider Woman recently and have several more on our Netflix queue, hoping to watch those soon.

    I saw the comments above on the Charlie Chan movies. We are rewatching all of our Charlie Chan movies and are now into the Sidney Toler movies. Last night we watched Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum , which was fun.

  7. Mike says:

    Well done Sergio, on your very droll discussion of a series that never fails to entertain. Watching them all again fairly recently and close together, the repetitious elements of the series become more apparent and it seems clear they were working to almost a ticklist of things to include and that had to happen. I suppose that’s an inevitable consequence of making so many films in a relatively short space of time, on limited budgets, and sticking to a formula. Having said that, the fun factor and the indestructible chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce were both there in this last entry, and it all left me feeling a little sad that it finished here, albeit with hours of radio drama to follow.

    • Thanks very much for that Mike. They are great fun and I know I will watch them all again soon enough (especially with the lovely editions on Blu-ray). I wish more of their radio episodes survived but I think there are about 30 of them extant, which is pretty impressive. Must listen to mor elf those as I love audio drama 🙂

      • Mike says:

        Yes and thanks again for the recommendation of the Blu-Ray set – can’t love it enough!

        I get the impression that ‘they’ are missing a trick by not including the surviving radio episodes as an extra on some new set. Perhaps this is something to do with a rights issue that I can’t even begin to fathom, however they are available to listen to easily enough and for afficionados they are pretty much more of the same, right?

        • There are a couple of radio dramas on the set, right? I think the assumption is that they are all PD now – Holmes certainly is. It would be jolly nice if someone did a nice long documentary on the long-lived radio show – that I would really appreciate.

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