Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dressed to Kill - 1946


“Dressed to Kill” (1946) is the final “Sherlock Holmes” film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, capping a series of 14 movies. That’s enough reason watch, but you may find watching difficult as copies of this public domain movie are not in great condition.

I’ll not go too deep into the plot as anything is likely to be a spoiler in a mystery. The story unfolds, however, in a nice way that lets us see the clues at the same time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson do. In a lot of mysteries, movies as well as books, there are facts not revealed to us until the end, but the deduction has a real-time feel here. We know as much as they do. Mr. Rathbone is the cerebral and unemotional Mr. Holmes, and Mr. Bruce is the jovial Dr. Watson, who chronicles Sherlock’s exploits in the Strand.

A prison inmate makes plain wooden music boxes, and they are sold at auction to collectors and toy store owners. We eventually discover that the music boxes contain clues to hidden plates that were used in a forgery scheme. His gang on the outside are retrieving the music boxes to get the clues, to get the plates.


Though the series was fun, I was never quite reconciled to placing Sherlock outside his Victorian era. The only time we see his deerstalker hat in this movie is a brief glimpse in the background, resting on a wig stand. It looks a little sad.



Dr. Watson, again, provides the comic relief, particularly when comforting a little girl they’ve rescued. He is left to babysit and tries to amuse her by making duck sounds. This distresses her more.

His old school chum “Stinky”, played by Edmund Breon, drops by. He happens to be a music box collector and so finds himself tangled in the mystery. Dr. Watson may have the friend with the funny name, but Stinky is Public School and patrician all the same, despite his goofiness.

Sherlock, on the other hand, has friends in lower society, such as the busker in the pub for street singers who helps him trace a tune from a music box as a clue. He’s a scruffy-looking fellow, but all business and with far more dignity than the clownish Stinky.

The title of the movie, which doesn’t sound like a Sherlock Holmes story at all (unless somebody was murdered during Fashion Week in NYC), comes from the villain’s wearing disguises to commit crimes.

Patricia Morison plays a music box buyer who visits their bachelor pad, and becomes a problem, as women will be, particularly with bachelors.

Mary Gordon is back as Mrs. Hudson, their housekeeper at 221B Baker Street.

The plot moves briskly along, and at one point Basil Rathbone must work his way out of a “certain death” trap like Houdini. This scene is actually the most chilling in the movie; not for his struggle to escape, but because the bad guys who tie him up leave him in a room with a canister of poison gas. He is told, “The Germans used it with gratifying results in removing their undesirables.”

This was early 1946, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were still raw and still being uncovered. A startling and somewhat sickening line.

For a generation, and generations afterward, Basil Rathbone WAS Sherlock Holmes. For a look at the man who held the title before him, visit my New England Travels blog for Tuesday’s post on William Gillette, who played Sherlock on stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He coined many of the attributes we think of when we think of Sherlock Holmes, and built an extraordinary castle on the Connecticut River.

13 comments:

Nick Thomas said...

Nice. Even though I know the endings, I can watch those Rathbone/Bruce films over and over. They were so good together.

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Nice post... I love all the Rathbone/Bruce "Sherlock Holmes" films. It's funny how you mentioned the deerstalker cap. That was something that happened when the series switched from Fox Studios to Universal. Universal wanted to "update" Holmes so they switched him from wearing the deerstalker cap to a fedora. In the first film at Universal "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" Holmes reaches for his deerstalker and cape and Watson says "No, Holmes. You promised". After which Holmes instead grabs an overcoat and fedora. The BluRay release of the series has pristine copies of all the films. A really nice set for Holmes fans ...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Nick and Dave. I'm glad good copies of the films are still available to fans. I love that bit about "No, Holmes. You promised."

Yvette said...

Jacqueline, this is one of the better Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes films, I agree. Too bad the versions available are not in good shape.

Another film in this series that I like very much is SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH and again, the copies available are in abominable condition.

Caftan Woman said...

Poor Stinky. I always feel a little sorry for the old goat.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I hope to work my way through more of the series, lousy prints or not. I've only seen a few, and that was as a child.

Caftan Woman, I feel sorry for anybody named Stinky.

ClassicBecky said...

I agree completely that they should not have removed Holmes and Watson from the Victorian era. I will never understand they this marvelous duo was not used to do actual Conan Doyle stories, and many more of them. What an opportunity was missed!

I really like this clever story about the music boxes - very good. You know, you have written as much of a little tribute to Rathbone and Bruce as a review of the movie. It is also well-done. I'd like to give your post a shout-out on my sidebar, where I do a Highlight series for articles I really like.

Grand Old Movies said...

I have a kind of fondness for "Dressed to Kill" (though I don't think it was the best in the series) because it's the first Rathbone-as-Holmes film I recall seeing. (I'm glad you explained the title! I never could quite figure it out!) One interesting bit in the movie is when Holmes listens to the music box tune and then whistles it again perfectly - a nice way to illustrate Holmes' musical ability. Patricia Morison, along with Hilary Brooke, is one of the memorable femme fatales in this series - her seductive scene with 'Stinky' is a highlight!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Becky, and I appreciate the shout-out.

I also like that part where Holmes whistles the music box tune after hearing it only once.

I always get a kick out of seeing how the "series" movies have such a loyal fanbase.

LucieWickfield said...

Hmmm, I've never been able to get up the nerve to watch a Sherlock Holmes movie, but this might be it. Somehow, I think I'd be crushed if Holmes and Watson weren't exactly how I picture them.

Kevin Deany said...

For the last entry in a series, it's a pretty good film. Patricia Morrison is especially good in it.

It was always a chore to sit through thanks to the dicey public domain copies, but the new DVDs are a revelation. It's the first time I really enjoyed "Dressed to Kill." (An odd choice for a title as this was the name of a Michael Shayne entry just five years previously.)

Roy William Neill, the director of all the Universal Holmes films save the first one, died the following year. Because of that, and Rathbone's irritation of being identified with the character, the series ended in 1946, though Rathbone and Bruce contined with the Holmes radio show.

Clive Brook played Holmes in a 1932 movie. I've never seen it, but I read that one is placed in modern times too.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kevin, you and Dave are making those DVD versions sound pretty great. How nice that a public domain movie(s) got such first-class treatment.

There's another radio version with Sir Raplh Richardson and Sir John Gielgud that's very well done.

SPEEDbit said...

We love Sherlock! You probably know that the inspiration for his character was Dr. Joseph Bell, who was in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observation. Great post Thanks!