Thursday 31 December 2009

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
It's been a busy week. On the evening of Christmas Day my better half and I sat down to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 1939 film that introduced Basil Rathbone as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as his trusty assistant Dr John Watson. Somehow we've managed to work through the entire series of fourteen films featuring this pair within a week, this being the last of them. It's been a fascinating journey, all the films being entertaining and surprisingly different. Even now, over sixty years on and though Holmes has beaten out Count Dracula as the fictional character most frequently portrayed on screen, Rathbone and Bruce are still the first actors most people see when they think of the characters.

This one begins inside Dartmoor Prison, where a prisoner called John Davidson is refusing to tell what he knows in order to get an early release, apparently happy to carry on making music boxes until his sentence is served. At the Gaylord Art Gallery, a London auction house, three of these music boxes promptly come up for bidding and are sold for a song. Valued at five pounds a pop, the first sells for two, the second for only one and the third for a mere ten shillings, given that it goes to a Scotsman. We find out who bought them because one man was seriously interested in them but got there too late to bid. He's Col Cavanaugh and he bribes the owner with more money than the boxes brought to merely acquire the names and addresses of the buyers.

The first is Julian Emery, known to his old friends as Stinky, and he goes to see one of them after being attacked in his own home. That old school chum is Dr Watson to whom he tells a strange tale of a theft, the only item stolen being a small wooden music box almost identical to the one he bought at Gaylord. It was a worthless piece surrounded by other hugely valuable items in his music box collection, all of which were left untouched. That night, after Holmes and Watson take a look at this collection, a second attempt is made to steal the Davidson music box, this time successfully. Unfortunately the crime becomes murder as Stinky is left with a knife in his back, courtesy of a rather jealous chauffeur called Hamid. It wasn't even necessary as his employer, Mrs Hilda Courtney, was about to leave with the box anyway.

Courtney is the mastermind behind these crimes, yet another female mastermind in a series that had quite a few of them. This time out she's played by Patricia Morison, who like many charming young ladies in Holmes movies is a clever actress adept in the art of diguise. Holmes bumps into her at the house of the third buyer, Mr Kilgour, only to fall for her cover as their charwoman and let her slip straight through his fingers. What's most interesting here is that early on in the film, Watson is reading the latest issue of The Strand magazine, complete with his account of A Scandal in Bohemia which prompts a quick discussion of the lady Holmes described only as The Woman, Irene Adler. From that point on Mrs Courtney can only be compared with the one member of the sex that ever truly impressed Holmes, and she comes out pretty well all things considered.

Soon the pair are at an impasse, given that the key to the mystery is in the tunes in the music boxes and all three are needed to complete the message. Holmes has one and Courtney two, but really they're even because the master detective already has the tune to Emery's box in his head. Each will have to risk much to complete the key, to both set traps and try not to walk into any, and this cat and mouse game is fascinating to watch. Frank Gruber wrote two stories for this series, which happened to be the last two, and they leave it on a high note. If it could have continued, which Universal would have been happy to allow, his work bodes well for it to only get better. To be fair he adapted the original Doyle story, very loosely as always, and Leonard Lee wrote the screenplay, but there's an obvious consistency between these two final films that can only be down to Gruber, the director having been Roy William Neill for the last eleven, often very different, films in the series.

There were no more because Rathbone had tired of the role. He hadn't just played the same character in fourteen films over a span of a mere eight years, he'd also played it on radio in no less than 210 weekly episodes of a long running series, one that unlike the films stuck with the appropriate Victorian setting throughout. When Rathbone stopped playing Holmes the Universal film series came to an end but the radio show continued, with Bruce carrying on as Dr Watson but Tom Conway stepping into Rathbone's footsteps as the master detective. While that would seem to be a major challenge for anyone, he was at least used to that concept having recently succeeded his brother George Sanders as the Falcon in another long running detective film series. Sanders initiated the role but only played it four times in 1941 and 1942; Conway racked up ten appearances between 1942 and 1946, but at least he officially played the original Falcon's brother, inheriting the title but not the character. As Holmes, he had to fill Rathbone's boots a little more literally, playing the same role that his predecessor had made his own.

As has been the case throughout this Sherlock Holmes series, many faces are highly recognisable, not just because of who they are but because of how often they turn up as different characters. This film is no exception and in fact contains some of the most frequent returning actors. Col Cavanaugh is Frederick Worlock, in much better temper than he was as Prof William Kilblane in Terror By Night earlier the same year. This was his sixth Holmes. The appropriately named Holmes Herbert and Olaf Hytten also rack up their sixth appearance each, this time playing the folks who run the Gaylord Art Gallery. By comparison Ian Wolfe, who I knew well before watching these films, is a mere part timer, only reaching his fourth Holmes here, but at least he got a promotion, this time playing the Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

I'm even starting to recognise Harry Cording, who Wikipedia highlights as the epitome of this sort of behaviour. Even though Wikipedia only lists seven appearances, Dressed to Kill counts as at least his eighth, as he'd started as early as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second film in the series, but only as an extra. He wasn't particularly obvious early on, to the degree that I can only picture him in three of those eight roles. He's Hamid here, the jealous poetry reading chauffeur, and perhaps the only time he's been more obvious was as the tattooed seafarer Capt Simpson in The House of Fear. It's easy to wonder what these actors did after the series ceased but with the notable exception of Gerald Hamer, they were generally bit players through and through and racked up many such roles in whatever films happened to be shooting at the time. IMDb lists no less than 275 film appearances for Cording from 1925's The Knockout to East of Eden only thirty years later.

It's been a fascinating journey and tomorrow is not going to seem the same without a couple more Rathbone/Bruce movies to watch. Then again I'm only forty films into Rathbone's career and have a few more ready to go on DVD. I think I'll be watching a few more Sherlock Holmes movies first though as comparisons, given that TCM have also gifted me with a 1922 silent version with John Barrymore, one of the English films from the thirties with Arthur Wontner, and a 1965 film with John Neville. The ever reliable Internet Archive also has a few more, including more Wontners and the debut of Raymond Massey in 1931's The Speckled Band. There's always more Holmes and I may even need to go see the new one, released on Christmas Day to theatres under the simple title of Sherlock Holmes and with Robert Downey Jr in the title role.

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