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Wednesday 30 December 2009

Terror By Night (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The Star of Rhodesia is apparently one of the most famous stones in the world, famous enough to be pictured in a magazine and famous enough for us to be treated to the beginnings of a story like Jacques Tourneur's The Jonker Diamond. However this is a Sherlock Holmes B picture, the shortest of the Rathbone/Bruce series, and so we can pause only briefly to point out that this diamond has caused the death of many over the years. Given that it's even appearing in this series, we can be sure that this number can only increase. If only it wouldn't be terrible taste, we'd start hosting sweepstakes at the beginning of Holmes movies to guess at how many are going to die, here because of some rock that was pulled out of the ground by a humble kaffir. Yes, this film is from another age, even brought forward fifty years from its appropriate timeframe.

After spending most of Pursuit to Algiers on a boat, we spend most of Terror By Night on a train, hurtling through the night from London to Edinburgh. Holmes and Watson are on board, hired by the Hon Roland Carstairs, the son of the owner of the Star of Rhodesia to guard it and ensure its safe passage home. Insp Lestrade is on board too, though obviously not for his claimed aim of a salmon fishing holiday. The stone's owner, Lady Margaret Carstairs, was in London to make an appearance at Buckingham Palace and naturally wore her valuable jewellery. Beyond the royal occasion, she's a snooty soul, calling Holmes and Watson policeman and shrugging off the size of the Star by explaining that before her husband gave it to her for their fifth wedding anniversary, he had it cut down to a mere 423 carats so as to be less ostentatious. Of course it still looks like a goose egg and there's been one attempt to steal it in London already.

We don't have long to wait before the customary first murder and there are plenty of the usual suspects. The victim is Roland Carstairs, dead of apparent heart failure and with no signs of violence, but the Star of Rhodesia is gone, stolen from its box at a rather convenient moment. There are the usual suspects aboard, of course, literally given that this is a Universal Holmes movie: Gerald Hamer and Frederick Worlock are both back, yet again, for their fifth appearances in the series. The only real surprise is that some of the actors involved were newcomers, actors like Geoffrey Steele and Alan Mowbray having precisely the sort of faces that are right at home in these Holmes films.
Mowbray is the least suspicious, given that he's only there as a friend of Dr Watson, Maj Duncan-Bleek by name and an old chum he knew from his years in India. There's the expected femme fatale, this time a sultry young mourner by the name of Lydia Vedder, transporting her mother back to Scotland in her coffin. New Yorker Renee Godfrey is highly pleasant to her eyes but her attempt at an English accent is pretty dire. Given the value of the diamond (a massive £50,000, imagine that), Lady Margaret might have a motive for having the stone stolen herself, perhaps for insurance reasons. Mr & Mrs Alfred Shallcross are ready with their own confessions the moment anyone starts to talk to them. That leaves Prof William Kilbane, an irascible mathematician who is outraged that anyone could possibly want to talk to him.

What's more, Holmes is convinced that he's up against another nemesis, old to him but new to us, in Col Sebastian Moran, one of Prof Moriarty's most efficient henchmen. He's never met Moran but has been nearly killed by him nonetheless on three separate occasions. The only other solid fact they have on Moran is that he dabbles in mathematics for fun and relaxation. Of course after setting up Kilbane, scriptwriter Frank Gruber promptly sets up everyone else he possibly can as a mathematical dabbler too. It isn't difficult to figure out whodunit but there's still a good deal of pleasure in working out the how and the why of it all. There's depth here and some good writing to back it all up. Fortunately Gruber would be back for the last in the series, Dressed to Kill.

I was really impressed by Dressed to Kill when I last saw it back in 2005, watching the four Universal Holmes movies that had fallen into the public domain. It's going to be interesting to see how it stands up on a further viewing, having watched the entire fourteen film series in order in a single week. These films are a really mixed bag, though more in tone and style than in quality. I've rated all of them good, from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Terror By Night, with only two exceptions: the rushed and propaganda heavy Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and the con of a film that was Pursuit to Algiers. I rated them both OK, and looking back see that both were blissfully free of the sort of actual detective work that makes Holmes such a fascinating character. Terror By Night has plenty of it.

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