Background: By 1946, Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series was one of the studio’s most dependable properties. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Watson had already appeared in ten low budget adventures for Universal, facing off against Dr. Moriarty and Nazi agents in very loose adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. (Fox made two higher-budgeted films set in the Victorian era before Universal Studios took over the property.) Terror by Night, the 13th and penultimate film in the series, was directed by journeyman Roy William Neill, who had helmed nine of the franchise’s previous installments.
Plot Introduction: Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is hired by a noblewoman to guard her most prized possession, a world-famous diamond known as the “Star of Rhodesia.” Joined by Dr. Watson (Bruce), the great detective supervises the jewel on its train journey to Scotland. Soon after the train departs, the lady’s son is killed and the diamond stolen. Holmes and Watson must team up with a vacationing Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) to solve the murder and retrieve the diamond; their investigation leads to an encounter with an old enemy.
My Thoughts: There is something fascinating about the extremely long-lived franchises, the ones that manage to reinvent themselves for each new generation. Everybody, it seems, has their James Bond or Batman, usually the one that got them into the series in the first place. Watching, say, the Bond films in order provides a glimpse into how much fashion, technology, and the action movie genre have changed since the early 1960’s. As the inspiration for countless films and television series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is truly one of these immortal characters.
While my Sherlock Holmes will always be the late Jeremy Brett, I can certainly respect the fact that Basil Rathbone played the definitive version of the character in his era. Blessed with the detective’s iconic “hawk-like nose” and cool demeanor, Rathbone was an excellent Sherlock; I’d particularly recommend his first performance as the character in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939.)
Terror by Night features a scenario more Agatha Christie than Conan Doyle, as the duo have to solve a murder mystery within the confines of a speeding train. While not adapted from any specific Holmes story, the film features classic villain Col. Sebastian Moran (“The Empty House”) and its diamond Macguffin evokes the dark history of “The Blue Carbuncle.” Even though the film’s claustrophobic setting is clearly due to budget issues (at just under an hour, this is a b-movie through and through), it’s an effective atmosphere for a thriller. One of my hangups with this series is that most entries take place in the modern day; to me, so much of Holmes’ mystique is tied to fog-shrouded Victorian London. Fortunately, setting the entire film on a train prevents too much of the modern world from seeping in.
My second hangup about this series, however, is fully present in Terror by Night. In both the original stories and more modern adaptations, Dr. Watson is an honorable and intelligent man who adds much-needed stability to his friend’s life. If anything, Holmes is often quite dependent on his roommate and biographer. Unfortunately, Nigel Bruce plays the good doctor as a Colonel Blimp-ish bloke whose idiocy is supposed to make Holmes’ brilliance shine even brighter. I can only assume that this portrayal of Watson devolved into a caricature of itself through the series, as Bruce’s performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles is much more nuanced. This take on Watson seems especially strange because the film features a canonically inept character, the ego-driven Inspector Lestrade. Does Holmes really need two idiots to deal with?
While not a bad film by any means, Terror By Night feels like a late entry into a series: the viewer can feel that Rathbone and co. are just doing the same old schtick for the umpteenth time. I’ll give the film a backhanded compliment by saying it’s perfectly acceptable as the second feature on a double bill.