Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dressed to Kill (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

I watched a TCM showing of the last film in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, Dressed to Kill (not to be confused with the Brian de Palma production from 1980 which had the same title but a totally different plot), which was a “last movie” in more ways than one. It was not only the last appearance of Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson (Rathbone played Holmes again in a short-lived stage production on Broadway in 1953, but Bruce – who was supposed to be in it with him – died just before it opened, Martyn Green replaced him as Watson and the show flopped, which Rathbone blamed on Bruce’s untimely death) but one of the two last films directed by Roy William Neill before his death (Black Angel, a film noir based on a Cornell Woolrich novel with strong similarities to Phantom Lady and an excellent cast headed by Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, was the other) and the last Hollywood film made by Patricia Morison before she ran out her Universal contract, fled the movie capital and made a major comeback as the female lead in the original Broadway production of Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate.

The 1946 Dressed to Kill hasn’t had especially good press over the years – Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Universal Story calls it an “unmitigated dud” – but it’s been a film I’ve always liked and it was certainly a vast improvement over the two immediate predecessors in the series, the unspeakably dull Pursuit to Algiers and Terror by Night. Dressed to Kill was essentially a remake of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, recycling the basic plot gimmick of a coded message written in several parts, each meaningless without the others, which both Holmes and the crooks are after – only instead of the secret of a new bombsight it’s a set of stolen Bank of England plates for printing five-pound notes; instead of stick-figures of dancing men the message is encoded in three music boxes made by a convict at Dartmoor Prison who stole the bank plates and was arrested 15 minutes later, but in the meantime had hid them somewhere in London and refused to reveal their whereabouts; and instead of Professor Moriarty the leader of the crooks is a woman, Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison, who acts the part with such icy, glacial perfection that one’s almost sure that if there ever was a Mr. Courtney she probably knocked him off for his money), who’s got a disgraced colonel (Frederick Worlock) and an Arab chauffeur, Hamid (Harry Cording), on her string.

It’s not much of a movie – Rathbone was clearly pretty bored with the Holmes role by then – but at least it’s exciting, notably in a surprisingly topical scene in which the baddies have kidnapped Holmes, tied him up, hung him by a meat hook and are proposing to asphyxiate him in a garage not with plain ol’ carbon monoxide but with a special gas used by the Nazis in their extermination camps (fortunately Holmes – or at least Basil Rathbone’s stunt double – is agile enough to escape), and though he acts Watson as a comic-relief doofus as usual (including one scene in which he amuses a child witness, played by Anita Glyn, by quacking like a duck), Nigel Bruce does get to give his partner two key pieces of information that help Holmes crack the case. It was actually a nice way for the series (and for Neill’s directorial career) to end.