Harry CordingMary GordonHolmes HerbertEdmund Breon
Dressed to Kill
Adapted from: The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
Medium: film
Year: 1946
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Gruber, Leonard Lee
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Patricia Morison, Edmund Breon, Frederick Worlock, Carl Harbord, Patricia Cameron, Holmes Herbert, Harry Cording, Leyland Hodgson, Mary Gordon, Ian Wolfe, Ted Billings, Olaf Hytten, Sally Shepherd
Format: 72 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038494/
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 21 January 2009
That was really rather good! What particularly impressed me was that it feels like a Sherlock Holmes film. That's not exactly the norm in this series. Half the time they hadn't bothered with a whodunnit element at all, instead having plotlines that might have been cut-and-pasted from a 1940s gangster flick. Here however we have a story that's clearly taken straight from the original Conan Doyle, with a delightfully trivial plot MacGuffin of three musical boxes. Watson thinks his friend's mad for regarding it as even worthy of attention. For once we have a plot in which we're trying to work out what's happening and what it all means, instead of just seeing Holmes and this week's villain play cat-and-mouse with each other.
What's more, the script contains explicit nods and namechecks.
1. The latest copy of The Strand contains Watson's account of A Scandal in Bohemia and the villainness reads it.
2. Good use is made of Holmes's musical talents, showing him for once as more than just a dilettante with a violin. Here he's genuinely gifted in that direction and this is needed for the plot.
3. There's an early scene in 221B Baker Street that paraphrases original Conan Doyle dialogue.
4. Mrs Hudson appears.
5. Watson is less useless than usual.
6. Holmes identifies someone based on the shape of their ears, as in the Adventure of the Cardboard Box.
7. There's a namedrop for the Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.
You can see how a Sherlock Holmes fan might fall sobbing on this film's neck. It feels right. I'm a fan of the darker direction in which they took the series after abandoning World War Two, a combination of film noir and Universal horror, but this feels different again. It feels more English and in an odd way more faithful to the original period. It's contemporary, but it feels Victorian. The auction room scenes are lovely, with exactly the right kind of upper-class English atmosphere, even if the filmmakers clearly don't have a clue about auction etiquette. Then on the other hand there's a dodgy Dickensian pub populated by extras from Oliver Twist, complete with a music hall number.
In addition that's one weird cab. It may not have a horse tethered in front, but show it to any child today and they'll guess this film was made when the Normans came ashore in 1066.
The only problem is that the story being adapted is The Six Napoleons, which this series had already done two years previously in The Pearl of Death. This redefines the word "hack". I've been brazenly rude about this series in more ways than I can easily remember, yet even now they flabberghast me afresh. There are four novels and fifty-six short stories in the official Holmesian canon, of which this series had previously used a couple of pages and a used cigarette paper. Why, why, why did they do this? It's not as if there's any shortage of material. The only explanation I can think of is that Universal simply didn't care. Plagiarise ourselves? Why not? It turned okay last time. We'll promise not to sue, heh heh. It saves us from having to, you know, do any work.
This is breathtaking, but in another sense it doesn't matter. These films are cheap B-movie filler and arguably it's silly of me to expect any better. I did enjoy this. It's not trying to be thrilling or scary, but those aren't the qualities I associate with Sherlock Holmes anyway. I don't even mind the scene where the villains capture Holmes, drive him away and leave him tied up in a deathtrap from which of course he escapes. It's stupid, but we've seen it a thousand times in this series. That's its genre. Similarly the title is yet again meaningless, unless you take it to refer to the villainness's haute couture. I have more of a problem with Holmes taking all night to try the obvious tack in trying to deciphering a musical code. The screenwriters want him to be inspired by a chance remark from Watson, you see. This happens twice and I didn't really buy it either time.
I'm also not convinced that the dates match up. Unless I misheard something, I have a feeling that a man who was sent to prison two years ago has only two years left of his seven-year sentence. I should mention that this man would have had no chance whatsoever of early release.
However the film is charming. They show us their villains at the twenty-minute mark, but there's still enough mystery left to stop the film from degenerating into another runaround. The auction scene made me laugh and even Nigel Bruce is having one of his better outings. "Would you like to hear me make a noise like a duck?" I liked this a lot. If I hadn't heard of The Pearl of Death, I'd have had almost no reservations at all in saying so. That was a better adventure, with a richer story and stronger villains, but this feels more reminiscent of Conan Doyle. It turns us into detectives as Holmes sees significance in details that escape everyone else, rather than jumping straight in with heists, gunplay and action scenes. In fact I really like both films, which complement each other well.
This was the end of its cheap and sometimes rather stupid era, with Roy William Neill dying five months later and Basil Rathbone running away from the franchise and indeed Hollywood as fast as his legs could carry him. Nigel Bruce wasn't happy with him at all for that. The series as a whole was often laughable, with a fidelity to Conan Doyle that could politely be described as fickle, but they're also much-loved adventures starring a suave and excellent actor in one of the greatest iconic roles of all time. There's lots of good to be said about them. They're straightforward honest hokum, short on pretension and often rich in atmosphere and character. I keep calling them rubbish, but I say it affectionately.