Roy William NeillHarry CordingSkelton KnaggsAlan Mowbray
Terror by Night
Medium: film
Year: 1946
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Gruber
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Dennis Hoey, Renee Godfrey, Frederick Worlock, Mary Forbes, Skelton Knaggs, Billy Bevan, Geoffrey Steele, Harry Cording, Gerald Hamer, Leyland Hodgson
Format: 60 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 16 January 2009
It feels unfinished. Admittedly on the surface it looks good, to the extent that it's probably often called one of the better films in the series. It's a train movie, so it's got that black-and-white Hitchcock thing going on. I love train movies. You've got suspicious passengers, clever twists and one of the best action scenes in the series. Holmes has to fight for his life as someone tries to throw him out of the moving train.
Unfortunately the film needed to be a good twenty or thirty minutes longer. This is the shortest Rathbone Holmes film, running at 60 minutes exactly, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that there had been some kind of production snafu. Maybe they ran out of money and threw out half the script, or perhaps they overran during shooting and left out a bunch of scenes. I can't find any evidence of any such thing having happened, but I'd prefer that to the idea that Universal and the production team actually wanted the film to be this way. Characters and plot questions get abandoned. What was the resolution of the locked carriage mystery? What was behind Lady Carstairs's allegedly cold reaction to her son's murder? What happened in the end to Renee Godfrey's character? What about that mathematics professor? The first half of the film introduces a reasonably interesting cast of passengers, then in the second half completely forgets about most of them once we've learned which one's the bad guy.
I don't know if I'd call these plot holes, but they're certainly inelegant. This is a film with good individual scenes, but an overall shape that leaves a lot to be desired.
The set-up is that Holmes has been asked to guard a famous diamond, the Star of Rhodesia, as its owner transports it up to Scotland. He's being called in before the crime's even been committed! This means catching an express train from Victoria Station up to Scotland, which you'll be interested to know is a country where Scotland Yard doesn't have jurisdiction. Someone in Hollywood had strange ideas of what it means to cross the England-Scotland border.
We get lots of train footage, although in many cases this is clearly a model train set. The internet informs me that even the spliced-in stock footage is often of trains from the wrong countries, but I'll forgive that since I didn't notice it at the time. I did however raise my eyebrows at Holmes and Watson using bare hands to take a dart from someone's neck that's clearly lethal and for all they knew might have been a contact poison. Oh, and Holmes seems to regard nearly being thrown from a moving train as a minor peccadillo, unworthy of mentioning to anyone but Watson. Inspector Lestrade? He's probably too busy. It's only a trifle anyway, probably not of interest to anyone in the middle of a criminal investigation.
I've changed my stance on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, though. In their early films I found Bruce the more entertaining of the two, but by now I'm starting to find him a bit annoying. Everything bounces off him. The Nigel Bruce formula goes as follows: (a) do something stupid, (b) hardly react to it. Rinse and repeat. Basil Rathbone on the other hand is putting more into this film than it could ever be said to deserve. He's always engaged in his scenes, playing them more intensely than you might expect from something so obviously formulaic. Here his characterisation is particularly interesting, where he seems to have got out of bed on the wrong side. He's cold and nasty to Watson, repeatedly sending him off to make a fool of himself, and made me laugh out loud with his hilariously brutal treatment of Lady Carstairs. There's a right way and a wrong way to show someone the fresh corpse of their murdered son. That, my friends, is the wrong way. The characters later seem to think Lady Carstairs had been cold and distant regarding her son's death, but that wasn't my reaction to the scene.
Note also the following conversation:
Holmes - "Do you mind if we open it?"
Train guard - "It's forbidden!"
Holmes (barely even paying attention as he opens it) - "Sorry."
From any another Sherlock Holmes, this wouldn't be particularly noteworthy. However it raised my eyebrows from the straightforwardly heroic Universal Sherlock, especially since Rathbone's giving it all the ice he'd normally use in his villain roles. He was too good an actor to start doing this kind of thing by accident, although admittedly this was the year he turned his back on Sherlock Holmes and indeed, for the best part of two decades, Hollywood. The only surprise to me is that he stuck it out this long. He'd always preferred the theatre anyway.
Oh, and the title is gibberish. The story isn't about terror, while day or night is completely irrelevant on a train. I've seen some bad titles in my time, but this might be the worst of them. Boring, anonymous and saying nothing whatsoever about the story in question. Yup, it's a stinker all right. However the most remarkable thing about the film is poor Renee Godfrey's accent as Vivian Vedder. She's a gorgeous woman but a hopeless actress and what she does to human speech deserves to go down as a landmark in cinema. It makes Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins look naturalistic.
On the upside, the villain is taken from Conan Doyle. It's one of Moriarty's henchmen, Colonel Sebastian Moran from The Adventure of the Empty House, although I shouldn't think I'll ever see a less imposing actor in the role. However his plan is clever and I didn't see the finale coming at all. That deserved to be in a better film and even in this one is still impressive. I'll admit that I did enjoy the film, though. It zips along and has a certain level of atmosphere, at any rate. It's easy to see why many people have enjoyed it. I did too. I wish it had been done properly, that's all.