Basil's Last Bow
Fittingly the last of the New York Public Library/Donnell Media Center’s three “Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes” features, Dressed to Kill, was also the last of the South Africa-born, British-educated, adopted American’s fourteen full-lengthers as the detective who figured in more films, played by more different actors, than any other fictional character ever.
Concurrently but over a longer period, Rathbone teamed with Nigel Bruce for more than two hundred “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” radio broadcasts set in the original late Victorian London. But when Universal took over the screen rights and actors from 20th Century-Fox to do Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, it was 1942 and the studio’s twelve entries were “updated” to the war years, often with Axis spies or saboteurs as the foes to be outsmarted and so lead up to flag-waving epilogues in praise of the U.K., U.S., and their Allies.
Run times an hour or slightly over, these “modern” b&w contests of wit anticipated the James Bond franchise in being unfaithful to literary sources, characters and titles and growing thinner in later installments, but are incontestably Hollywood classics in the pairing of suave gaunt Rathbone and plump Bruce as his bumbling Boswell, “John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department.”
Directed-produced by the habitual low-budget Roy William Neill from a Leonard Lee treatment from a Frank Gruber adaptation “from a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Dressed to Kill takes a couple of salient physical details from 221b, Baker Street, Westminster, and inserts a number of sly allusions to the Beeton’s and Strand stories, but actually has nothing to do with its made-up title. De Palma’s same title is more appropriate and suggestive for his 1980 work, but either would have appalled both gentlemanly writer and prudish creation. Lee’s script is in essence only a poor rip-off of “A Scandal in Bohemia” (which Watson pointedly mentions) sprinkled with lesser adventures like those of the “Six Napoleons” and “Three Garridebs.”
At Dartmoor Prison, John Davidson makes cheap “musical boxes” and is determined not to make trouble during the three years, eight months and six days remaining on a sentence for the theft of never-recovered plates for engraving authentic Bank of England notes. Three such boxes are auctioned off for pocket change at Ebenezer Crabtree’s (Holmes Herbert) Gaylord Art Gallery just before elegant Colonel Cavanaugh (Frederick Worlock) shows up in search of them.
The three purchasers are visited or robbed or, in the case of Watson’s school chum Gilbert “Stinky” Emery (Edmond Breon), murdered. No suspense here, for this is the work of beautiful Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), a weak copy of the real Doyle-Holmes’s “the woman, . . . Irene Adler,” and the brains behind Cavanaugh and hatchet man Hamid (Harry Cording).
Aided by the ear of a talented indebted thug (Wallace Scott, uncredited as Joe Cristo), the detective deduces that the boxes each play part of the Australian “The Swagman” and, with the inadvertent help of Watson, that the three together are coded to the alphabet read on a piano keyboard. Dodging smoke bombs and bullets, a garage death setup, Watson’s duck imitation and serious but ineffective Scotland Yard, Holmes arrives at the identity of a certain Dr. S. and at his library in time to prevent a national financial catastrophe.
At least Morison was not scripted to an impossible aping of Mary Astor’s definitive duplicity from the end of The Maltese Falcon. Astor and Bogart went on to several other films together; like Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, Rathbone saw the writing on the wall, and he apologized to good friend Bruce and left for the legitimate stage. He never quite escaped, for after sixty-one years, they remain among the screen couples worth watching, through thick and thin, just for the two of them.
(Released by Universal Pictures and Mpi Home Video; not rated by MPAA.)