Ann and I recently watched the Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce film Sherlock Holmes: Prelude to Murder. What – you’ve never heard of that one? Neither had I!
That’s the title under which Amazon Prime serves up Dressed to Kill, the last of the 14 Rathbone-Bruce film outings as the immortal duo. And it’s colourized! Purists may hate the tampering with the original black and white, but I enjoyed it. It was a different experience, and a good one for me. The costumes and sets really popped out because of the color contrast.
Once we started watching the movie, the Dressed to Kill title came up. Apparently, that refers to Mrs. Hilda Courtney (what was Mr. Courtney like?), who has some great wardrobe changes and what Roger Johnson calls “the most bizarre hat in the entire series.” The lovely Patricia Morison, who played the part, died in 2018 at the age of 103.
Roger’s 48-page review of the 12 Universal Studios Holmes films, “Ready When You Are, Mr. Rathbone,” was published by the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society as Musgrave Monograph Number Three in 1992. In it, Roger notes that “Dressed to Kill was released in Britain under the rather banal title of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code.”
Banal it may be, but that title strikes me as the most fitting of the three in terms of the plot. To refresh your memory, this is the one with the musical boxes.
Roger sums up the movie rather nicely when he says, “Dressed to Kill is by no means top rank Sherlock Holmes, but (adaptor) Frank Gruber and (screenwriter) Leonard Lee have devised a clever plot which really stretches Holmes’s capabilities.”
The number of dedicated Sherlockians worldwide whose first exposure to Holmes came from the Rathbone-Bruce series must number in the hundreds or thousands. My experience was different. I’d already read much of the Canon and may have even owned my first Complete Sherlock Holmes before I saw any of these movies. It took me a long time to get over the buffoonish Watson, the uncanonical plots, and the 1940s setting.
But I thought from the first time I saw him in the part, as I think now, that Basil Rathbone is a marvelous Sherlock Holmes.