Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holmes on a Train in "Terror By Night"

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
There are better entries in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. In fact, when I ranked all twelve films from best to worst in 2009, Terror By Night came in #6--and, after viewing it again recently, that still feels right. But it has one thing the other SH films don't have...and that's a train. I've always had a weakness for movies set aboard trains.

Terror By Night opens with Holmes and Watson about to board the Scotch Express for business, not pleasure. Holmes has agreed to guard a 423-karat diamond known as the Star of Rhodesia. Legend has it that the stone resulted in "violent and sudden death" to all who possessed it. The current owner, Lady Margaret, is headed to Edinburgh with her son Roland.

The train has barely left the station when Roland is found dead in his compartment and the Star of Rhodesia is missing. Although there are no signs of foul play, Holmes remains convinced that Roland was murdered. (By the way, when Lady Margaret asks about the whereabouts of her son, Holmes simply nods towards the corpse on the floor...with Roland's eyes creepily open. It may be the detective's most callous act in the entire series, though he does apologize promptly.)

Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, Bruce, and Rathbone.
There is no shortage of suspects among the passengers, which include: a mathematician and his wife, a mysterious young woman, Lady Margaret, and even Dr. Watson's friend Major Duncan-Bleek. Could one of them be in league with the notorious criminal Colonel Sebastian Moran?

Renee Godfrey as a suspect.
It's not hard to guess the identity of the villain, but there's a nice little twist at the climax and some bright dialogue along the way. Roy William Neill, who directed all but one of Universal's Holmes films, keeps the plot speeding along. The entire film clocks in at under an hour. He also injects some much-needed action with a near-fatal clash between Holmes and the killer.

Sadly, Neill would only make two more films before dying of a heart attack in 1946. His last film, the noir Black Angel, would turn out to be one of his best.

As for Rathbone and Bruce, they would team up as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous duo for one last film: Dressed to Kill (1946). It's only a so-so entry, but that doesn't diminish one of the most entertaining "B" mystery film series of the 1940s.


  1. There's something about a mystery on a train, and when Holmes is involved you can't help but take it to your heart. The heart is not a film critic.

    Besides, any movie with Skelton Knaggs automatically gets my thumbs up!

    Thanks for writing about this favourite that is perfect for the coming autumn evenings.

  2. I actually watched this movie for the first time this past February. The fourth season of Sherlock had just ended with a nice little nod to Basil Rathbone and it made me consider the fact that despite having been a big Sherlock Holmes fan most of my life, I'd been remiss in never having watched any of the Rathbone films (except for part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I caught on TCM once).

    While I enjoyed it, I wasn’t expecting Terror by Night to be so short; it was almost like watching an episode of a TV show rather than a movie. I just went back to check my notes to see what other thoughts I might have had on the movie, but I mainly ended up going off on a tangent about Sherlock's fourth season, which I thought had problems (like forgetting that Sherlock Holmes is supposed to solve mysteries), but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at the people whose biggest complaint was that Holmes and Watson didn’t get together romantically. I mean, I’m pro-LGBT, but someone insisting that a work of fiction has to conform to their wishful thinking is very impertinent. If Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman looked like Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, I doubt so many people would have been insisting they had to be made a couple. Well, there I go rambling again.

    A couple Christmasses ago, my sister gave me this Sherlock Holmes DVD set (dubiously titled "Best of Sherlock Holmes Collection") which includes, among some obscure looking titles, a handful of the Rathbone movies; I should probably finally set aside the time to watch a few more of them.

    1. Yes, all of the Universal Holmes movies are short programmers, but I think that works to their advantage. My favorite (by far) is THE SCARLET CLAW.

  3. I agree with you re: movies on trains. I always find them captivating.

    As for Rathbone and Bruce, they're captivating in their own way, too. I'll be sure to catch this one the next time it comes around.

  4. Yes, it's hard to resist a good train film...especially a mystery-themed one. But what makes Terror by Night a little bit weaker than the other Sherlock Holmes films is the lack of a variety of locations. I think it feels too confined. "The Lady Vanishes" had more setting changes, and that's what made that film less "stagebound". Still, I'd take a Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes film over any other film on a chilly autumn evening!

  5. There is something compelling about trains. I've probably only been on a train a couple times in my life, and one of those doesn't count because I was a baby and therefore too young to remember, but sometimes I find myself wishing I had an excuse to ride one. The Lady Vanishes is a movie I really like, too. That may actually be why I picked Terror by Night to be the first of Rathbone's Holmes movies I deliberately sat down to watch.

  6. I, too, love the confined setting of a train for mystery and suspense. Thanks for highlighting "Terror by Night" and encouraging others to seek it out, Rick!