Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U
After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?
For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.
Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum, Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.
Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.
Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.