In 1987, a little-seen TV movie was made bringing the great detective Sherlock Holmes into what was then the modern day. The conceit of the movie was that Holmes had contracted the bubonic plague due to a scheme by his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty and been cryogenically frozen for 80 years. Finally revived and cured by a female descendant of Dr. Watson, Holmes begins adapting to the new world that he finds himself in and, of course, much comedy is made both from his fish-out-of-water state and from his reactions to the technological advances made during his time in the cooler. At one point, for instance, he is told that television is like "radio with pictures" only to respond, "And what's radio?"
This was not, however, the first time that Holmes was taken from his familiar milieu and dropped into a new environment. As a matter of fact, today's film is one that deals with Holmes in a setting about 30 years after the last case chronicled by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
World War II was a time when everyone contributed to the war effort. Men, of course, were drafted into service and those who couldn't serve directly were often supporting the troops in other ways. Women served in the WAC or similar branches of the armed forces along with taking up those jobs left behind by those who had gone overseas to fight. Everyone, including children and the elderly, was called on to contribute to the effort by conserving and through the rationing of fuel, rubber, food, and other substances. Even our fictional heroes were fighting the good fight as Superman and Captain America were often seen punching out enemy soldiers or even Hitler himself, and even Tarzan wound up fighting Nazis in his beloved African jungle in 1943's Tarzan Triumphs.
Not even the world's greatest detective, who had presumably had his last adventure in 1914, just as the first "war to end all wars" was beginning, could resist the pull to fight the good fight for the Allies.
In 1939, Twentieth Century Fox produced an adaptation of Doyle's Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles which starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his colleague and friend Dr. Watson. Both a critical and commercial success, Hound was quickly followed by the same year's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, again starring Rathbone and Bruce. Both of these films were set during the Victorian time period of the original stories. After the release of Adventures, however, Fox decided to drop the series, and both the stars and the rights to certain Holmes stories were quickly picked up by Universal Studios.
With the change in studios, however, also came a change in the setting of the films. Instead of the 1880s-1890s period of the previous two films, with its horse-drawn carriages and such, suddenly Holmes and Watson were in a world of automobiles and radios and were, like everyone else, fighting the Nazi menace. However, unlike in the 1987 TV film mentioned above, this time the transition was made seamlessly, with a simple mention in a title card that the character of Holmes was "timeless," and from that point on, the film simply went along with the assumption that Holmes was a contemporary character, and no further mention was ever made of the time displacement.
The first of these new films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, found Holmes fighting against Nazi saboteurs who were operating in Britain. Unlike the Holmes of 1987, who was confounded by both television and radio, Rathbone's Holmes is at home with modern devices, as proven by the fact that these saboteurs actually announce their plans in advance over a radio broadcast by the titular voice. Following Voice of Terror, Rathbone next appeared as Holmes in 1943's Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon in which Holmes had to track down the location of the pieces of a new bomb sight which would give the allies an advantage in the war, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington in which the detective must travel to the U.S. to recover stolen microfilm before it falls into the wrong hands.
In all, in the time period from 1939 to 1946, Rathbone and Bruce portrayed Holmes and Watson in 14 different films, ending with Dressed to Kill. Some of these films were wholly original stories, some of them were very loosely based on Doyle's stories. As time passed and the war ended, the emphasis on Nazi villains gave way to more mundane mysteries which perhaps better suited the detective's style. The present day setting was retained, however, and Holmes never seemed out of place or as though he missed the hansom cabs of old.
The last film in the series, Dressed to Kill, finds Holmes on the trail of three different music boxes, each of which was crafted by a prisoner in Dartmoor prison, and each of which holds part of a clue to the location of a pair of stolen printer's plates which could be used to print legal looking five pound notes. Each of the music boxes plays a variation on the same tune, and it doesn't take Holmes long to figure out that it is these variations that are the key to the mystery. Unfortunately, both for Holmes and for the villains, all three of the music boxes have been sold at auction to different buyers and it comes down to a race against time to see who can find all three of them and decipher the clues to the location of the hidden plates first.
Though not directly adapted from any of Doyle's canonical stories, reference is made in the film to "A Scandal in Bohemia," both directly (with mention also being made of the publication of Watson's stories about his friend in The Strand magazine) and indirectly, as the main antagonist, like "Scandal"'s Irene Adler, is a woman. As a matter of fact, so many mentions of The Strand are made that one might be led to wonder if there wasn't some reciprocal agreement between the magazine and Universal.
Throughout all of the films, Rathbone portrays Holmes with a thoughtfulness and aplomb which has made his interpretation of the character for many, the definitive one. With his aquiline nose and thin good looks, Rathbone certainly has the physical characteristics down, but he also does a fine job portraying not only Holmes' more cerebral side, but the caring with which he relates not only to his clients but also to Watson, who Bruce portrays as a bit more of a bumbler than Doyle actually wrote him, but still a man of good heart and bravery. Together they combine to create a truly unbeatable duo.
Of the 14 films that Rathbone and Bruce made together as Holmes and Watson, four of them, because the copyright was not properly renewed, have fallen into the public domain. The other three are Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, The Woman in Green, and Terror by Night. These four are quite easy to find individually or in low-budget DVD collections, but the entire 14-film series has also been painstakingly restored by the UCLA Film and Television archive and has been issued as a set which I highly recommend.
Here's a trailer for Dressed to Kill:
And the skinny:
Title: Dressed to Kill
Release Date: 1946
Running Time: 76min
Black and White
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Directed by: Roy William Neal
Produced by: Roy William Neal
Released by: Universal Studios
Besides the DVD releases mentioned above, Dressed to Kill is also available to watch or download free and legally at the Internet Archive.
Until next time, happy treasure hunting.