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Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill(1946)

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Home Video Reviews

In 2004, MPI Home Video released all fourteen of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films in glittering DVDs that used UCLA Film Archive restorations of twelve of the titles. (The other two were in great shape even without restoration.) The MPI discs, released in three box-sets of four films each and two more individual DVDs, were by far the best-quality DVD releases of these public domain movies. Now MPI has re-issued the series in one giant box set, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection. The fourteen films are now on five DVDs, and the picture and sound quality are exactly the same as before. All previous extras remain intact, and there is even one significant new extra (described below).

Many of the films in this set were reviewed on TCM's website when they were first released by MPI. Those reviews, still available in the site's archive, may be referred to for more details. But briefly...Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in fourteen films over eight years. The first two, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were produced by 20th Century Fox in 1939 and were set in the Victorian London period of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. In 1942 Universal acquired the rights, borrowed the actors, and launched its own 12-film series which placed Holmes and Watson in present-day London. In these movies Holmes and Watson sometimes aid the war effort, but usually they solve mysteries which are composed of bits and pieces of actual Conan Doyle stories. These are B pictures which look like A's, thanks to excellent production values. Their entertainment quotient is high and they have always played well to audiences of all ages.

UCLA did an amazing job restoring the Universal titles. In some cases, original film elements were gone and the only things to work with were dupes. In others, elements were decomposing into vinegar and were rescued in the nick of time. In an extra retained from the 2004 release, UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt offers a brief overview of the restoration process. It's fascinating to hear what went into saving and restoring even the simplest things, like the "The End" card of some titles, and we can thank our lucky stars that Gitt and UCLA are around to care about such things. Other retained extras include superb photo galleries done as montages to classical music, remarkable newsreel footage of Doyle discussing his creation, and commentaries on a few titles by film historian David Stuart Davies, who makes sure to touch on all the films in the series.

The one new extra is a commentary on Dressed to Kill (1946) featuring 91-year-old Patricia Morison, the film's leading lady, who recalls the picture to film historian Richard Valley and moderator David Gregory. Dressed to Kill (1946) was the last of the Basil Rathbone titles, and it is a strong and satisfying entry. Morison is the villainess who does indeed walk around in glamorous outfits, "dressed to kill." A talented actress, Morison never got the major parts she deserved. In this movie, she lends great charm and radiance to her role, making it much more interesting and attractive than it would have been if played simply "evil."

In her elegant and articulate commentary, she speaks delightfully of everything from Ronald Colman's Beverly Hills Christmas parties to Nigel Bruce: "That was one of the dearest people - Willy Bruce. He was exactly the way he played. It was not an act." Of Rathbone, she says he often wondered aloud on the set, "Why am I doing this?" It's true Rathbone was aching to leave the Holmes character. He did after this picture, and his career started a steady decline. Morison also appeared in Persons in Hiding (1939), Hitler's Madman (1943), Fallen Sparrow (1943), Song of Bernadette (1943), and Song of the Thin Man (1947), among other films, and while she does not discuss all these titles, she does go into a few. She says that she soon left Hollywood to go back to Broadway because the studios wouldn't give her any singing roles. A trained singer, she was quickly hired by Cole Porter to play Kate in the original Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate. Overall, Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy this commentary - it's great to hear from anyone who worked with Rathbone and Bruce on these films.

There are a few faults with this new box set. The liner notes by Richard Valley that accompanied the original DVD releases are nowhere to be found, which is a real shame because they were superbly written and enlightening. Also, the nice cover artwork of the earlier releases has been eliminated, and the case design has been replaced by a box-like container from which one can pull out several plastic racks holding the DVDs. The racks are held together by a single piece of Scotch tape which easily comes apart. The entire package is surprisingly flimsy and threadbare.

At least these are minor quibbles. One thing's for certain: you will not find better DVD prints of these movies anywhere else. Because the titles are in the public domain, many cheapie DVD distributors legally sell their own versions at lower prices. MPI's price is higher, though the price per title is now a lot better than it was in 2004. But you get what you pay for, and if an unappealing case is the worst part of the deal, you're still in pretty good shape. For anyone who did not acquire these movies from MPI the first time around, the new box set is highly recommended.

For more information about The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, visit MPI Home Video. To order The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold
If the third volume of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films released by MPI Home Video is any indication - and there's no reason it shouldn't be - then it's safe to say that all three volumes of these ever-popular movies are must-have DVDs. The prints come from 35mm restorations performed by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, one of the best such facilities in the world, and the quality and overall presentation is superb.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in fourteen films over eight years. The first two, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were produced by 20th Century Fox in 1939. In 1942 Universal acquired the rights, borrowed the actors, and launched its own 12-film series which has now been released chronologically in three sets of four DVDs by MPI.

One of the beauties of these pictures is that they can be enjoyed by truly all ages. They feature elegant suspense, satisfying mystery and action, intellectual problem-solving, wonderful comic relief, good villains, and of course the unique chemistry of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the roles for which they will forever be known.

The Woman in Green (1945) is a standard entry in the series but has perhaps the best of the Prof. Moriartys (Holmes' arch-nemesis) in the actor Henry Daniell. Three films featured Moriarty, and he was played by three different actors - the other two being George Zucco and Lionel Atwill. Daniell's smoothness made him especially menacing, and Rathbone himself later wrote, "There are other Moriartys, but none so delectably dangerous as was that of Henry Daniell."

Pursuit to Algiers (1945), set almost entirely on a ship, is dramatically perhaps the weakest of the series, but there's really not a bad film in the bunch. Watson sings in this one - not too badly, as it turns out - and handles a touching dramatic moment very well. Terror By Night (1946) is a rock-solid entry which finds the duo aboard a train, on which almost every passenger could be a murderer and jewel thief. Dennis Hoey makes his last appearance as Inspector Lestrade. Roy William Neill (who produced and directed most of these films, and died of a heart attack just months after they concluded) keeps the tension high, and the twist ending is especially clever.

The series finale, Dressed to Kill (1946), is very strong and satisfying. It moves so well that you don't really notice how prepostrous the story is. The woman who walks around dressed to kill is played by beautiful Patricia Morison, a talented actress who never got the major parts she deserved, and Holmes and Watson engage in delicious dialogue such as this typical exchange: Watson: "It seems to me they're a bunch of lunatics." Holmes: "Not lunatics, my dear fellow. Extremely astute cold-blooded murderers."

Even before Dressed to Kill began shooting, Rathbone had had enough. He'd been feeling pigeon-holed by Holmes and wanted to move on. In addition to the movies, he had played the role on over 200 half-hour radio programs with Bruce. But Rathbone's best non-Holmes films were behind him, and his career started a steady decline. Bruce wanted to continue, and this was the source of a sizable disagreement between the two friends. (Bruce did continue the weekly radio show for one more season, with Tom Conway filling in for Rathbone.) In the end, "pigeon-holed" is a vast understatement when it comes to these actors in these roles. No one who has ever seen them can ever think of Holmes and Watson without thinking of Rathbone and Bruce, so perfect were they for the characters and so perfect was their chemistry.

Audio commentary by David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes, can be found on the DVD of The Woman In Green, though Davies discusses all four films. He is quite knowledgeable, and Holmes connoisseurs will be pleased to hear from which stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle each film borrowed bits and pieces. Volume 3 also includes a brief, fascinating newsreel of Conan Doyle himself talking about his creation, and a 3-minute, nicely done montage of production stills and poster art. The liner notes by Richard Valley offer enough details on the films and their supporting casts to satisfy the most relentless trivia hounds.

There's also a page in the notes from UCLA explaining the source materials for the restorations. Due to the various states of existing negatives and safety prints, the films do vary in quality, and some minor blemishes have permanently worked themselves into the films. For the most part, however, the movies look sensational, with beautiful blacks and rich shadows.

With the release of Volume 3, all twelve Universal films are now available on DVD. As for the two Fox films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, MPI plans to release them on April 27, 2004. While they are not UCLA restorations, MPI assured this reviewer that the source materials are good-quality 35mm prints and that the discs will be laden with extras.

To order The Sherlock Holmes Collection Vol. 3, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold