As I write this blog’s very first post, it just so happens that tomorrow is the World Book Day. So I thought, what better way to celebrate than to start off with perhaps the most iconic literary character of all time. Sherlock Holmes.
When you think about Sherlock Holmes, perhaps actors like Robert Downey, Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller come to mind. But they are only the latest few in a very long line of screen Sherlocks. The first one, in fact, is not even known by name. He appeared in a very short and silly film called Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).
What actor you favour is a matter of preference, of course. My own vote goes to Jeremy Brett of the 80s and 90s, but before him the undisputed Sherlock for fans all over the world was Basil Rathbone. He did the role no less than fourteen times, defining the almost aristocratic detective that many still associate with the character. Even more important for future interpretations may have been Nigel Bruce’s slightly thick-headed Dr. Watson.
The Internet Archive has a good number of Sherlock Holmes features. Perhaps some day I will write about a wonderful little TV series from the 1950s, but today we focus on Rathbone. Five of his Sherlock films are on IA. All are good, but if you want to watch just one, make it Terror by Night from 1946.
While not Rathbone’s most well-known performance, it is certainly a very good one. Holmes is given the task of guarding a valuable diamond during a train journey, and most of the film is set on board the train. An old train with its steam engine and passenger compartments makes a perfect backdrop for a mystery, as has been proven again and again in films such as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). The shape of the train helps to tighten the plot, since it is impossible to move from point A to point C without passing point B along the way. Good use is made of this dramatic convenience in the film.
Terror by Night is packed with clichés, but quite honestly: How is it possible to make Sherlock Holmes without the clichés? Even the modern interpretations cannot do without them. In this particular case, they are used with such charm and ease that they only serve to raise the film to even higher levels. Rathbone acts cool and in control in a way that is pure joy to behold, and quite a relief from today’s slightly psychotic Sherlocks.
This film is best enjoyed with a large cup of hot Earl Grey tea, and some scones and marmalade.
Terror by Night
Running time: 58 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)