The last Universal Sherlock Holmes film is something of a mixed bag. As usual there’s plenty to enjoy but, thirteen films on, there are real signs of strain and repetition here. Basil Rathbone, worried about typecasting, had elected not to renew his contract before shooting began. There’s a flatness to the film that may have resulted from a general winding down and, unfortunately, this isn’t quite the last hurrah that the series deserved.
- Dressed to Kill might seem like a strange title for a Holmes movie. While Basil and Nigel are impeccably turned out as usual, it’s the female villain Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) that’s the subject here! The working title had been Prelude to Murder, somewhat more atmospheric and appropriate given that the plot concerns a musical cipher.
- A lot of plot elements are reproduced from previous films. There’s the multi-part cipher from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, the tracking down of antiques from The Pearl of Death, and the formidable female villain from The Spider Woman and The Woman in Green. As in The Pearl of Death, there’s a hint of perversity in the obsession of henchman Hamid (Harry Cording) with Hilda Courtney.
- Being an old schoolfriend of Dr. Watson is, once again, shown to be a perilous occupation. Here, poor old Julian ‘Stinky’ Emery (Edmund Breon) soon gets a knife in the back.
- We begin as Watson proudly looks over his latest publication in The Strand magazine – A Scandal in Bohemia. He mentions that the case occurred two years ago (in 1944?) and goes on to talk about Irene Adler, the woman who bested Holmes. Clearly, we are supposed to see Hilda Courtney as a new Irene Adler.
- Later in the film, Hilda will fool Watson by using a smoke bomb, as in A Scandal in Bohemia. She goes on to prove her mettle by trapping Holmes, cleverly baiting him through his knowledge of tobacco ash. In a very thrilling sequence, Holmes is handcuffed and hung from a girder as poisonous Nazi gas pumps out of a car engine. Not just poisonous gas, folks. Poisonous NAZI gas. Needless to say, Holmes escapes!
- Watson attempts to cheer up a frightened child by quacking like a duck. Unfortunately, this brings her to the verge of tears.
- The film ends at Samuel Johnson’s house with a nice example of Rathbone being a badass. Having shot Hamid, he deadpans, “I believe this fellow on the floor could use some medical attention. We must see that he looks his best, you know, when he’s hanged.” The emphasis that Rathbone places on that final word is just beautiful.
- Holmes gives Watson all the credit for solving the case; Watson chuckles, puffs out his chest and says, “I don’t think I could have done it entirely without Mr. Holmes’ help!” It’s a charming note on which to end the film, and the series.