“Terror By Night” was the penultimate entry in Universal Pictures’ popular series of thrillers based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, with Basil Rathbone as the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the decidedly less-than-brilliant Doctor Watson. By this point in the series, however, it appeared that the fun was beginning to wane – Rathbone was already making plans to jettison the Holmes characters, believing that the role prevented him from snagging meatier parts, while the film’s B-level production value is often obvious.
But, still, a minor Sherlock Holmes film with Rathbone and Bruce is better than a big-budget anything – and if “Terror By Night” does not represent great filmmaking, it is a highly entertaining distraction packed tightly into a crisp one hour format.
In this go-round, Holmes is hired by the son of Lady Margaret Carstairs, the current owner of the Star of Rhodesia, a fabled jewel with a notorious history – we are told that “all who possessed it came to sudden and violent deaths.” The noblewoman and her son are joined by Holmes on a train from London to Edinburgh, and traveling in the same railroad car is Holmes’ frenemy Inspector Lestrade – he unconvincingly claims to be going to Scotland for fishing. Doctor Watson barely misses the train, and jumps on board with an old friend named Major Duncan-Bleek. In the course of the trip, Lady Margaret’s son is killed by a poison dart and the Star of Rhodesia is stolen. Suspicious characters in the railroad car include an agitated professor and a mysterious woman in black who is transporting a coffin to Edinburgh. But, then again, perhaps the porters on the train are also a bit suspicious?
In “Terror By Night,” the red herrings create such a distinctive piscine aroma that their presence seems like too-obvious comedy relief. And Nigel Bruce’s Doctor Watson is too much of the bumbler here – his behavior becomes so silly that one has to imagine why Holmes would ever want to be seen in the same room with him. Even worse, cutaway shots to a toy train choo-chooing over a cardboard version of the English countryside looks tacky, even by 1940s Universal standards.
But this film – as with all of the Universal efforts featuring the Conan Doyle characters – is packed with highly entertaining supporting actors, most notably Dennis Hoey as the somewhat obtuse Lestrade, one-time silent comedy star Billy Bevan as an all-seeing porter, and glamorous starlet Renee Godfrey as the black-clad mystery woman (although her on-again, off-again British accent dilutes her attempts to remain elegant under all circumstances). Rathbone, despite his off-screen agitation in continuing the Holmes role, provides a considerable physical and emotional vigor. The sequence where Holmes is nearly pushed to his death from the moving train is a masterwork combination of Rathbone’s dramatic intensity, Roy William Neill’s bravura direction of a tightly intense situation and the combined technical prowess of Maury Gertsman’s cinematography and Saul A. Goodkind’s editing.
For years, “Terror By Night” was at a disadvantage due to its public domain status and the proliferation of inferior duped prints that made the film look shabby. Fortunately, the film has been properly restored and it can be appreciated properly by those who love the old-fashioned mystery flicks.