[box cover]

Prelude to Murder (a.k.a. Dressed to Kill)

This rickety 1946 thriller is the final installment of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone. What began in '39 with 20th Century Fox's The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had by now degenerated to modest B-movie pulp potboilers with contemporary stock villains such as Nazis, the Scarlet Claw, and the Spider Woman. After all that plus more than 200 half-hour Sherlock Holmes radio adventures with Nigel Bruce, it's understandable that Rathbone wanted to leave Holmes and Hollywood behind. This is Universal's twelfth film in the line, and while Rathbone's super-sleuth and Bruce's Dr. Watson are always welcome, the successful series has run its course and here it's picking its own fur to weave a plot. Readers faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle's original tales weren't sad to see Bruce's comic-sidekick Watson finally retire, although devotees will smile as the film unabashedly acknowledges that it's pilfering elements from "A Scandal in Bohemia," Watson's first "slightly lurid" Holmes short story published by Conan Doyle in The Strand in 1891.

The plot turns on three cheap music boxes that Holmes must locate and keep safe before a criminal gang finds them and destroys England's economy. Coded within the music box tunes, you see, is the location of stolen Bank of England pound-note engraving plates. The crime lord heading the dastardly counterfeiters is sultry Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison). Along the way we get the Rathbone-Bruce duo back at 221b Baker Street, "Fatso" Watson's friend "Stinky" knifed in the back by "extremely astute cold-blooded murderers," the sleuths slumming for clues in a singalong pub, a poison gas that "the Germans use with gratifying results in removing their undesirables," Watson's hand in the cookie jar, and the climactic confrontation at the museum home of Ben Jonson. Holmes' perfect-pitch deductions surrounding the encryption melodies are enjoyably preposterous, and we love lines such as a villain's "By now we assume that Mr. Holmes has traded his violin for a harp."

But the film is patched together from hand-me-down remnants. Director Roy William Neill and the writers seem to be just going through the motions while waiting for that final smack from the clapboard. Rathbone delivers a magnetic performance to the bitter end, though, and Morison is a femme fatale worthy of this watered-down cinematic interpretation of the Master. As a series finale it ends the era with a shrug, but Rathbone still holds a place as the screen's all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes.

*          *          *

Inexplicably presented under its nearly forgotten working title, this long-time public domain stalwart usually appears on home video with its American theatrical release title, Dressed to Kill, and that's the title displayed in this print's opening credits. (In England it appeared as the more to-the-point Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code.) Whatever we call it, here it is again on a budget-priced DVD courtesy of Key and Legend Films, "a studio specializing in restoring and colorizing classic films."

This disc holds two versions of the film, the restored black-and-white original and a new computer-colorized alternate. Purists will be pleased with the well-restored b&w version, a nearly spotless print with exceptional definition and clarity. However, this release is aimed at making the "amazing colorization, created with a new cutting-edge digital technology" the main attraction. For instance, the top-of-the-menu colorized version is the only one with a scene-select option. Colorization still proves itself to be a dubious enterprise. Here its results are often garish and distracting, visually shrieking in a way that doesn't enhance the "realism" of what's on the screen. Instead of supporting the movie, the colorization just points at itself. Never mind whether we're talking an A-list classic or a low-rent B-movie; it's difficult to see significant value in even good work resulting from such a redo. We remain unconvinced that colorization — as www.legendfilms.net says it — "adds to the marketability of a title for today's generation of buyers, and opens up the world of classic films to whole new audiences." More likely someone is underestimating today's generation of whole new audiences. After all, when Ted Turner tried it years ago, the backlash was only partly aimed at the sloppy results themselves. So it's an unasked-for and unnecessary alteration, though we can thank Legend for doing a fine job restoring and preserving the original version on this disc.

Both versions are full-frame (OAR) with faultless transfers, and their DD 2.0 monaural audio is clean and vivid. The only extra is the film's original trailer in that aforementioned amazing colorization. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

Back to Quick Reviews Index: [A-F] [G-L] [M-R] [S-Z]

Back to Main Page