[box cover]

Terror by Night

Here's a re-re-re-release of a favorite title from Universal's Sherlock Holmes series, the World War II-era thrillers that starred Basil Rathbone. This 1946 title was the penultimate entry in the long B-movie series, followed only by Dressed to Kill. By this point, Rathbone had so thoroughly imprinted himself on Holmes (or was it the other way around?) that he was eager to decouple himself from Arthur Conan Doyle's unkillable mastermind. Perhaps because his servitude was nearing an end, here Rathbone gives one of his more dynamic Holmes performances. These production-line pulp yarns — Hollywood's Bazooka Bubble Gum — couldn't have given the terrific Rathbone any sense of challenge or growth as an actor. Nor do they ask much of the viewer, but they can be undemandingly entertaining period bric-a-brac.

The Great Detective and faithful Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce at the height of his character's revisionist boobery) attempt to guard a priceless diamond, the Star of Rhodesia. The stone is cursed ("all those who possessed it came to sudden and violent death"), placing its owners — haughty Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) and her fretting son, Roland (Geoffrey Steele) — in mortal peril. Before you can say "elementary," Roland is murdered with a poisoned blowdart and the diamond stolen. With the action set on a speeding train between London and Edinburgh, Terror by Night shares a distinguishing point of interest with Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. No passenger is above suspicion, and they are indeed a fishy bunch. The story doesn't rise above the expected paperback whodunit formula, and chances are you'll peg the perp long before Holmes does. But the whole movie's only an hour long so the twists involving a trick coffin, secret disguises, a switcheroo with the gem, more murderous poison darts, and a fearsome adversary from Holmes' past aren't spread too thinly. Dennis Hoey returns for his final turn as ineffectual Inspector Lestrade. And American actress Renee Godfrey, as a young lovely caught up in events, is in the running for Hollywood's worst British accent until Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Better-than-usual pacing by series director Roy William Neill serves a by-the-numbers screenplay by pulp novelist Frank Gruber. Inconsistent stock footage suggests that the train changes engines during the journey, and the series itself is quite obviously running low on coal, though you can't fault the enduring Rathbone-Bruce chemistry or the unflagging charm of Rathbone's portrayal. After a life-or-death struggle on the train's exterior, literature's most famous sleuth returns to his compartment, slicks back his hair, and reports to Watson that he's just been "observing the landscape from the end of the corridor." Watson protests that he hadn't seen his friend there. "I was on the outside," Holmes quips, "you must try it sometime." Now we know where James Bond got it.

*          *          *

This is at least the sixth time Terror by Night, for years a public-domain staple, has appeared on DVD. This particular budget-priced edition comes from Key Video and Legend Films, "a studio specializing in restoring and colorizing classic films." The disc holds two versions: the restored black-and-white original and a new computer-colorized version. Purists should 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. As colorized films go, this one's another. The hues and tones are often garish and distracting, with something like lime Jell-o greens smeared across scenery sticking especially in the memory. This may or may not be an example of "cutting-edge" advances, but either way it's difficult to see significant value in even good work put into the process. 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. Certainly the example on hand here won't be launching a colorization revolution.

So it's an unasked-for and unnecessary enterprise, though we can thank Legend for doing a good 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 "Sherlock Previews," a promotion for Legend Films' colorized editions of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Dressed to Kill, made from their original trailers. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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