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Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce team up for the fourteenth and final time as super sleuth Sherlock Holmes and faithful sidekick Dr. Watson in Dressed to Kill (1946). The last movie of the highly successful series starring the duo takes the characters back to the famous 221b Baker Street locale, racing to recover stolen bank printing plates and save England from economic ruin. The key to the location of the plates is hidden inside the coded tunes of three music boxes, crafted by a Dartmoor Prison inmate.
Competing against Holmes and Watson for the boxes is a gang of villains, headed by femme fatale Hilda Courtney. Actress Patricia Morison plays the sultry ringleader Courtney, a woman with "A price on her lovely head, a dare on her luscious lips, danger in her icy heart," according to the movie's poster and advertising. Powers of deduction and an unwitting clue by Watson lead Holmes to the plates and a showdown with the gang.
Some critics have said the last installment of the seven-year series was the weakest. In Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films, author Michael Druxman called Dressed to Kill "a dismal conclusion to an often exceptional motion picture series." But others have found it up to par with the rest, "a puzzle worthy of the Doyle tradition," according to The Hollywood Reporter review. One thing most critics agreed on was the vague title, which did little to describe the plot. The name was later changed to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code when released in England.
Prior to his success as Sherlock Holmes, Rathbone had a steady career playing sword-wielding villains and ne'er-do-wells on screen in Hollywood costume drama/adventures. He was the sinister antagonist in such box office hits as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Mark of Zorro (1940). During these years, he earned two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Tybalt in 1936's Romeo and Juliet and as King Louis XI in 1938's If I Were King. Amazingly, he lost both times to the same actor: Walter Brennan.
Sherlock Holmes has been a character in motion pictures for almost as long as film itself has been around, with some of the first Holmes movies appearing in the early 1900s. But of the scores of actors who have played the detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle, none have so been identified with the part as actor Rathbone. Seeking to shake the persona so closely tied to him, Rathbone abandoned the Sherlock Holmes movies and Hollywood altogether after Dressed to Kill. Friends and colleagues reacted with disbelief: the series was highly profitable and studio Universal had planned four more films in the popular series (according to Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen, by Ron Hydock, 1979).
Undeterred, Rathbone headed back to Broadway where, within a couple of years, he won a Tony Award for his work in The Heiress. He appeared in numerous stage productions, television and radio shows over the years and eventually returned to movies, but none had the success of his former Sherlock Holmes films. (Although he did lend his voice in a cameo part in 1986's animated Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective, featuring a rodent named Basil -- a nod to Rathbone's influence.)
Producer: Roy William Neill, Howard Benedict
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Frank Gruber, Leonard Lee, Arthur Conan Doyle (story)
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Film Editing: Saul A. Goodkind
Art Direction: Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Music: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Edmund Breon (Julian Emery), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Patricia Morison (Hilda Courtney), Patricia Cameron (Evelyn Clifford), Harry Cording (Hamid).
by Amy Cox