Synopsis: At a London auction house, three plain and seemingly identical music boxes are sold to three different bidders. One of them is music box collector Julian “Stinky” Emery. Emery pays a modest two pounds for his box, and the other bidders acquire theirs for even less. That night, he is attacked in his home by an unseen assailant, and one of the music boxes in his collection is stolen.
The following day Emery visits his old school chum Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) and Watson’s associate, famed consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone). When asked about the bandage on his head, Emery relates the odd tale of the stolen music box. Holmes is intrigued by the fact that someone would go to so much trouble to acquire an apparently worthless item, when there were much more valuable pieces in the collection. He and Watson go to visit Emery’s home, and determine that the thieves had stolen the wrong music box — the target was evidently the one he had purchased the previous day at auction. Holmes memorizes the odd tune that the box plays.
Later, Emery received a visit from the beautiful Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) who attempts to use her feminine wiles to persuade him to give her the music box. But her chauffeur Hamid becomes jealous when he sees Emery touching her and kills him.
Learning of Emery’s murder, Holmes and Watson visit the auction house where the music boxes were sold. They learn that the music boxes were all made by the same inmate in Dartmoor prison. Deducing that the music boxes must be a method of communicating with the outside, Holmes decides to track down the buyers of the other two boxes, as they might be in danger.
His first stop is the home of the Kilgour family, but when Holmes and Watson arrive only a charwoman is there. After she leaves they discover a young girl tied up in the closet — the “charwoman”, we learn, was Hilda Courtney in disguise, and she has made off with the second box.
But when Courtney attempts to procure the third box, she is shocked to discover it has already been sold — to Sherlock Holmes….
Comments: The fourteenth and final of Universal’s cycle of Sherlock Holmes films, Dressed to Kill does not claim to be based on any of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. It does, however, borrow the smoke-bomb gimmick from “A Scandal in Bohemia”, with Hilda Courtney tricking Dr. Watson into revealing the whereabouts of one of the music boxes by gaining access to 221B Baker Street and then convincing him that the place is on fire. We’re told that Courtney got the idea from reading Watson’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which had been recently published. While it seems a bit unlikely that Watson would fall for a trick he’d already written about in a magazine (or that the otherwise intelligent Courtney would believe that he would do so), the buffoonish Nigel Bruce sells it well enough.
The mystery elements mesh well with the overall tone of the movie, which functions more like a conventional thriller, with its share of chases and escapes. At one point Holmes is kidnapped and handcuffed to a water pipe in a garage. His captors arrange for him to be killed by poison gas before leaving the premises — thus giving him plenty of time to escape, as though this were a cliffhanger episode of the old Batman TV series.
It’s all good clean fun, and makes for an above-average Holmes entry. As usual, the plot twists are telegraphed well in advance for the benefit of audiences of the time, who weren’t interested in working too hard to keep up. They just wanted a pleasant evening at the movies, and it seems reasonable to assume that this one went over just fine.
The lovely Patricia Morison is perfect as femme fatale Hilda Courtney, and she’s just as good here as she was in Calling Dr. Death, which we’ve seen a number of times on Horror Incorporated. Those two performances make me wish her career had gone a bit better. Unfortunately, she never found her niche in the early years before the camera. Male actors were allowed much more time to find the right sort of roles that suited them (Humphrey Bogart is a good example), but for women, screen careers tended to be much shorter, and the range of possible roles far more limited.
As we should expect, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce do their usual workmanlike best, and at the end of the film there’s a lighthearted spirit that seems to come from the knowledge that this is the last of the series.