“Terror By Night” (1946): Basil Rathbone stars as the calabash pipe-smoking Sherlock Holmes

By on July 6, 2018

Now streaming in our Cult Films section on Night Flight Plus — where you’ll find an omnifarious, eclectic selection of obscure documentaries, independently-made oddball featurettes, and ostentatious television programs of one type or another — you’ll now find Terror By Night (1946), a black & white diamond-theft b-movie caper starring Basil Rathbone as the calabash pipe-smoking, deerstalker-wearing Sherlock Holmes.

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Terror by Night was released theatrically on February 1, 1946.

In this hour-long b-movie feature, set in then modern-day England — written by pulp novelist Frank Gruber, and produced and directed by Roy William Neill — Sherlock Holmes is hired by “Roland Carstairs” (Geoffrey Steele) to protect a famously valuable and quite enormous diamond, the Star of Rhodesia, as its owner, his mother, “Lady Margaret Carstairs” (Mary Forbes), travels with it on a speeding train traveling from London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Holmes believes the diamond — which is also cursed (“all those who possessed it came to sudden and violent death”) — will likely be stolen during the train trip, so he swaps the real for a fake, giving “Inspector Lestrade” (Dennis Hoey) the real jewel, who boards the same train, traveling incognito.

In the dining car, Holmes and Watson meet an old army chum of Watson’s, “Major Duncan-Bleek” (Alan Mowbray), but, while they’re talking to the Major, Roland Carstairs is murdered with a poisoned blowdart and the fake diamond is snatched.

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Lestrade, Holmes, and Watson learn nothing conclusive in questioning the other passengers, but everyone on the train is a suspect, and quite a few of them seem suspicious, particularly “Vivian Vedder” (Renee Godfrey), a young woman dressed in black who is transporting the body of her mother to Scotland for burial (no skipping ahead!).

Holmes suspects that a notorious jewel thief “Colonel Sebastian Moran” — an associate of his longtime nemesis, the criminal mastermind “Professor James Moriarty” — is responsible for the theft. Holmes has never seen Moran, though, and doesn’t know what he looks like, which only adds to the mystery.

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The plot pace quickens when Holmes is nearly killed when pushed from the train by an unseen assailant.

Then, before you can say “elementary, my dear Watson,” the train’s baggage van guard is found murdered, also by a poisoned dart.

Holmes then discovers a secret compartment inside the coffin, which we’ve seen was purchased by Ms. Vedder, where the killer had likely concealed himself aboard the train, waiting for the opportunity to strike.

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We’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to find out what happens next as Holmes and Watson race against time to solve the mystery before the train arrives at its destination, allowing the murderer to escape.

We can tell you this: there are plenty of switchbacks and “red herring”-style fakeouts mixed in with the clues in this thriller late Forties’ cat-and-mouse caper!

Read more about Terror by Night below.

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In 1942, Universal Pictures purchased the rights to the Sherlock Holmes franchise for $300,000 from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Universal also retained the continuing services of the two actors audiences identified with as the archetypal “Sherlock Holmes” and “Dr. Watson,” Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who had played the characters on screen at Fox in 1939 in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and since then had continued playing them on radio too.

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In addition to Rathbone and Bruce, Universal’s films would also feature Mary Gordon, who had played “Mrs. Hudson” at Fox (and on radio occasionally), and Dennis Hoey would continue playing Inspector Lestrade (Terror by Night was the last time he’d play this role, however).

Universal’s option was to last for several years and provide access to twenty-one of the original Doyle short stories to draw on.

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Universal began releasing several new titles each year, beginning with 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.

There were twelve Universal films in all, released between 1942-1946 — Terror by Night was the penultimate release in the series — and most of these moved far afield of the Victorian settings found in Doyle’s original stories, which had begun in 1887 with the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet.”

Doyle penned his last Sherlock Holmes tale in 1927 (he died in 1930).

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Now, with Universal owning the franchise rights and able to create new Sherlock Holmes titles of their own — not without controversy, of course — Holmes and his bumbling sidekick Watson were fairly often tracking down Nazi spies and saboteurs in modern-day post-World War II England.

These Universal films usually climaxed with Holmes opining eloquently on the relationship between England and the United States and how they needed to continue fighting fascists across the globe.

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The first of these titles was directed by John Rawlins, and overseen by producer Howard Benedict, but beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Roy William Neill took over as sole director and eventually he was also producer and occasionally co-writer too.

In the late Thirties, Neill had initially been assigned to direct The Lady Vanishes, but due to delays in the production, the project was taken over by Alfred Hitchcock.

Terror by Night, in fact, shares distinguishing points of interest with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and also with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Terror By Night is in the public domain and has appeared on DVD numerous times — including a computer-colorized version — but we’re now pleased to be able to offer the classic B&W version on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.