So many times a ‘master of disguise’ in a mystery is a man. In Dressed to Kill, we run into a woman who has the talent and means to transform herself so that she fits in wherever she needs to go.
This is from the Basil Rathbone Holmes series. Rathbone (under director Roy William Neal) is considered by many to be the definitive Holmes on screen: shrewd, reserved, widely read, almost Vulcan in his application of logic. His companion Dr. Watson (here played by Nigel Bruce) is not overly bumbling, but compared to Sherlock he’s definitely the second banana. He’s certainly better with his manners, and PR in general.
The plot of Dressed to Kill involves a ring of thieves trying to collect three musical boxes, all of which were made in a local prison and play the same tune. Well, not quite the same tune – they each play a few bits of the song wrong. I’m sure you can see where this is going: a code to a buried treasure! OK, not buried – hidden in plain sight. Ah, but where specifically!
The woman who is in the titular situation is one Hilda Courtney (played by Patricia Morison). Her daily life is one of privileged society, but underneath she’s a thieving, murderous, criminal killer. Well, more acurately she’s the brains and the face of the operation while her goons do the wetwork. She successfully impersonates various people, including a low-born housekeeper, to avoid detection – even by the famously observant Holmes. Morison was a Broadway actress who is able to put her considerable chops to work in this role, adopting not only modes of speech but physical cues to differentiate the characters she plays as Courtney.
This was the last of the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes series, and fans of Rathbone’s portrayal sometimes note his somewhat lackluster energy in this film. As with many actors in a series, Rathbone expressed concerns of being typecast in the role of the famous detective; and no doubt the churning out of 14 films between 1941 and 1944 (released up until 1947) was wearing on the regular performers.
Personally, I prefer the Jeremy Brett Holmes – just as shrewd and educated, but obviously more fond of cocaine and opium.
If you would like to view it yourself, The Internet Archive offers Dressed to Kill for FREE. There are also several other episodes from this series, including The Woman in Green, Terror by Night, and The Secret Weapon.
We’ve covered various and sundry formats of Sherlock on the blog before:
Gen gave a shout to the Jeremy Brett series.
And I have to thank Dileas for his help in the research of this write-up; he’s a Doyle fan, especially of his non-Sherlock stories like When the World Screamed.