Fox // 1946 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ian Visser (Retired) // October 7th, 2005
It's Sherlock Holmes! On a train! There's murder! And it's in color!
Part of the classic Holmes series of the 1940s, Terror By Night gets yet another kick at the can in a new colorized release.
The Star of Rhodesia is the grandest diamond in the world. Dug out of the mud of Africa, it has brought treachery, deceit, and death to all who have possessed it. Now in the hands of Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes, Houseboat), the Star of Rhodesia is being taken from London to Scotland by train. Aware of its potential for attracting trouble, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone, Woman in Green) is employed by Lady Margaret and her son Roland (Geoffrey Steele, My Fair Lady) to guard against any attempted thefts. Also along for the ride are Holmes' loyal companion Dr. James Watson (Nigel Bruce, Suspicion) and Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey, The Pearl of Death) of Scotland Yard, who is keeping his own eye on the valuable bauble.
And for good reason. Shortly after the group departs, young Carstairs is found murdered, and the Star of Rhodesia missing. The list of suspects abounds. Watson's long-time friend Major Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray, The King and I) is a surprise passenger, as well as the icy Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey, Winter Wonderland) and the blustering Professor William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock, Ruthless). Hot on the trail, Holmes must deduce not only the killer's identity, but he must locate the stone before reaching Edinburgh.
Long in the public domain, Terror By Night has now been re-issued by Legend Films, which specializes in the colorization of black and white films.
The combination of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. James Watson, respectively, has become the standard against which all other Holmes films are judged. Not only popular when first released, the collection of fourteen films has continued to be a success on DVD. Updated to the 1940s and often pitting Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective against the Nazi-era war machine, these features had limited budgets and a fast output by the studio. 1946 marked the release of Terror By Night, the thirteenth effort of the series.
Terror By Night was directed by Roy William Neill, a veteran of over one hundred films. Neill directed eleven of the films from the series, Terror By Night being the second-to-last. Of the collection, it is one of the more cerebral additions, possibly because of a limited budget. The film was clearly made on a shoe-string; there are limited action sequences, and most of the story is confined to a few locations on the train. Something of an orphan, Terror By Night has no real connection to any existing Arthur Conan Doyle story, and was instead penned by Frank Gruber (Pony Express), a veteran of pulp features. At a brisk sixty minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome and suffers less than others in the series when updated from the Victorian Age to the 1940s.
By 1946, the team of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had played their respective characters for several years. It was no secret that near the conclusion of the series, Rathbone had grown weary of the famous detective and yearned for more challenging work. That being said, you have to admire Rathbone for not simply phoning in his performance in Terror By Night. As always, Rathbone gives us a Holmes that is quick-witted and focused, able to deduce what mere mortals cannot. The film's other actors all give solid performances with their smaller parts, although Renee Godfrey delivers what has to be the worst rendition of an upper-class English accent ever put on film. And although Nigel Bruce often gets the blame for dumbing-down Dr. Watson to a level never imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle, here he is out-numb-skulled by Dennis Hoey, whose Lestrade is given nothing to do but appear as thick-headed as possible. For the character of Inspector Lestrade, this is the lowest he's been depicted throughout the entire series of films.
I'm fascinated by the idea of colorization, but I've never seen any examples that have actually impressed me. Early attempts by mogul Ted Turner to colorize classic films went almost nowhere, thanks to consumer disinterest and under-whelming results. It's difficult to determine the quality of the colorized version presented on this disc because of the effects of the process. The image appears to have few flecks, nicks, or dirt marks, making this a very clean print. While the image appears to be quite sharp, the color is a bland, washed-out set of pastels that distracts more than it enhances. The Legend Films website claims the film has been "colorized with a new, cutting-edge digital technology." Frankly, this effort appears to be no better than the attempts made in the early 1990s.
The included black and white version of the film is the real keeper here. A few months ago I picked up a different public domain version of Terror By Night, and the image and audio were appalling. This is strongly contrasted by the excellent work done by the UCLA's Film and Television Archive for the recent MPI releases, which now appear in near-pristine form. The Legend Films' presentation appears somewhere in-between these two poles, leaning towards the good end of things. It is much better than any other effort besides that of MPI, and is considerably cheaper to purchase. The image on the original version is sharp and free of almost all defects, with good contrast and black levels. It should be noted that the black and white version on the disc has been given no scene selection menu, only chapter stops.
Both versions are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.37:1. Most other versions on the market are chopped to 1.33:1, which cuts off the titles during the opening sequence and the edges of the frame. Legend Films should be commended for their effort in ensuring the original ratio has been preserved for viewers.
Both versions feature a 2.0 Dolby Digital audio mix. Unlike other offerings, this track appears to be very clean, and is free of the hiss that tends to accompany older films. It isn't the best out there, but it is certainly acceptable for the viewing experience.
Special features are limited to two colorized trailers for other upcoming releases from Legend Films, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Dressed to Kill. The color job on the trailers appears to be even worse than in the completed Terror By Night, and the audio is muffled and full of hiss. As an attempt to show off future efforts of colorization, these trailers will probably not convince anyone of the process' merits.
Terror By Night is not the strongest of the Rathbone/Bruce series. Even by B-movie standards, it is pretty cheap. Clearly shot on a stage set, the train in question never rocks or sways, and any passing scenery is courtesy of rear-projection techniques. The establishing shots are obvious models or stock footage, and of a quality that is so much worse than the rest of the feature that their appearance is almost jarring to the viewer.
Because of its setting, Terror By Night is also filled with many of the usual clichés. As with any suspense story depicted on a fast-moving train, someone will inevitably be tossed from it, or at least an attempt will be made on a character's life in such a manner. This type of story also limits the number of suspects available, and the film must throw out a lot of red herrings to the keep the viewer guessing. Unfortunately, it also tips its hand a bit too early in revealing the culprit of the thefts and murders.
Delivering a version satisfying to completists of the series or those wanting a quick Holmes fix, Legend Films is lauded for its fine presentation of the restored black and white version of Terror By Night. As for the colorized version, the less said the better. It's ironic, but I have to recommend this disc in spite of the main feature, and not because of it.
Not guilty. Video judgment must be a split decision between the colorized (with a 50) and the original black and white (with a 75) versions.
Review content copyright © 2005 Ian Visser; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated