Judge Ian Visser prefers this film's original title, In Advance of an Un-natural Death.
"My dear Colonel! With Sherlock Holmes out of the way, what could go wrong?"
Note: Prelude to Murder is also available under the title Dressed to Kill.
Three seemingly ordinary music boxes arrive at a London auction house from Dartmoor prison, where inmates construct crafts for income. Sold to three different customers, the boxes soon generate a most sinister interest. When one of the buyers, a friend of Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce, Suspicion), is murdered and his box taken, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone, The Pearl of Death) quickly involves himself in the case.
Holmes and Watson soon find themselves in a desperate race across London to acquire the remaining boxes. Hot on their trail, and often several steps ahead, is a trio of criminals with an equal determination. Holmes must not only secure the boxes and capture the plotters, but unravel the ultimate mystery of the case.
Prelude to Murder was the last of Universal's sixteen Rathbone-Bruce films. Rathbone had by this time tired of Sherlock Holmes, and had elected to leave the famous role for the stage. Director Roy William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) himself would die within the year, having helmed eleven of the series. The series was unique in its updating of the narrative to the 1940s, often mixing the Victorian-era stories of Arthur Conan Doyle with the new enemy of Nazism.
Prelude to Murder is one of the better entries in the series. Although ultimately predictable (Holmes' always solves the case), solid plotting keeps the story moving forward at a decent clip. And unlike other efforts in the series, actual deduction on Holmes part is called for. To further spice up the proceedings, Holmes is frequently outsmarted and outmaneuvered by his opponents, and the excellent (almost flirtatious) cat-and-mouse game between Holmes and Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison, The Prince of Thieves) ups the quality of the film considerably.
Good performances also make Prelude to Murder one of the finest of the Rathbone-Bruce efforts. The main spark is provided by the sinister Patricia Morison, who plays the role of the femme fatale to near-perfection. Also turning in solid efforts are series' veterans Harry Cording (Terror by Night) and Frederick Worlock (The Woman in Green), respectively. And credit Rathbone and Bruce themselves, who resist the temptation to merely phone-in their performances and instead finish the series in enthusiastic form.
Prelude to Murder is presented in its original aspect ratios of 1.33:1. It's difficult to determine the quality of the colorized version presented on this disc because of the effects of the process. While the print appears quite sharp, the colorization attempt creates a bland, washed-out set of pastels that distracts more than it enhances. The print appears to have few flecks, nicks, or dirt marks, making this a very clean effort.
The black and white version of the film is the real bonus for fans of Sherlock Holmes. The image on this version is sharp and free of most defects, with good contrast and black levels. There are occasional spots and nicks, but the transfer is far better than most of the public domain copies being sold on the market. It should be noted that the black and white version on the disc has been given no scene selection menu, only chapter stops.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio mix sounds excellent and is free of the hiss and pops that tend to accompany other public domain copies of the film. The dialogue and music are well-balanced, and all the conversations are easily understood.
Special features are limited to one colorized trailer for the film. It's best to avoid the trailer before watching the film, as it gives away several important aspects of the plot. It's unfortunate that the original black and white trailer couldn't be included, and that Fox decided to only include the inferior colorized version.
This final Rathbone-Bruce offering is sure to please fans of the series, and entertain those new to the world of Sherlock Holmes. As with another recent Holmes release by Fox, Terror by Night, I have to recommend Prelude to Murder for its fine black and white transfer, and not the unnecessary and sloppy colorization effort.
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