Dressed to Kill (1945)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1946
Case: contains elements from Canon with original script


Dressed to Kill pits Sherlock Holmes against a ruthless gang bent on retrieving three seemingly innocuous music boxes. When it becomes apparent that this gang will stop at nothing, including theft and murder, to secure these boxes, Holmes becomes convinced that there is more to the music than meets the ear. With the help of London’s less reputable citizens, Holmes is soon able to determine that two of the three boxes (the two he’s heard) have slight variations in their tunes and that these variations can be parsed into a message. Armed with only half of the message, Holmes can only hope that he’s in time to prevent an even greater crime from taking place. While not the best of Rathbone’s Holmes films, Dressed to Kill is still quite enjoyable, and does contain several more delightful elements.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

This is the last film in which Rathbone appeared as Holmes, and it is quite obvious that Rathbone had grown bored with the role. He is not as vibrant as he once was, and, sadly, he very often lacks the conviction that made his Holmes famous. On the plus side, the pimp hat has returned, and it is quite a relief to see it onscreen.

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

Apparently Bruce is capable of imitating a duck. How… fascinating. Also, strangely off-putting, and I could have done without this scene. That being said, Watson does prove exceedingly useful in this film; on two separate occasions it is his suggestion which leads Holmes in the right direction. Granted, he does once spoil Holmes’ plans, but he can be forgiven for that, for who would have expected a criminal to use Watson’s tricks against him. Overall, Bruce played an admirable Watson, a fitting tribute to what would be his last performance in the role.

Delightful Elements

We shall begin, of course, with the complexity of the plot. Here we see a group of criminals sending messages to one another through variations in music. Truly, this is a crime only Sherlock Holmes can solve, and it is quite enjoyable to witness Holmes using his musical talents for something other than distraction. Indeed, if we were to remove all other pleasant aspects from this film, the intricacy of the plot alone would carry it. In fact, of all the original scripts to come from the Rathbone/Bruce franchise, Dressed to Kill easily tops my favourites list.

In addition to the fascinating plot, the film is also quite slashy. This begins almost immediately, with Watson reading from his own story in Strand Magazine and Holmes ribbing him good-naturedly. The theme continues, the story presenting several subtle suggestions. The auction house coincidentally belongs to a man by the name of Gaylord. Holmes, at one point, tells Watson that it was past time he was in bed. Both of which are quite amusing.

We get to see Holmes without a tie, his collar undone. There is also quite a bit of touching, the least of which occurs when Watson bandages Holmes’ injured arm. Then there is the reference to Samuel Johnson and his Boswell. That Watson should rush in to try to save Holmes in Johnson’s museum is also quite amusing. And finally, the film ends in what is perhaps the slashiest scene of all; Holmes and Watson, having solved the case, are free to walk, arm in arm, into the sunset.

Slash and plot aside, the film is still with merit. While, on the off occasion, we are presented with a bumbling Watson, it is remarkable that it is Watson who, in the end, solves the case. He may not know it, but he proves himself invaluable.


There are, of course, a few quibbles which do distract from the film. I have mentioned above Rathbone’s seeming boredom, and this is, sadly, quite apparent throughout the film. Then, of course, there is the inclusion of an Irene Adler monologue, which does not appear to fit, nor make any sense, given the context of the story.

Despite the overall brilliance of the plot, there were several occurrences which distracted from it. The use of a cookie jar as a hiding place was lame at best. Holmes falling victim to a trap was also quite distressing. And finally, on several occasions Watson is once again rendered into the role of bumbling idiot. This was quite depressing, especially when seen against the stronger Watson scenes.

Overall, though, I quite enjoyed the film. Not enough to warrant four pipes, but it does earn a solid three out of five.