Terror by Night (1946)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
Dr. Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1946
Case: none


On board a train bound for Edinburgh, Sherlock Holmes is charged with preventing the theft of a rare and precious jewel known as the Star of Rhodesia, which belongs to the Lady Margaret Carstairs. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Lady Carstairs’ son is discovered murdered; her jewel stolen. Aided by Inspector Lestrade, Holmes determines that of all the passengers with access to the Lady Carstairs’ compartment, one is, in fact, the arch-criminal, Colonel Sebastian Moran. Borrowing several elements from Canon without actually adapting an original story, Terror by Night is a fast paced, suspenseful who-done-it.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Rathbone’s Holmes, as always, is an utter delight in this film. Wearing his trademarked pimp hat, Rathbone showcases his ability to shift effortlessly between dramatic dialogue and daring action.

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

While still managing to portray Watson as the bumbling character we have come to recognize from these films, Bruce actually manages to steal a few scenes of his own. Although his tomfoolery is quite disappointing at times, his love and devotion for Holmes radiates across the screen; making us forget that only moments before he was bungling the entire investigation.

Delightful Elements

I must confess; I am rather torn on the Holmes/Watson interaction in this film, which is why you will see this listed in here, and in the quibbles section.

There is this underlying theme of jealousy and possessiveness that runs throughout this film. The story opens with Holmes waiting for a train, and then being forced to board the train without Watson. Holmes appears quite anxious, and spends several moments hanging off the now moving train in an effort to find his wayward partner. Watson does arrive, just in time, and Holmes’ cries of encouragement are quite amusing.

Watson does not, however, arrive alone. He has run into a friend, and the two of them board the train together. Holmes, it is interesting to note, is not at all pleased. In fact, Holmes seems entirely put out that Watson should even have another friend (let alone that he should bring this friend along for the trip). There is a quite a bit of jealousy in this scene, with Holmes actually scowling at Watson’s friend. Then, as Holmes is leading Watson to their shared compartment (and away from Watson’s friend) Holmes is very particular to touch Watson’s shoulder and guide him (least he turn around and invite his friend to join them).

This theme continues throughout the film. As we will see in the quibbles, Holmes, at one point, is quite patronizing to Watson. Watson, rather than taking this (like he usually does, and here we cannot help but cheer Watson on) ditches Holmes for his new friend. To say Holmes is unimpressed would be an understatement.

In fact, Holmes immediately goes looking for Watson, and when he finds him in the company a man Holmes clearly now perceives as a rival, he becomes exceedingly clingy. Then, in a move that demonstrates quite clearly his possessive nature, Holmes accuses Watson’s friend of having committed the murder and theft.

Technically, Holmes is right, and Watson’s friend does turn out to be Colonel Moran, but until Holmes catches Watson getting chummy with Moran, he does not even consider the man as a suspect. It’s all together too amusing.

Things shift after this, for now that Holmes has been proven right, Watson knows that he needs to get back into Holmes’ good graces. Therefore, when Moran threatens Holmes, Watson hauls off and elbows Moran in the crotch. The entire scene is utterly fantastic.

Holmes and Watson’s relationship aside, this film is also amusing in that it portrays an infatuated Inspector Lestrade who spends the entire journey lusting after Holmes.

The supporting characters in this film were also quite enjoyable, particularly the Scottish Inspector who boards the train to arrest Moran.

Finally, the plot itself, along with the interesting twist at the end, was quite refreshing. At no point did I find myself bored; indeed, I was quite surprised to see the final credits role. All around a very gripping case.


Sadly, no Rathbone film would be complete without a rant against the treatment of Watson. Indeed, in addition to the usual character assassination, we are also forced to endure Holmes’ mistreatment of his long-time friend and companion. In fact, at times, Holmes is downright cruel.

This is quite distressing, for we are forced to endure a dejected Watson, which, in addition to breaking my heart, also forced me to endure a mumbling Watson (for a Watson choked by emotion is not a Watson capable of enunciating his words). Despite all of this, Watson still defends Holmes, and saves his life (without so much as a ‘thank you’ from Holmes, I might add). For as much as I enjoy Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes, his Holmes can, on occasion, come across as a complete asshole.

It does not help that Watson’s role is secondary to the roles of both Holmes and Lestrade, making Lestrade and Holmes the true partnership of this film.

Overall, though, Terror by Night is a decent enough film; good enough, at least, to earn three out of five pipes.