Watson is late getting to the train, and almost misses it. As the train is pulling out of the station, Watson and a friend come running; Sherlock Holmes helps them jump aboard. Watson introduces his friend, Major Duncan-Bleek, and explains that they were reminiscing about India and lost track of the time.
Just as Carstairs feared, the Star of Rhodesia is stolen. In addition, Roland Carstairs is murdered. The game is afoot for Sherlock Holmes to find the diamond and the murderer. The murderer is one of the passengers on the train. In addition to Holmes and Watson, the passengers include:
Holmes suspects that one of the passengers is actually Col. Sebastian Moran, a protégé of Moriarty, known for spectacular jewel robberies, and mathematical puzzles. The women are still suspects--Moran's accomplice could be a woman. Even Lady Margaret is a suspect; she could have stolen the diamond for the insurance. And she didn't seem particularly distraught over her son's death. Of course there are a number of red herrings on the train, including the suspicious-looking guard in the luggage compartment. At one point Holmes says that he accepted the case because he was convinced that Moran could not resist such a "tempting morsel" as the Star of Rhodesia.
The serious atmosphere surrounding the murder investigation is lightened by the comic performances of Nigel Bruce (Watson) and Dennis Hoey (Lestrade). When Watson questions Professor Kilbane, Kilbane puts Watson on the defensive by accusing him! When Lady Margaret complains to Holmes and Lestrade that they allowed the Star of Rhodesia to be stolen, she adds, "I intend to report you both to Scotland Yard!" Lestrade sputtered, "But I am Scotland Yard." A short while later Kilbane says to Lestrade, "If you come pounding on my door again, I'll have the law on you." And Lestrade replies, "I am the law."
When Holmes observes Professor Kilbane walking to the end of the carriage, he follows him, and is puzzled that Kilbane has apparently disappeared. At that moment someone pushes him out the door, and very nearly off the train. For several minutes he clings to the outside of the train, and then manages to get back in by breaking the glass in the door.
After this close brush with death, Holmes visits the baggage compartment to examine the coffin. He discovers a secret compartment in the coffin, large enough for a small adult to hide in. Holmes now realizes that Colonel Moran has an accomplice.
If you haven't seen the film yet, and don't want the mystery spoiled, then read no further!
Lestrade and Holmes question Miss Vedder again, and she admits that she was paid to take the coffin aboard the train. Strangely enough, in the presence of Miss Vedder and Watson's friend Duncan-Bleek, Holmes tells Lestrade that the diamond wasn't stolen. He had switched it with an imitation--the fake was stolen. Holmes had the real diamond in his pocket all along. He gives it to Lestrade for safekeeping. (Watch carefully the scene in which Holmes first inspects the diamond, and you can see his sleight of hand.)
As Holmes and Watson return to the baggage car (and find the baggage guard murdered!), a small, slimy fellow enters Duncan-Bleek's compartment and hands over the diamond, unaware that it is fake. The villain is now revealed to be Duncan-Bleek, and the small man (named Sands) was the one who hid in the bottom of the coffin. After Duncan-Bleek informs him that Lestrade has the real diamond, Sands attacks Lestrade, knocking him unconscious, and then gets the real diamond. Duncan-Bleek takes the diamond and shoots his accomplice, using an air pistol that fires poison darts. The same weapon was used on Carstairs and the baggage guard.
The train comes to a stop and Scottish police board the train. Lestrade is still shaken from his attack, so Holmes and Watson go to talk with Inspector McDonald in the dining car. Holmes informs Inspector McDonald that Duncan-Bleek is really Col. Sebastian Moran. A struggle ensues, the lights go out, but when it's over McDonald and his policemen exit the train with their prisoner. But all is not as it seems. Holmes knew that "McDonald" was not the real Inspector McDonald, and the policemen were not real policemen either. The twist at the end reveals that Holmes still has Col. Moran, now handcuffed, and the diamond aboard the train. The "prisoner" escorted from the train was Lestrade, who now pulls a gun on the fake policemen and arrests them. Amazing that Lestrade figured out the deception that Holmes had planned!
Terror by Night is not based on a Sherlock Holmes story, but the writers may have been inspired by "The Adventure of the Empty House." Some elements in the film that are also in that story are:
The idea of a secret compartment could be from "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax."
"This episode in the famous detective's career is told in a tight continuity and with flavorsome atmosphere...Mr. Rathbone is silky smooth as usual." --Bosley Crowther, New York Times
"Universal ran through a good deal of stock train footage as transitions during the film, and while these quick shots are darkened to simulate the nighttime in which the story occurs, any reasonable astute train buff can discern they are of wildly differing engine and carriage models!" (Steinbrenner and Michaels, The Films of Sherlock Holmes (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1978) p. 175)
There are a number of unanswered questions in this film. For example, why didn't Watson recognize that Moran was not his old friend Duncan-Bleek? Watson: "I've know him for years; he's a member of my club." And how did Sands get out of Roland Carstairs' locked compartment after murdering him? And remember how Watson and Duncan-Bleek had to run to catch the train in the beginning? When we know that Duncan-Bleek was really Moran, how odd that he would take such a chance on missing the train! What was the point in being so late? But if we refrain from such nitpicking, we can enjoy the fast-paced film and be pleasantly surprised by the plot twists.
Terror by Night trivia:
Watch the trailer for Terror by Night:
Note: Terror by Night is one of the four Sherlock Holmes films that is in the public domain. That means that anyone can legally produce and sell a DVD of this film. Consequently, it's easy to find cheap DVDs of Terror by Night. But these cheap ones are also cheap quality. The links above are for the digitally remastered, high-quality DVDs produced by MPI Home Video. Don't waste your money on anything else!