Monday, September 1, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writers: Edward T. Lowe & W. Scott Darling
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Lester White
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill and Dennis Hoey

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was the fourth of the popular Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series, and the second of the modern interpretation produced by Universal. Placing the great British detective in the middle of World War Two was popular with moviegoers because it was timely, but it also opened up all kinds of new possibilities for war-related mysteries. And, of course, they were much cheaper to produce than the Victorian era costume dramas would have been. This was also the first of the series directed by Roy William Neill, who would be the director for the rest of the series until his death in 1946. For fans of Universal’s horror films, he also has the distinction of directing the second in the Wolf Man series, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The idea for this picture was based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” involving a cypher made up of stick figures in various positions that Holmes must decode. Other than that, the film owes nothing to the Doyle story. But the actual story was the basis for a 1923 short film featuring Eille Norwood as Holmes, as well as BBC television versions with Peter Cushing in 1968 and Jeremy Brett in 1984.

The film opens in a small, Swiss café. Two men at a table are meeting an old man who is selling books. In reality the old man is a German spy who is attempting to steal a new bombsight from a Swiss scientist. Both the scientist and the sight are in his house and they make arrangements to steal them both that night. Later, the old man is revealed to be Rathbone, and his deception enables him to smuggle the scientist, William Post Jr., out of the country to England. Post intends to give his bombsight to England and, while under the guard of Nigel Bruce, sneaks out to the home of his girlfriend, Kaaren Verne. He gives her a note, a piece of paper with the dancing men, to give to Rathbone should he be captured by the Germans. After the test of the bombsight goes perfectly, Post disappoints the British government by insisting on producing the bombsight himself. He disassembles the sight into four pieces, giving each to a different scientific craftsman to produce independently, then disappears. This leads Rathbone first to the home of Verne, where she discovers the coded letter has been stolen. Dressed as a sailor, Rathbone then haunts the piers of the Thames in order to fall into the hands of Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty. He has been the one behind the disappearance of Post and the sale of the bombsight to Germany and it’s up to Holmes to foil his arch nemesis yet again.

By the time of this film’s release, Rathbone’s disguises as Holmes were something audiences were attuned to and looked for. Rather ingeniously, the first couple are obvious, as a way of lulling fans into a false sense of their own ability to spot them. The third disguise, while not really a surprise, is made a bit more difficult to detect and is much more satisfying. Nigel Bruce has very little to do in this film, apart from a couple of scenes with Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, the first of his many appearances in the series. While Lionel Atwill had appeared in the first film in the series for Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it was as the Baskerville family doctor, and this would be his only appearance as Moriarty. The opening theme by Frank Skinner accompanies the familiar title sequence with the shadows of Holmes and Watson walking through the fog, and stock music by Skinner from films as diverse as The Wolf Man and Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur accompany the rest of the film. Director Roy William Neill does a solid job on his first outing, without the flair of John Rawlins on The Voice of Terror to be sure, but he would improve as the series continued. The principals are great, as usual, while William Post Jr. and Kaaren Verne are decidedly B-list actors. Still, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon has its charms and will not disappoint fans of the series.

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