Sherlock Holmes - Basil RathboneNigel BruceDennis HoeyRoy William Neill
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Medium: film
Year: 1943
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Scott Darling, Edward T. Lowe Jr., Edmund L. Hartmann
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, World War II, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, Kaaren Verne, William Post Jr., Dennis Hoey, Holmes Herbert, Mary Gordon
Format: 80 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 21 November 2008
That's more like it! The Voice of Terror was clunky propaganda, but this uses its wartime setting far more effectively. If only it hadn't been plotted by a chimp, this might have been outstanding.
I'm still not wild about putting Holmes in a World War Two setting, mind you, and I'm not at all surprised that the series soon started downplaying that. That's not a canon complaint, by the way. As it happens I do prefer him in a late Victorian setting, but my objection is simply that he's a detective. He lives in London and solves crime-related intellectual puzzles. This isn't a natural fit for a World War Two film, forcing it down a path of unsatisfying fifth columnists and enemy agents instead of being able to just wheel on the Nazis. Holmes is neither a soldier nor a spy, although he'd undoubtedly be outstanding at the latter should he put his mind to it.
Of course The Voice of Terror's finale gave us bad guys in German uniforms, but they were in England at the time. Personally I'd call that idiot bravado. This film goes one better with ten juicy minutes of Holmes smuggling Dr Tobel out of Switzerland under the noses of the Gestapo. For my money that's the best bit of wartime business in the whole series. That's much more the sort of thing you'd imagine if someone told you about a "Holmes in World War Two" crossover. That's the film's opening and it's a good one too. It kicked off the movie splendidly and gave urgency to everything that came thereafter.
Incidentally those opening ten minutes are a much better adaptation of His Last Bow than was The Voice of Terror, despite the fact that that earlier film actually claimed to be an adaptation of His Last Bow. This one is based on The Dancing Men. Someone writes in that code. That's it. You could just as easily point at elements borrowed from The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (a false-bottomed coffin) or The Empty House (Holmes disguised as a bookseller). At first I even assumed that the dancing men were a mistake. The whole point of the original wasn't to be impenetrable, but to look like nothing more than children's scribbles. Here it's obviously a message from the start, but to my surprise it turned out to be a reference to the original story even within the fiction. Watson remembers the case. Presumably Dr Tobel had read his write-up of it, just like the rest of us. There are also a couple of twists which make cracking the code a three-stage process, one being standard cipher technique but the other being dependent on the dancing men themselves and actually quite clever.
Anyway, Holmes gets Dr Tobel back to London. He's invented a new bomb sight, which I was mishearing as "bomb site" and getting confused until I saw them testing it. It has three sonic beams and lets you drop bombs on pinheads. Sounds cool? Hey, it looks cool too. The film splices in authentic footage of planes taking off and dropping bombs, which adds yet more verisimilitude and weight to a film that I was already liking a lot. Unsurprisingly the Allies want Tobel to build more sights for them, but unfortunately he has plans for security that are admirable except for the flaw that they depend on him not going missing. He goes missing. Hence the coded message.
This film looks great. As usual, I love the cinematography. All that lovely black-and-white. It's dark, shadowy and sinister. Baker Street has been bombed, which again helps us feel the war in a way we didn't last time. All the creaky speechifying is gone, with the exception of Rathbone's quote at the end and that's a series trademark.
Holmes uses lots of disguises again, into which as usual Rathbone puts such enormous energy that's it's the most distinctive point of his portrayal. You won't see Cushing or even Brett push the boat out quite like that. There's also a reference to Holmes's cocaine habit, the only film in this series to manage to sneak that past the censor. "The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?" There's a famous line to the same effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it got cut by the censors before release and was only put back in 1975.
Unfortunately thirty minutes into the film, Moriarty shows up.
This time he's played by an unrecognisable Lionel Atwill, clean-shaven for the first time since birth and with his eyelids weighed down to look reptilian. I'd known he was coming, but even so at first I assumed my information was wrong. On top of that, for once he's also not very good. Normally he's a dependable actor, as can be seen in lots of Universal horror roles and as a memorable Dr Mortimer three films ago in The Hound of the Baskervilles. However here he's a second-rate Bond villain, repeatedly capturing Holmes and chatting amiably with him before trying to kill him with an elaborate deathtrap. What a twonk. You have a gun, man! Use it! Why go to the trouble of capturing Holmes and having him at your mercy, only to come up with some convoluted way of killing him and not even hanging around to confirm with your own eyes that it's worked?
If it hadn't been for Moriarty, this film would have been absolutely top-notch. Its first act is terrific and you can't go wrong with Nazis, bombs, enemy agents and so on, but you'll have to check your credibility at the door to buy the second half. It would be generous to call it a B-movie cliche. The film even undermines the surprise of his appearance by mentioning him in the opening credits. Well, approximately. He's mis-spelled as "Moriarity".
That said I don't mind Lionel Atwill's performance, but he's ill-served by the script and perhaps my least favourite of the three Moriarties in this series. There's also some wordplay in Moriarty's dialogue to which the actor seems oblivious; you'd think a character like that would be taking more pleasure in his own words. He's certainly head over heels in love with his own cleverness when it comes to plotting the disposal of Holmes. Oh, and in the end he falls into his own elaborate trap. Hmmm.
However that's not the only lapse in credibility. Moriarty's working for the Nazis (huh?) and about to shoot Holmes. Lestrade charges up at the last minute... and shoots the gun from his hand! Oh, for crying out loud. You can also see the budget at work when Lestrade brings ludicrously few men on his raids, despite this being a matter of the utmost national importance. Maybe there was flu going around? It couldn't be anything so silly as a B-movie being too cheap to splash out on a few extras, could it?
Two people made their debut on this film. The first is Roy William Neill, who'd direct and produce every remaining film in the series except for not producing Washington. The other is Dennis Hoey as Lestrade, who's a huge man and a long way from Conan Doyle's sallow rat-faced original. He's even dumber than Watson, which is quite a feat given the heroic efforts of Nigel Bruce in that direction. There's a moment where Holmes is explaining the dancing men and Watson's face is brilliantly vacant. Mr Brain is disconnected. Lights on, nobody home. On the upside though, at least he gets to talk shop. There's also a bit of business after Moriarty's first deathtrap in which Watson and Lestrade get openly played for laughs. The sole purpose of the scene is to showcase their stupidity. Yes, they save Holmes, but it was a close thing.
Curiously enough, Hoey plays the same role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, except that there he's called Inspector Owen. He even wears the same costume.
Eventually my expectations fell so low that it counted as a clever twist for the plot not to violate space and time. However that said, this is still a enjoyable film. It might even have been superb if it hadn't been speed-written by someone who thinks the audience are fools. By all means, give it a spin. If you've braced yourself for the idiocy in the second half, you should be well placed to enjoy a surprisingly strong juxtaposition of Sherlock Holmes and the World War Two setting. Its flaws are more glaring than most of the other films in this series, but it has impressive strengths too.