Sunday, 15 March 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

Director: Roy William Neill
Writers: W Scott Darling, Edward T Lowe, Edmund L Hartmann
Producer: Howard Benedict
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill
Year of release: 1943
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK DVD

This was the fourth pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson and the first of eleven such films directed by Roy William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). It is ostensibly based on 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', one of the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but apart from the central problem being a substitution cypher which uses little stick figures, there is no connection. There is no Moriarty in 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', no Inspector Lestrade and certainly no secret weapon.

Transposed to wartime present day, the film starts in Switzerland where a disguised Holmes successfully spirits away scientist Franz Tobel (William Post Jr) from under the noses of some Nazi officers. Tobel has invented a new type of bomb-sight which not only needs to be kept away from the Germans but could greatly benefit the RAF. It is a moot point whether a bomb-sight, strictly speaking, counts as a 'weapon' but I suppose Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Aiming Device just wouldn't have pulled in the crowds.

Determined to keep his invention's workings secret, even from the British government to whom he is selling it, Tobel splits his prototype into four parts which he sends to four eminent scientists/engineers in London to replicate. Only Tobel knows the identities of all four so they can't collaborate, though he leaves a list of their names with his girlfriend Charlotte (Karen Verne), written in a curious 'dancing stick figure' cypher.

Professor Moriarty (the wonderful Lionel Atwill) abducts Tobel and takes the coded message but Holmes retrieves the writing from indentations in the paper underneath. Three of the scientists have already been fingered by Moriarty and it becomes a race to see who can decypher the fourth line of the message first. It proves particularly troublesome because it appears to be gibberish. There is an absurdly simple explanation for this, but it's all rather arbitrary.

The appeal of a film like this lies not in its fidelity to the Holmes canon or the character himself, but in the glorious 1940s earnestness of it all (offset by Bruce's bumbling teddy bear of a Watson). Dennis Hoey (The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, She-Wolf of London) makes the first of six appearances in the Rathbone/Bruce series as Lestrade and Mary Gordon (Hans' wife in Bride of Frankenstein) makes the fourth of ten appearances as Mrs Hudson. Also in the cast are that great (and appropriately named) character actor Holmes Herbert (who played different roles in six of these films as well as appearing in The Mummy's Curse, The Ghost of Frankenstein and British Intelligence), Universal regular Michael Mark (The Black Cat, The Mummy's Hand, Son..., Ghost... and House of Frankenstein but best known as little Maria's father in Frankenstein), George Burr Macannan (White Zombie, Supernatural) and a bunch of busy supporting players.

Writer Edward T Lowe also wrote House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Tarzan's Desert Mystery, The Vampire Bat, three Charlie Chans ( Paris, Shanghai and the Race Track) and three Bulldog Drummonds (...Escapes, ...Comes Back and ...'s Revenge). W Scott Darling wrote The Ghost of Frankenstein and Edmund T Hartmann wrote the Olsen and Johnson comedy Ghost Chasers and one other Rathbone/Bruce/Neill picture, The Scarlet Claw. Cinematographer Les White's other credits include Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Invisible Agent and The Monster That Challenged the World.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is a jolly wartime romp which may not please Holmes purists but is great fun for the rest of us to watch. If it can be said to have anything in common with its source material, it is that the mystery centres around something as absurdly simple and frankly dull as a substitution cypher decoded by the tried and tested method of counting how many times the symbols appear and assuming that the commonest is E, the next most frequent is T, etc. This may have been something amazing in the 1890s, may even have still been a revelation in the 1940s but it's bloody old hat nowadays. My advice: don't worry about the simple solution, certainly don't worry about the archetypal McGuffin, just sit back and enjoy the wonderful chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce and a corking performance (is there any other sort?) from Lionel Atwill.

As it is a long time since I have watched any of the other Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes pictures, I can't say how this one compares with the others so the MJS rating simply reflects the movie in its own right. The quality on this Classic Entertainment triple bill (which also has two later adventures, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill) is pretty good with no major problems.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 16th June 2005.

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