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Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon(1943)


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teaser Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

In the generations since the tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes were first committed to celluloid, many actors have stepped into the interlocked roles of the peerlessly brilliant master sleuth and his physician ally and Boswell, Dr. John Watson. Inarguably, the most enduring such characterizations remain those of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who first ventured into the London fog in the 20th Century Fox productions of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). In search of a successful franchise, Universal Studios subsequently acquired the Holmes film rights from the Conan Doyle estate, and then procured Rathbone and Bruce's continuing services.

However, Universal passed on presenting Holmes in a Victorian-era context as did the Fox features. Opting instead to stir patriotic fervor on both sides of the Atlantic, the great detective was shifted to a contemporary context, where his deductive prowess could be pitted against the Axis war machine. The second Holmes film made under Universal's aegis, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), shows the most familiar elements of the studio's formula for the series, from the performances of the leads to the flag-waving motifs, to their best effect.

Ostensibly based on Conan Doyle's The Dancing Men, the screenplay incorporated no more than the adventure's stick-figure code in presenting a tidy tale of international intrigue. In the guise of an old bookseller, Holmes penetrates the Swiss border for the purposes of providing safe passage abroad to the brilliant young inventor Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post, Jr.). Tobel has devised a bombsight of such unparalleled accuracy as to determine the outcome of the European air war, and those ramifications were not lost on the principled scientist. Adamant that production of the weapon be under his control, Tobel constructed his prototype in four discrete modules, each capable of replication and each useless by itself.

Tobel delivers each section to a British craftsman that he deems trustworthy, and whose identities will be his secret. Unfortunately, the Nazis have made it worth the while of Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill) to betray his country and ferret out the weapon smiths possessing the crucial components. From there, Holmes must win a deadly race to keep the bombsight from being delivered to the Luftwaffe.

There are various trademark aspects of the Universal Holmes series that made their bow in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. It was the first installment directed by Roy William Neill, who would go on to helm the 10 sequels that followed over the next four years. "Neill and his crew of writers and technicians seem to wrest as much well-constructed story and production value from their Holmes stories as could be seen in much bigger budgeted films," Ron Haydock observed in Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen (Scarecrow Press). The film also cast Dennis Hoey in his first appearance as Inspector Lestrade, the blustering cop who's always a few steps behind Holmes' case-breaking discoveries.

The venerable screen villain Atwill is much more than serviceable as Moriarty, deliciously evil in his execution of the denouement's death trap. Cornered with reinforcements still moments away, Holmes seeks to buy time by taunting his nemesis's intentions to do away with him by so pedestrian a means as gunfire. The Professor buys into Holmes' suggestion of gradual bloodletting as the most sadistic means of murder. It's fairly astonishing that Atwill's reference to Holmes' drug usage -- "The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?"--made its way past the censors; in the novels it was merely one aspect of Holmes' often enigmatic personality.

Best of all, of course, are the efforts of the two leads that kept the film and the very series afloat. Rathbone's handle on the character--cunning, imperious, implacable, preternaturally observant--led to a connection with the role that the versatile performer came to regret, and he would never recover the career heights he knew after he determinedly walked away from 221 B Baker Street in 1946. Bruce's semi-comic take on Watson would never endear him to Conan Doyle purists, but his palpable chemistry with his old friend Rathbone appealed to the moviegoing public.

As Rathbone declared in his autobiography In and Out of Character, "[T]here is no question in my mind that Nigel Bruce was the ideal Dr. Watson, not only of his time but possibly of and for all time...It has always seemed to me to be more than possible that our 'adventures' might have met with a less kindly public acceptance had they been recorded by a less lovable companion to Holmes than was Nigel's Dr. Watson, and a less engaging friend to me than was 'Willy' Bruce."

Producer: Howard Benedict
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: W. Scott Darling, Edmund L. Hartmann, Edward T. Lowe, Jr., Arthur Conan Doyle (story)
Cinematography: Lester White
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. John H. Watson), Kaaren Verne (Charlotte Eberli), Lionel Atwill (Prof. Moriarty), William Post, Jr. (Dr. Franz Tobel), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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