Monday, September 26, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is a mixture of an Arthur Conan Doyle short story and then-current events. Unlike the previous movie, Secret Weapon successfully inserts Holmes into a spy thriller while keeping everything likeable about him.

The secret weapon of the title is based on the Norden bombsight, a revolutionary device manufactured by the Carl L Norden Company in WWII. It was a closely guarded secret (in fact, airmen who flew with the device had to take an oath that they’d destroy it if they landed their planes in enemy territory and would defend its secrets with their lives), but the technology was leaked by a German spy who worked for Norden.

In Secret Weapon the bombsight is developed by Dr. Franz Tobel and the Germans are already after it when the movie opens in Switzerland. In a great cold open, Holmes uses his mastery of disguises and his gift for subterfuge to help Tobel escape Nazi agents and flee to England. But because no one but Tobel knows the secret of the sight’s design, the danger to him isn’t over once they hit London. Moriarty himself (Lionel Atwill) is after Tobel and his secret, hoping to sell it to Germany.

The Doyle story comes in when Tobel sneaks out of Holmes’ house to visit his girlfriend who lives in London. It’s not just because he wants to see her; Tobel’s devised a scheme that will allow the Allied forces access to his bombsight without letting anyone know exactly how to make it. He’s divided the sight into four pieces and distributed each piece to four London scientists, none of who know whom the others are or how his piece fits into the larger puzzle. The only clue to Tobel’s plan is a cipher like the one used in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” Tobel gives it to his girlfriend with instructions to hand it over to Holmes if anything happens to the scientist. Unfortunately, Moriarty gets his hands on both Tobel and the code.

Tobel resists Moriarty’s torture and Holmes is able to reproduce the code from Tobel’s notepad, but it’s a race between the detective and his nemesis to see who can decipher the note and get to the four scientists first. Basil Rathbone is always brilliant as Holmes, but it’s nice to see a film (the first since Hound of the Baskervilles) in which the character lives up to its actor.

Nigel Bruce’s Watson has his bumbling moments (like sleeping through Tobel’s escape from Baker Street), but he’s also the first to recognize the page full of dancing-men as a secret code. Atwill is fine as Moriarty – I always enjoy Lionel Atwill – but I missed George Zucco’s deliciously evil performance from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Weapon’s Moriarty is a good super villain – complete with a trap-filled secret lair – but though he’s clever, he’s not Holmes’ equal. I’d prefer to see Adventures’ Moriarty vs. Secret Weapon’s Holmes, but if there has to be an imbalance, I’m relieved to see Holmes as the smarter one.

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