After the slightly uncertain beginning of Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), things get a bit more on track with the second of the Universal series of contemporary Sherlock Holmes adventures. Yes, we still have a propaganda story of espionage in which the great detective has to fight off the Nazis … but it also brings back Inspector Lestrade from the Doyle canon as well as his ultimate nemesis, Professor Moriarty (or rather, as he is billed perhaps tellingly in the credits, ‘Moriarity’). We begin in neutral Switzerland …
The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Universal Sherlock Holmes # 2
Conan Doyle Source: The Adventure of the Dancing Men (1903)
Sample dialogue: “Brilliant man, Sherlock Holmes, too bad he was honest.” (Moriarty)
Original filming dates: Starting on 8 June 1942
Sherlock in disguise: Old bookseller and a sailor
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have series mainstay Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording in an unbilled role as one of Moriarty’s men; and Holmes Herbert (1/4) in the first of 4 appearances, in a big role as a big wheel in the home office.
The original story:
Holmes and Watson get embroiled in a domestic drama in which a husband asks the duo to investigate a strange series of drawings depicting the eponymous ‘dancing men,’ the appearance of which is upsetting his wife Elise. The drawings, which are being left all round the house and grounds where the couple live in Derbyshire, turn out to be an ingenious code, linking back to events in Elsie’s mysterious past back in the USA.
Holmes and Watson ultimately crack the code and uncover what Elsie has been trying to live down, leading to a surprisingly dark and downbeat, even tragic, finish. This was said to be one of Doyle’s own favourites and is certainly one of the best to be published after Holmes’s encounter with death at Reichenbach Falls.
The original working title for the film was Sherlock Holmes Fights Back, which is fitting as it is clear that this is very much going to continue on the contemporary espionage style of the previous entry, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Right from the first in fact we see our hero in the middle of a plan to defeat attempts by the Nazis to get their hands on a new bomb sighting system. The Doyle story only provides the cypher, and little else, though the film does draw from other canonical stories. Holmes first appears as an aged bookseller – reminiscent of his disguise in ‘The Empty House’ – while a later sequence, in which he is disguised as a hardboiled, suntanned sailor and is kidnapped and smuggled in a false bottom of a chest, recalls ‘The Disappearance of Lady Carfax.’
The most important Doyle element though may well be in its ‘treasure hunt’ construction, which owes a lot to ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,’ which would later be officially adapted for The Pearl of Death, the seventh film in the Universal series. As in that story, the hunt is on for a precious item (in this case, the bomb sight created by Dr Tobel), which has been hidden in one of a number of places. For the screenwriters this was a handy approach as it meant they could extend or shorten the story as necessary – too long and look in one place less, too short and add one. They would return more than once to this approach.
On the other hand, this was an important entry to the series, getting it truly on track thanks to several addition in front and behind the camera. Dennis Hoey joined the cast as a particularly dim-witted Inspector Lestrade, while from a production standpoint the most significant change was the arrival of director Roy William Neill, who not only took over as the permanent director with this installment but who would eventually also become the producer. Right away we can see why he was chosen as this is a story that is starting to lean much more towards Gothic horror (low lighting and a house replete with secret passageways and sliding walls etc), which plays greatly to his strengths for expressionist composition. This is especially true in all the sequences involving Moriarty, who is played in fine reptilian fashion (with a little help from the makeup department, who gave him a an unusual appearance thanks to an epicanthic fold to his eyes) by Lionel Atwill. His exchanges with Rathbone are all a delight:
Holmes: “I should have you placed on an operating table, inject a needle into your veins, and slowly draw off your life’s blood …”
Moriarty: “The needle to the last, eh Holmes?”
This dialogue comes from the climax, which is easily the best part of the film. Holmes has disguised himself as one of the men holding a part of the bomb sight and deliberately allows himself to be taken to Moriarty’s lair. There they goad each other by coming up with nasty ways to end their feud (though, lest we forget, in Doyle’s original work, Moriarty only appeared towards the end of ‘The Final Problem’ and never again). Here Holmes is playing for time and tricks him into not shooting him but rather strapping him to a gurney and drawing his blood away, killing him drop by drop! But never fear, Watson and Lestrade arrive in time for Moriarty to apparently die (he’d be back, though sadly not played by Atwill), leading to another closing patriotic speech, this time adapted from Shakespeare’s Richard II:
“This fortress built by Nature for herself . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”
The Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series (1942-1946)
- Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) – reviewed here
- Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
- Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
- Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
- The Spider Woman (1944)
- The Scarlet Claw (1944)
- The Pearl of Death (1944)
- Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)
- Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
- The Woman in Green (1945)
- Terror by Night (1946)
- Dressed to Kill (1946)
DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, looks absolutely terrific. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon looks very good indeed here
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Howard Benedict
Screenplay: W. Scott Darling, Edward T. Lowe Jr., Edmund L. Hartmann
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Lionel Atwill (Professor Moriarty)