Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

SH-and-the-Secret-Weapon_posterAfter 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.

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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 Film
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.’

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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.

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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?”

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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”

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The Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series (1942-1946)

  1. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) – reviewed here
  2. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
  3. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
  4. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
  5. The Spider Woman (1944)
  6. The Scarlet Claw (1944)
  7. The Pearl of Death (1944)
  8. Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)
  9. Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
  10. The Woman in Green (1945)
  11. Terror by Night (1946)
  12. 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)

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, England, Film Noir, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

  1. I’m glad, Sergio, that you thought this an improvement to the series and a better instalment. I have to confess my cranky purist preferences for the original stories. I really do prefer adaptations that are true to them. Still, Rathbone does have a place in history as a Holmes of film.

    • The problem is that, with the exception of SIGN OF FOUR and HOUND, very few of the Holmes stories and novels can really be extended to feature length so I often find myself preferring pastiches (on TV it’s a nother story). Movies are a different animal after all …

  2. tracybham says:

    I am sure I would enjoy these movies. I think we only have The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

    • Which is great fin Tracy and is set in period – these modernised films are a bit odd but once you get used to the ‘parallel Victorian universe’ idea, thoroughly addictive!

  3. Colin says:

    Nice. Yes, the series was improving in increments and would really hit its stride in a few pictures’ time. Atwill and Hoey add a lot and Neill coming on board was a big step in the right direction. Sadly, still another bad hair day though!

    • The hai ris a major stumbling block 🙂 Thanks fully only one more before he got some help in that department …

      • Colin says:

        Yes, after Washington things got better in that respect.
        The main thing about this one is the addition of Neill, who brought his own style to the series and took it to interesting places stylistically.

        • Thanks for that – I’ve been putting off Washington slightly as it is a bit of a step down but plan to run a review in August, swiftly followed by that rather neat adaptation of Musgrave Ritual …

          • Colin says:

            I agree, it is a weaker one. Faces Death is cracking stuff though and, in my opinion signal the best beginning of the strongest run of the series.

          • Onve William takes over as producer and the Gothic element really kicks in, I think, like you, that the series comes into its own daffy but thoroughly entertaining bespoke Holmesian universe.

          • Colin says:

            Absolutely. It might not be for the purists but I love those mid-series movies and the fabulous vibe they tap into.

          • I often prefer a pastiche to the real thing anyway but these are so sui generis that they just inhabit their own rich little pocket universe – and then you have the aootrs …

          • Colin says:

            I consider most of these series ‘tecs as occupying their own universe, the world of Chan is another example, and a very attractive place it is too.

          • Been ages since I watched a Chan or Moto – really must look at them again over the summer – just love those.

          • Colin says:

            Something I plan to do too – might even watch one tonight.

          • Oland, Toler or Lorre? Decisions, decisions …

          • Colin says:

            Actually going for a Merton Park Wallace – tomorrow it will be a Toler Chan, Waxworks maybe.

          • Was watching one of those at the weekend in fact, Strangler’s Web, a very late entry, so you can expect a review in August when I’m back from Italy!

          • Colin says:

            Sounds good – I’m still no further than volume 3 myself.

          • I skipped ahead as it was written by George Baxt and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, who previously collaborated in City of the Dead, which I just rewatched and will be posting on soon (well, one I get back, so early August) – seen that one< fantastic occult drama reminiscent of Psycho.

  4. Yvette says:

    Unfortunately, this is probably my least favorite Sherlock Holmes movie, Sergio. Though I love Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce no matter what. I must say I’ve always enjoyed watching SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR simply because of Reginald Denny and never minded the bringing of Holmes and Watson into the war years at all. And I do love the ending in that bombed out church.

    The reasons for my dislike of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON is the especially nonsensical plot (not that the Holmes movies were known for their sense making plots) which has a dolt of a scientist being so foolishly secretive as to get several scientists killed because of his own stupidity. The gift wrapped packages. Oh, please. The scientists involved not knowing what the others held and how the thing was going to work and be put together – I mean, huh? Maybe I might stretch that point if the rest of the plot made any more sense which it didn’t. I haven’t seen this film in ages and I still remember my thinking: what an idiot. I meant the initial scientist and his obsession with not letting anyone know what he was doing and opting NOT to have any bodyguards. Yeah, how did that work out for you.

    And by the way, that ‘torture’ sequence when the bad guys stretch out the scientist’s body – what was that all about? I’ve always found it ludicrous. I mean, did it really look tortuous to you? Even as a kid I thought it absurd.

    I liked the casting though. I always did like the same actors (more or less) showing up in each movie sometimes playing the good guys and sometimes playing the bad guys. It was almost like a theater troupe effect.

    And Colin, I didn’t mind Holmes’ hairdo at all. In fact, I kind of liked it. And I liked Lionel Atwill looking so evil as Moriarty, relishing the draining of Holmes’ blood. Ha. Now there’s a villain you can respect.

  5. Mike says:

    Lovely stuff Sergio, as always tempted to run home and give it another watch instantly. While all three “war” Holmes’ have their charm, I do think this is the best of the bunch. Not so much for Atwill’s Moriarty – who seems to be there so that Holmes has a foe called Moriarty rather than for an especially diabolical scheme – but for Dennis Hoey and Roy William Neill, and the sense of the fun and fast paced tone of the series slotting into place.

  6. Richard says:

    They’re all a load of fun, weaknesses notwithstanding. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put on on of the disks, especially in the morning with a cup or two of strong coffee and a roll.

  7. Bradstreet says:

    I love all of the Rathbone movies, but I do think that SECRET WEAPON is the point where the series proper begins. VOICE OF TERROR is good, but it’s terribly serious. One of the delights of the series is the tongue-in-cheek humour running through all of the movies (Holmes comments after Moriarty’s demise at the end are hilarious). It’s the best of the three war-time movies. WASHINGTON is fun, but taking Holmes out of Universal’s idea of Britain and putting him in ‘present day’ Washington doesn’t really work.

    • I think you are absolutely right on this, definitely the best of the three (though I love how good Voice of Terror looks) and as weird as the ersatz contemporary idea is, the Washington is too ‘real’ for the fantasy to sustain itself.

      • Bradstreet says:

        When I viewed the restored VOICE OF TERROR on the box-set, I was staggered at how beautifully it was lit. It looks like a much more expensive film.

        • Woody Bredell was easily the best DP who ever worked on the series, brings an incredible sheen and polish – but then he also shot Phantom Lady and The Killers for Robert Siodmak, so no surprise.

  8. Sergio, I haven’t seen Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes though I have watched Jeremy Brett in the role in a couple of episodes. I’ll check out the DVDs, the closest I can get to seeing them on television.

  9. Colin says:

    Found myself in the mood for more Holmes tonight and dusted this one off once more. Atwill is marvelous really, a pity he didn’t play Moriarty again in the series.
    For some reason I enjoyed the sets a lot this time, I mean I paid them a bit more attention. The familiar Baker St set seemed even more attractive than usual.

    • I agree, Atwill makes for a terrific Moriarty (or rather, ‘Moriarity’ – still don’t understand that) – probably the best in the series and his ‘exit’ is nicely handled too with its droll humour. Interesting what you say about the Baker Street sets, I would have to watch again to see how differently it was being handled but the change in director must be considered a major factor here.

      • Colin says:

        The whole look started changing subtly, I found I was looking at the Swiss tavern scene and thinking this appeared in more than a few Universal horrors and that kind of thing happened more and more as the series went on.

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