Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon [DVD]
Director : Roy William Neill
Screenplay : Leonard Lee & Frank Gruber (based on the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1946
Stars : Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. John H. Watson), Patricia Morison (Hilda Courtney), Edmund Breon (Julian Emery), Frederic Worlock (Col. Cavanaugh), Carl Harbord (Inspector Hopkins)
Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most persistently depicted characters in all of cinema history. Along with Count Dracula, there is no other literary creation who has enjoyed success in more films and been played by more actors than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's unflappable deductive sleuth, who first appeared in 1887 in "A Study in Scarlet," a short story that was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Holmes would go on to great literary prominence in four novels and 56 short stories.
Of course, being such a popular character, it wasn't long before Holmes entered the cinema. And, although dozens of films about Sherlock Holmes have been made over the years, there has been only one notable series of American productions. Starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the eminent and bumbling Dr. Watson, these films were made under 20th Century-Fox and Universal from 1939 to 1946, while at the same time a radio show starring the same two men aired with considerable success.
Rathbone, who has perhaps the best English actor name of all time, started as a stage actor in England and graduated to films in the '20s, playing mostly villains, including roles opposite the heroic Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Bruce, a veteran of World War I, also started as a stage actor, but didn't find success on-screen until the '30s, where he was mostly relegated to supporting roles of caricatured British bumblers.
The Sherlock Holmes films made at Universal in the '40s are interesting, not only for the fine chemistry between the cerebral Rathbone and the maladroit Bruce, but because of the manner in which the classic Holmes legend was updated for a then-contemporary audience. Rather than remaining in Victorian England, Holmes finds himself in mid-20th-century London, often battling the two stock villains of that particular time: Nazis and femme fatales. In fact, many of these films were thinly disguised propaganda pieces that supported the Allied effort in World War II.
In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), Holmes and Watson find themselves having to protect an inventor who has devised a new war weapon from falling into the clutches of Holmes' arch-nemesis, the diabolically intelligent Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill). This is a somewhat odd position for Holmes to be in, and, as a result, the film never really feels comfortable with its combination of a classic detective story and a modern war narrative.
Infinitely better is the plot of The Woman in Green (1945), which is engaging in the way it predates both the serial killer narrative that has become such standard fare in the last 20 years and the mind-control paranoia that infused Cold War films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
The film opens with a rash of murders in which young women are killed and one of their fingers is cut off and taken by the killer as a trophy. Holmes immediately suspects that it is more than one person committing the crime, although Watson is sure that it is some "homicidal maniac" (the term "serial killer" was still 30 years away from being coined by FBI special agent Robert Ressler in the mid-1970s). Of course, the fiendish mind behind the murders is none other than Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell). Moriarty and femme fatale Lydia Marlow (Hilary Brooke), a specialist in hypnosis, use mind control to make wealthy men think they have committed the murders so they are vulnerable to blackmail.
The Woman in Green maintains momentum by first introducing a red herring suspect who turns out to be a victim of Moriarty's blackmail. Even when Holmes is sure that Moriarty is behind the murders and the framing of others, it is still a while before he deduces the hypnosis angle.
The film climaxes in a sequence in which Holmes may or may not have been hypnotized by Lydia, and Moriarty is toying with his death by commanding him to walk on the edge of a balcony terrace atop a high-rise apartment building. Naturally, Holmes is in complete command the whole time, and the scene ends with Moriarty's demise (which is, by the way, a bit underdone considering that it is the death of Holmes' arch-nemesis).
Therefore, because Moriarty is no longer available to be the mastermind behind the next criminal scheme, Terror by Night (1946) brings up the specter of one of his cronies, Colonel Sebastian Moran, to plan and execute a daring jewelry heist on a midnight train. Holmes has been hired by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) to guard her most prized possession: a 423-karat diamond called "The Star of Rhodesia." In a somewhat Hitchcockian setup, the diamond is stolen, and Holmes and Watson must decide which of the many passengers on the train is responsible.
Terror by Night is one of the most enjoyable of the Holmes films because it tightens the narrative by limiting the geographic scope. The majority of the action takes place on the train, and the tension is heightened by having everyone come under suspicion (one passenger takes a keen interest in positioning Watson as the culprit). Terror by Night also includes one of the few true action sequences in the series, in which Holmes is pushed out of the train and clings for dear life to the side of the racing boxcar.
In Dressed to Kill (1946), the last of the Rathbone-Bruce series, Holmes finds himself matching wits with another femme fatale, this time Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison). The plot revolves around three musical boxes that were made by a prison inmate and then sold to three different people at an auction. Hilda and her henchmen are willing to kill to get their hands on all three of them, and Holmes eventually discovers that the songs played by the musical boxes are coded messages that give the whereabouts of a set of money plates for five-pound notes that had been stolen two years earlier.
Like Terror by Night, Dressed to Kill is one of the more action-oriented entries in the series, although the action is restricted to one scene in which Hilda's henchmen attempt to kill Holmes in a typically overelaborate manner by hanging him by his hands in a warehouse that is filling with poisonous smoke. However, the most enjoyable scenes in the film are the ones in which Holmes and Hilda come face-to-face, taunting each other with sly compliments about the other's cleverness.
This turned out to be the last of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films, as Rathbone declined to renew his contract and opted instead to return to the theater, even though a series of four more films was already being planned. Still, he left behind him a legacy of fascinating films that both entertain and offer an interesting window through which we can observe the time in which they were made.
|An Evening With Sherlock Holmes Four-Disc DVD Box Set|
|Audio||English Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Original theatrical trailers|
Rare on-camera interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
30 original radio broadcasts of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (total of 15 hours)
|Release Date||May 2, 2000|
|While The National Film Museum, Inc., claims that the four films in this box set have been restored, the image quality varies greatly from good to terrible, which is a considerable disappoinment. There are quite a few scratches and vertical lines throughout all the films, as well as some dust. Contrast also varies; some of the scenes are nicely rendered in shades of gray, while other scenes are washed-out to the point that lighter elements of the screen glare and fade into each other. Most of the scenes are soft in focus, so that there is very little detail. Interestingly, the worst image is the opening Universal logo at the beginning of each film, which is so blurry and lacking in detail that you can't even read the letters.|
|Like the image, the monaural soundtracks on the four discs tend to vary in quality. While some scenes sound crisp and clear, others have a great deal of audible hiss, and some of the dialogue is difficult to hear without turning up the volume. There is some crackle in a few sequences, but it is not noticeably distracting or unexpected from films that are more than 55 years old.|
|It is in the extras that this box set earns its keep. Along with the four films, the real treasure is more than 15 hours of original radio broadcasts of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which also starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. The discs contain 30 episodes that aired from 1939 to 1946. Each film also comes with its original theatrical trailer, although the trailer for The Woman in Green has been recreated. Apparently, the original trailer has been lost, and the new one was edited together most likely according to original transcripts and editing notes. Another gem in this box set is a short, 10-minute interview with the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Shot in 1927, the same year as the introduction of sound film and three years before Doyle's death, this is his only known on-camera interview. It is a shame that he doesn't spend more time talking about his greatest literary creation, rather than his 41-year belief in spirituality. Still, it is a fascinating interview, and Doyle does give a brief insight into how he created the world's greatest detective.|
Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick