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Saturday 26 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Basil Rathbone begins this film, the second Holmes movie for Universal and the second of the three overt wartime propaganda entries in the series, in the disguise of a bookseller peddling his wares in the inns of Switzerland. Never mind needing to be called in by the British government, Holmes is already in, perhaps inevitably as evidenced by the fact that Baker Street is partially rubble because of the Blitz but also because it was simply the right thing to do at the time, which sentiment is of course the precise point of these propaganda movies. This one revolves around the Tobel bombsight which Holmes is working undercover to secure for the Allies.

This has a real life analogy, the Norden bombsight, which was developed for the US Navy but leaked to the Germans by Nazi spies in the American factories. Here the Tobel is a Swiss device that Holmes manages to acquire, with its inventor, Dr Tobel, for use by the Allies. The danger of course is that those Nazi spies try to get hold of it anyway, something that Tobel goes to great trouble to avoid happening. He demonstrates his device successfully on Salisbury Plain but proceeds to refuse to simply hand it over, instead splitting it into four sections to entrust to separate scientists to construct. Unfortunately he promptly disappears and the coded message he leaves instructions to have given to Holmes under such a circumstance is stolen by Prof Moriarty.

And so we find ourselves in a Sherlock Holmes story that fits intriguingly into both the old school and new school approaches, very tempting to explore as a direct comparison between the two. Like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, it's set during the Second World War with Nazis as the opposing menace but the propaganda angle is far less overt. With the exception of a few odd lines here and there the only real rallying call comes in the final scene after everything has been wrapped up and the filmmakers remind us that the same can't be said for the war. Holmes is involved in the war effort from moment one and he stays there. We should be too.

However, the war takes much more of a back seat than in the previous film, hinting at a future return to the old world of one on one battles with a dedicated master criminal, always such a pleasure to the Holmes fan. Based on the story The Dancing Men about as closely as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based on the story His Last Bow, ie not very closely at all, it does at least feature a plethora of the sort of details that kids like me lapped up when I was a youngster: substitution ciphers with clever twists, ingenious devices to aid the ability to be followed, polite discussions about methods of murder, let alone the frequent disguises that range from good to bad and include the in between.

There's also a monstrous battle of both wits and egos, as Holmes and Moriarty relish the opportunity to duel each other once more, one upping each other with every line or action. There are scenes here that remind of Wallace Shawn's death scene in The Princess Bride, where Holmes knows what Moriarty's going to do so he does this but Moriarty knows that Holmes knows so he has this in mind instead and so on. It's nonsense, of course, but it's blissful nonsense, precisely what any Holmes fan wants out of such a film. It's almost schizophrenic in the way we rush from war of ideology abroad to a war of wits at home among the secret passages, but it runs in the right direction at least.

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