Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Moriarty teams with up with the Nazis!

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, William Post Jr, Kaaren Verne and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is charged with rescuing a Swiss scientist (Post) and his revolutionary new bomb-sighting system from the Nazis and bringing him safely to England. However, when the scientist turns out to have too high an opinion of himself and his intelligence, and he falls into the hands of British Nazi agents, Holmes finds himself in race against his old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Atwill) to unlock a coded message that reveals where the prototype of the bomb-sight is hidden.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is the second of Universal's "Holmes vs. the Nazis" flick, and it is not only a fun Holmes adventure but a passable espionage thriller. The opening sequence where Holmes outsmarts the Gestapo agents who have crossed into Switzerland to kidnap genius inventor Franz Tobel is a great bit of filmmaker--and the only part of the film that stuck with me from the first time I saw this film at some point in the distant past. (I have no memory of watching this film before, but that opening bit, the revelation of Holmes, and the get-away was all very familiar to me.)

Like many movies of this type, the villains initially benefit from the fact that Holmes' charge may be a genius when it comes to inventing military hardware, but he's otherwise an idiot who ends up in Professor Moriarty's clutches because he had sneak out for a clandestine booty call and because of irrational demands placed on the British security forces regarding the production of his bomb sights. This is what leads to the race to decrypt the code. Apparently, Dr. Tobel is SUCH a genius that he knew the clandestine booty call was a bad idea, so he wrote a code he thought only Holmes would be able to help build his bomb sight should he come to a bad end. Too bad for Tobel that a man almost as part as Holmes is the one who grabbed him.

Speaking of Moriarity, Lionel Atwill gives an excellent performance as Holmes' evil opposite. The script writers also do a nice job of demonstrating his sinister genius by having him and Holmes discover the key to unlocking a particular complicated part of the code only by accident. (I suppose this means that neither are as smart as Tobel gave them credit for... but at least neither Holmes nor Moriarty would sneak out for booty calls while Nazi agents are prowling the streets looking for them.)

In some ways, actually, the film makes Moriarty out to be a bit smarter than Holmes in some ways, but ultimately too crazy to be as effective an evil genius as he might be. Twice during this picture, Holmes places himself completely at Moriarty's mercy, presumably assuming that the evil professor won't just kill him. A pretty stupid thing to do, and one that almost backfires at one point and leads to a more chilling portrayal of Moriarity than I've ever seen. Still, if he had just killed Holmes instead of being duped into killing him slowly (by Holmes playing off Moriarty's ego and sadism), he would have won the day AND the war for his Nazi paymasters.

Then again, if Moariarity had been as smart as Holmes, he wouldn't have teamed up with Nazi losers to begin with... and there wouldn't have been a movie.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is a film that you'll enjoy if you get a kick out of old-time thrillers and pulp-fiction style detective tales. Hardcore Holmes fans will probably mostly enjoy the film for it being a sequel of sorts to Doyle's "The Dancing Men" short story, but only if they aren't too annoyed by Holmes and Watson being transplanted to 1940s London instead of 1880s London. (And all of us will have to ignore the goofy looking hair-do on Holmes. I will have to get around to researching that. It is so stupid looking there HAS to be story behind it.)

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