Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

2008 #75
Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | PG

The name’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, as Universal’s loose adaptations of Britain’s Greatest Detective deliver a low-key proto-Bond, 22 years before Goldfinger applied the same tricks to Britain’s Greatest Spy.

“How so?”, you might ask. Well, Holmes has been employed as a spy for His Majesty’s Government; it begins with an ‘end of the previous adventure’ almost-action sequence that would undoubtedly take place before the opening credits now; there’s a war-winning weapon at stake; a bit of globetrotting (albeit just from Switzerland to London); some double-crossing and side-switching; even a surprisingly nasty torture sequence; a nice race-against-time final act; and an equally-matched villain, with a secret lair, who has devised a clever death for our hero. So the lair is just a house with soundproofing and unbreakable glass, but that’s not a bad effort — I don’t think there are many volcanoes to hollow out in the London area. It may be Bond on a World War Two London scale, but the feeling is there.

I discussed the controversy (for a modern audience, at least) of this updated setting in my last Holmes review, and it’s even more abundant here — seeing Baker Street as a victim of the Blitz, and 221B surrounded by sandbags, is very odd indeed — but at least it employs several elements from a variety of Conan Doyle’s plots, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that, given his skills of deduction and disguise, Holmes would’ve been employed as a spy had he been ‘alive’ during the war. In fact, Holmes actually does some detecting this time, whereas in Voice of Terror he seemed to meander around a bit, and employs several disguises, even if some of them are about as much cop as one of those glasses-nose-and-moustache masks. Of course, it would help the mystery if its solution wasn’t revealed before Tobel (the inventor of the titular war-winning weapon) was even kidnapped, but you can’t have everything.

What lets the film down more is Lionel Atwill as a weak Moriarty, supposedly the film’s grand villain. It’s not all his fault — for one example of poor writing, Holmes deduces the final code after an accidental clue from Watson, while Moriarty gets it by clumsily spilling water over a copy, hardly displaying great powers of deduction — but he doesn’t compare to the scheming, cunning Moriarty we saw played by George Zucco in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On the plus side, the ease with each Moriarty outwitted Holmes in that earlier outing made our hero look a bit ridiculous, whereas here Holmes gets to outwit his nemesis a couple of times, including a particularly nice denouement.

As with Voice of Terror, I enjoyed a lot of Secret Weapon in spite of its distinct un-Holmes-ness — it’s another pacey, exciting World War Two spy thriller. It’s better than its immediate predecessor on the whole, though a spot of miscasting nearly persuaded me to remove another star.

4 out of 5

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