“ A problem of a most elementary nature, my dear Dr. Tobel”
Roy William Neill’s Sherlock Holmes & the Secret Weapon, released in 1943, is short at just under 70 minutes. It’s the 4th of the 14 Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the bubbling Dr. Watson, 11 of which Neill directed. Bruce’s portrayal of Watson, while making Holmes look all the more brilliant, is in stark contrast to the Arthur Conan Doyle character – a learned student of Holmes’ techniques. The pair are by far the most prolific Holmes & Watson on film, and neither ever played the part with another actor in the opposite role.
The plot of the film is based loosely on Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Dancing Men, listed in the credits as simply The Dancing Men. It’s brought forward to the current events of the time by incorporating a Nazi plan to steal the code for “The Secret Weapon” – an improved bomb-sight, a device used to increase bombing accuracy, invented by Dr. Torbel (William Post Jr.). The genius behind the plan is Professor Moriarty, played by Lionel Atwill nicely in his small role, his only as Sherlock’s archenemy. Moriarty intends to steal the code & sell it to the Nazi’s for a huge sum, selling his native England down the Thames River along the way! And if Holmes stands in his way, he’ll have no choice but to kill him. Of course, Moriarty never does kill Holmes, though he tries to in virtually every Sherlock story every portrayed in prose or film. In this film, he’s rescued from demise by Watson & Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade. Neill makes one major flaw in The Secret Weapon: Sherlock Holmes, the most brilliant criminologist in Great Britain, doesn’t know how to make noise with his hands or feet when they’re bound, nor how to make guttural noises while gagged.
The music in Secret Weapon is tremendous – composed by Frank Skinner, a five time Oscar nominee, with one nomination for Best Score in every year between 1939 & 1944 except ’40. While Nigel Bruce was never nominated for an Academy Award, Basil Rathbone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars twice: In 1937 as Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet; and two years later as Louis XI in If I Were King, losing both times to Walter Brennan. There’s a Shakespearean thread that ties Sherlock Holmes & the Secret Weapon together from beginning to end. It seems likely that this influence was of Rathbone’s design. Before he made movies, and well prior to his role as Tybalt, he was a renowned Shakespearean stage actor in England & America. The first scene of Secret Weapon takes place in a pub where a man is trying to sell books by The Bard; and the final line is a condensed version of a passage from Richard II.
Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the character Sherlock Holmes to the world 125 years ago. He is the most portrayed character in film, real or fictional, first appearing in 1900. Last year, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law played Holmes & Watson respectively in Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows; and a Spanish film, Holmes – Madrid Suite 1890 is in post-production, scheduled for release later this year. If there’s an ounce of truth to the cliché “Great art stands the test of time”, the enduring character Sherlock Holmes – who even today prefers to use brain over brawn [How refreshing is that???] – certainly passed that violin examination with flying colors years ago! The trailer for this good movie is below. And if you want to watch it the entire movie, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOyKEZUyiDc.