Directed By: Roy William Neill
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill
Trivia: This was the second Sherlock Holmes feature to be produced at Universal Studios
Whenever I think of Sherlock Holmes, the uber-intelligent private eye made popular by writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a series of 19th century novels, the image that immediately pops into my head is that of actor Basil Rathbone, all decked out in tweed and smoking a pipe. It might have something to do with the fact that he played the famous detective fourteen times, starting with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939 and ending with 1946’s Dressed to Kill, but I think there’s more to it than that. Sure, he always looked the part, yet Rathbone’s take on the character also helped define how Holmes would be portrayed in movies and on TV for many years to come.
To keep the Nazis from obtaining his formula for a secret weapon, Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) goes undercover to smuggle noted physicist Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post Jr.) out of Vienna. His mission is a success, but, unfortunately, England proves every bit as dangerous for the good doctor, who is promptly kidnapped by that criminal mastermind, Dr. James Moriarty (Lionel Atwill). To aid the British war effort, Holmes engages in a battle of wits against his chief rival, doing everything he can to retrieve Dr. Tobel and keep his research from falling into the wrong hands.
When we first see Sherlock Holmes in The Secret Weapon, he’s disguised as an elderly book salesman, trying to throw a pair of Gestapo agents off Tobel’s trail. Before long, though, he's back to his old self, brilliantly deducing clues and, in the process, getting under people’s skin. The always reliable Lionel Atwill, who a few years earlier teamed with Rathbone in the underrated Universal horror film The Son if Frankenstein, makes for a fine Morairty, the one man capable of out-witting the great Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce is serviceable, if somewhat ineffective, as Watson, Holmes’ sometimes-bumbling sidekick. Then, of course, we have the great man himself. Marking his 4th appearance as the character, Rathbone was already quite familiar with Holmes, resulting in a very confident performance. Always quick and to the point, he often lays his opinions out as bluntly as possible. When Watson is first introduced to their guest, he asks if it’s the same Franz Tobel who won a recent award for physics. A slightly irritated Holmes replies, rather sharply, “My dear Watson, there is only one Dr. Tobel”. Of course, Holmes saves his best quips for Moriarty. During their first encounter, when Moriarty pulls a gun on him, a clearly disappointed Holmes says, “Oh, come now. This is not the Moriarty, the master criminal I once knew. A dock rat could do as much”. There’s plenty of intrigue in The Secret Weapon, and even a little action, but it’s Holmes’s sharp tongue that makes the film such a treat.
Sherlock Holmes has experienced a revival of sorts in recent years. Aside from the two big-budgeted Guy Ritchie films, Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), both starring the versatile Robert Downey Jr., there’s been not one, but two television series featuring the cocky detective: The BBC’s brilliant Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson; and Elementary, a U.S. show produced for network TV (which, to be honest, I haven’t seen). Yet even these 21st century attempts to update the character owe a little something to Rathbone. Combining intelligence with a brashness that bordered on egomania, Basil Rathbone set the standard by which all future Sherlock Holmes’ would be measured, and his influence on the character is just as strong today as it ever was.