18. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
IMDB score = 6.8/10
Holmes and Watson? = Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Synopsis = Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson must protect a Swiss inventor of an advanced bomb sight from falling into German hands.
Defense by Paul Thomas Miller:
I'm going to use this film to illustrate how any Holmes film has the potential to start an interesting Holmesian conversation. As talking nonsense with other Holmesians is one of my favourite past-times, anything that facilitates such activity must be a good thing. There are several good conversational subjects which may be drawn from this film. In no particular order:
The Influence of Poe:
Early on, Holmes explicitly references The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe. Here he copies the tactic of hiding something in plain sight. Canonical Holmes and Watson also reference Poe's detective Dupin themselves in A Study in Scarlet. There is a rich vein for debate on how influenced Doyle was by Poe in the creation of Sherlock Holmes.
One of the big criticisms of the Rathbone films is that Watson is played for laughs. This is certainly evident in The Secret Weapon. Nigel Bruce is very funny in this film. But not every Holmesian wants him to be a clown. The question of why this happens so often in Holmes adaptations is an interesting one. Taken off the page, Watson's narrator role is no longer required - we can see Holmes in action ourselves - and film-makers often struggle to know what to do with him. Consequently, he tends to be turned into light relief to contrast a severe Holmes. It is notable that in the Robert Downey Jr films, where Holmes is played slightly laughably himself, Watson is able to revert to something much more akin to canonical Watson.
Canon versus Originality:
A problem for the Holmesian film maker is finding the correct balance between canonical and original. Us Holmesian's are a diverse crowd, with everyone wanting a different balance of these two elements. Being too original can result in such an uncanonical Holmes that he barely feels like Holmes at all. Too canonical and the film can be boring because we already know the story and have seen it all before. For me, this film manages a good balance of both. We have an original plot, born of when it was made. Holmes is transported to World War Two where he is involved with planes, scientists and bombs. It's all very fresh (if a little propaganda-ry). But there are loads of canonical elements too: disguises, the dancing men code, one-legged bad guys, Holmes as a chemist, a character who played rugby for Blackheath and Moriarty falling to his death. For me it works, but as we are all different, there is a lively discussion to be had here.
Contemporary versus Original Period:
A potential criticism of this film is that it takes Holmes out of Victoriana where he belongs. It has always seemed to me that contemporary versions of Holmes can work perfectly well. I suggest that this is because Holmes is such a strong and universal character that he can work in any time or place and still be recognisable. A counter-argument is that part of the joy of Holmes is the late Victorian nostalgia. It is certainly true that the sanitised version of Holmes's 1895 London is a delightful place to retreat to. However you feel about this, it is great fun to chat with someone who feels differently.
Sherlock the Psychopath:
In a disturbing scene towards the end of the film, Holmes explains to Moriarty how he would like to torture Moriarty to death. Is this Holmes buying himself some time or is it a recognition of the unusual mind of Holmes which was not explicitly labelled psychopathic until BBC Sherlock seventy years later?
Regardless of your stance on any of these issues, they are great fun to discuss with other Holmesians. Unlike many subjects (such as politics or religion), these conversations get to stay as fun because (brace yourself, you're not going to like this next bit...) Holmesiana doesn't matter. It's silly. We're all being very stupid by playing this game in the first place. That's why it is fun. That is why we can enjoy it. That's why we make so many good friends.
(Of course, paradoxically, that's why it does matter, isn't silly and is not stupid. All the more reason to nurture the fun.)