Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting is a recent idea. Not so. That gimmick has been used at least since the 1940s, when the American producers of new Sherlock Holmes films deicded to enlist Holmes and Watson for the ongoing war effort. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as several other films from the war years, they help fight Nazi spies in England. This in spite of the film being based on an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1945)

The film begins in Switzerland, where an inventor has constructed a new revolutionary bomb sight. He wants to offer it to the English government, but the Nazis are wise to his intentions, and so the chase begins. The rest of the film depicts the efforts by both sides to gain control of the inventor and his plans. Professor Moriarty naturally turns out to be the leader of the Nazi spies, and the thing turns into a battle of wits between the two master minds.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was Basil Rathbone‘s fourth Sherlock Holmes film, but only his second by Universal Studios (the first two were made by 20th Century Fox), and the oldest of his Sherlock films available at the Internet Archive.

Fans tend to be divided regarding Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Many see him as the classic Watson, but others, myself included, think he is way too thick-headed, contributing very little beyond cheap comic relief. Still, it must be admitted that Nigel Bruce was a competent actor, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.

This film is best enjoyed because of Basil Rathbone’s usual excellent performance. His Sherlock is possibly the coolest and most laid-back. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes on screen does not get more classic than this. As an added bonus, Lionel Atwill does a very sinister Professor Moriarty.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (656×496)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)

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Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
Download link
Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)

The 39 Steps (1935)

About two thirds of Alfred Hitchcock’s production from the 1930s is available at the Internet Archive. There are also a handful of his 1920s silents, but only the rare oddity from later in his career.

Those 1930s films are an odd bunch. Some films, such as the historical drama Jamaica Inn or the comedy Waltzes from Vienna seem like very surprising choices of scripts and themes compared with the films that have become his true legacy. Others clearly point the way to his great Hollywood thrillers. This is especially true for The 39 Steps.

Robert Donat on a train in Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps is arguably Hitchcock’s best 1930s film. The production values are higher than his earlier productions and some of those immediately following, partly due to a higher budget. Hitchcock had a sometimes unfortunate love for sound stages, rear projections and scale models in favour of outdoor shoots, things which are far less conspicuous in this production.

Hitchcock here for the first time manages to combine two of his favourite themes: spies and the innocent man on the run. This is definitely an essential work in his career, foreboding many of the films to come. It is not known to me why this shift came about, but there can be no doubt that this was the kind of story that Hitchcock liked to work with.

The film is also famous for a segment where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (playing the hero and his very unwilling lady) have to make a getaway while handcuffed to one another. Even though this part of the film is little more than ten minutes in length, it feels much longer due to Hitchcock’s expert way of making the most out of the situation’s drama.

This film is best enjoyed with good image and sound quality. Several versions are available at the Internet Archive, and I haved naturally linked to the best one. When I first saw the film myself it was from a very poor quality DVD, which was not as enjoyable as I would haved liked. This version is much better and has actually helped to raise my esteem for this movie to even greater heights.

Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

Seven Sinners (1936)

Carnival. Nice, France. Fireworks. Drinks, costumes and wild dancing. And in the middle of it all, the American John Harwood. Dressed as a devil and somewhat drunk, Harwood stumbles upon a dead man when accidentally entering the wrong hotel room. But when he manages to convince others to come to the scene, the body is gone. Who died? And why? The plot thickens with a train crash that just may have been sabotage and the disappearance of a woman that Harwood met.

The film thus described is Seven Sinners (released as Doomed Cargo in the US), a very nice mystery thriller.

Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings in Seven Sinners (1936)

In many ways, this film reminds of Alfred Hitchcock‘s English films from the 1930s (many of which are also available at the Internet Archive, e.g. Secret Agent (1936), which also has a train crash as an important part of the plot). Though competently made, Seven Sinners does not have the edge in composition and editing that Hitchcock does. The story and acting, however, are quite up to Hitchcock’s standards, so if you enjoy Hitchcock’s British films, there is a good chance that you will enjoy this one as well.

There is another film titled Seven Sinners (1940) with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne. I have not seen that one, but it too is rumoured to be good. It is avaiable at the Internet Archive, but that copy appears to be dubbed in German, so no good unless you speak that language.

This film is best enjoyed if you love mysteries. This one is better than most.

Constance Cummings and Edmund Lowe in Seven Sinners (1936)

Seven Sinners
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: Albert de Courville
Stars: Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (816 M)

Superman (1941)

The story goes something like this: Superman, who had debuted a few years earlier published by National Allied Publications (later DC Comics), had become a major success, and the publisher was now eager to create an animated series with the character. They approached the Fleischer brothers, who headed one of the most successful animation studios at the time. The Fleischers, however, were not interested in doing action animation (they had mostly done comedy, such as Betty Boop and Popeye). But instead of declining the offer, they gave a ridiculous bid to make the series for $100,000 per episode. Even though this was negotiated down to half, they could not decline such a lavish offer, and so the Superman animated series was born.

Superman in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

A pilot and eight subsequent episodes were produced by Fleischer Studios. Then Fleischer was reorganised as Famous Studios, who went on to produce eight more, for a total of seventeen. The Fleischer episodes are generally better and focuses more on science fiction, whereas those from famous contain much more war propaganda. All are worth seeing, though.

The series is the origin of many of the iconic characteristics of Superman. For example, it features the first ever costume change in a phone booth (along with many other inventive changes of costume); also, this is where Superman learned to fly (before, he could only jump very high); and even though it had been used before, I am guessing that this series is the reason why the “It’s a bird … (etc)” cry became famous.

It is not entirely coincidental that this series started the same year as the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial. Even though the Superman series is not a serial, it is clearly inspired by the same serial tradition, and the two superheroes were fierce competitors in the comic stands at the time.

One Internet Archive user has combined all the episodes into one feature film version. I have not seen that version myself, so cannot say if the image quality and resolution are good enough.

If you prefer to watch the episodes one at a time, I have collected links for the best version available for each:

  1. Superman
  2. The Mechanical Monsters
  3. Billion Dollar Limited
  4. The Arctic Giant
  5. The Bulleteers
  6. The Magnetic Telescope
  7. Electric Earthquake
  8. Volcano
  9. Terror on the Midway
  10. Japoteurs
  11. Showdown
  12. Eleventh Hour
  13. Destruction, Inc.
  14. The Mummy Strikes
  15. Jungle Drums
  16. The Underground World
  17. Secret Agent

This series is best enjoyed for its playfulness and its splendid, mood-setting images. It is true that, even in spite of the enormous budget, the animation is sometimes short of perfection and the stories are far from logical. Yet, every episode of Superman is packed with fun and action.

Superman and Lois Lane in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

Superman
Download link (complete series)
Year: 1941 – 1943
Running time: 2 h 0 min (complete series)
Directors: Dave Fleischer, Izzy Sparber, Seymour Kneitel
Stars: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium
Sound quality: Acceptable to good

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It may perhaps seem like constructed languages, such as Star Trek’s Klingon or John Carter’s Barsoomian, have only started to appear in movies and on TV during the past few decades. Sure, a language like Na’vi in Avatar (2009) that was created directly for the movie – with the complexity of a natural language and a large base of fan speakers – that kind of thing has not been seen before Klingon. But Esperanto, originally constructed as a tool for peaceful communication across borders, was used at least as early as the classic silent film Der letzte Mann (1924), and the earliest attempt to create a dedicated language for a movie may have been the subject of this week’s post, namely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford and Dame May Whitty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The language in question is spoken in the fictional European country which through different sources is variously known as Mandrika, Bandrieke, Vandreka, etc. The film begins at a hotel in a small town where the only train out is delayed by snow.

The language can be heard in many brief dialogues throughout the movie, though without the original script, it is impossible to analyze whether it is actually a complete language with coherent grammar and vocabulary, or just so many nonsense syllables. One of the few sentences which is both easy to make out and easily translated is spoken as “Reinefetado eŇ° fenito.” (We are out of food.) This would seem to vaguely suggest a Romance language, though some sources claim it is a mashup of many different European languages.

Constructed language can serve several different purposes on the silver screen. Often, it is used to provide credibility to a fantasy culture, such as the elves in The Lord of the Rings (2001) or the vampires in Blade (1998). But in The Lady Vanishes, this is not the main reason. Hitchcock could have just as well used an existing language, and an existing country.

The purpose is rather to create ambiguity about the underlying identity of the country. The interesting blog Reel Club has a post about Hitchcock’s political messages in this movie, and how he criticized England’s blindness in the face of the dangerous European situation. (In my opinion, Reel Club is perhaps overinterpreting some aspects, but essentially the reasoning is very good.) From that perspective, it is plain that Bandrika (the most common spelling, I think) is a Germany in disguise, and the Bandrikan language is part of that disguise. The viewer, of course, was supposed to infer as much, but there was no war and Germany could not be pointed out as the enemy just yet.

Over in America, about the same time, several films were released that used Esperanto for the same purpose, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1939). The technique is similar to that used in e.g. Dark Journey (1937), where the action is moved to a historical period (World War I) in order to provide the necessary setting for the political allegory.

Though far from Hitchcock’s best, The Lady Vanishes is competently made and in many ways a typical and very adorable Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock’s amazing sense of perspective and focus is seen in a few instances, and as always, the plot holds a good deal of psychological interest. There is also a bit more comic relief than in most Hitchcocks.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of train thrillers. Hitchcock had an excellent sense of the dramatic possibilities offered by the limited space in a train.

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes
Download link
Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)

Secret Agent (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock. One of the most deathless names among the great directors, and deservedly so. He introduced many cinematic storytelling techniques, and his amazing camerawork and timing can still take your breath away.

If you want to see his most classical masterpieces then (with a few exceptions) you must unfortunately go elsewhere than the Internet Archive. But if you are interested in digging deeper into his copious production, then the Archive offers many a forgotten gem (and some that should perhaps best remain forgotten). One of the best, and one which is almost never remembered today, is Secret Agent.

Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and John Gielgud in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Thematically, Secret Agent shares many features with the non Hitchcock thriller Dark Journey (1937), which I have previously reviewed. Both are spy stories made shortly before World War II, set during World War I, and mostly taking place in a neutral country (Switzerland in the case of Secret Agent). The main thematic difference is that the love story here is not between agents from different sides.

The plot of Secret Agent is somewhat problematic and may actually be one reason why the film is no longer very popular. The beginning, about a person whose death is faked in order to provide a good secret identity, is elegantly told but leaves only a really, really thin layer of credibility, if any. The ending is also somewhat blunt and not entirely satisfactory.

But in between, there is ample opportunity to enjoy Hitchcock’s indisputable genius. Ironically, for a film which is rich with interesting and groundbreaking use of sound effects, Hitchcock gives several nods to the silent film which saw his own beginnings as a director.

Psychologically, the film holds many interesting dimensions, and the actors interpret them excellently. Not least Peter Lorre in a spectacular role as an assassin who is in equal measures jaded and naive.

This film is best enjoyed if you love Hitchcock and want to start exploring some of his lesser-known films. Secret Agent deserves better than obscurity.

Escape through Swiss chocolate factory in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)