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
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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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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
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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
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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)