The Second World War is raging around neutral Switzerland, and in this small mountain village a couple of Nazi agents are meeting a contact at a tavern there. The old man enters the place with a stack of books he puts on the table in front of the agents, pretending to offer to sell them when he is actually giving them information on the whereabouts of a scientist, Doctor Tobel (William Post Jr) who is trying to escape to Britain so he may give his newly devised bombing mechanism to the Allies, something the Nazis must stop. Once the old man leaves and goes across the road to the house Tobel is staying in, he reveals his true colours: he is none other than Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone)!
The Secret Weapon (not to be confused with The Secret Code, a later instalment) was the fourth of the Holmes series to star Rathbone as the great detective and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick Dr Watson, the second in the franchise once it had moved to Universal studios where the budgets were noticeably leaner and to cut costs the characters were transported to the modern era. Placing Holmes in contemporary times was an idea which has appealed to many of the adapters down the decades, notably in the BBC TV series Sherlock which proved the world's appetite for the classic stories continued unabated well into the twenty-first century.
Here was another reason for plonking Holmes and Watson slap bang in the nineteen-forties, and that was as a propaganda exercise. Ostensibly a version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Dancing Men, basically only the plot point of the code of the title was used here, with the rest an invented narrative which saw Holmes battle against the machinations of the Nazi war machine. With brilliant minds like his on our side, this movie informed us, we have a fighting chance, as every Hollywood studio was churning out productions in aid of the war effort to encourage the domestic audiences and give cheer to the soldiers, pilots and sailors who were battling across the globe.
Some of these characters were more convincing as propaganda than others, not that anyone on the Allies' side was complaining at the time since it was the intent that made up for any shortcomings in the material, yet Holmes turned out to be easily one of the more impressive examples of the trend. That was down to his obvious properties as an asset to anyone combating evil, but also thanks to his definite sense of right and wrong; he was one of the most famous and celebrated sleuths of all time, if not the most, and for him to be pitted against the Axis forces was quite the coup when everyone had heard of him and could relate to his sympathies. As the actual story played out, it was standard stuff which might have been better suited to Bulldog Drummond.
Not that Rathbone coasted through his performance as a result, quite the opposite as his customary incisiveness was so appropriate here, not to mention his patent relish at dressing up in disguises as Sherlock went undercover. Once Tobel is in London thanks to the detective's manipulations, he hands over the device to a grateful British government but he's not out of the woods yet, and leaves a message with his old flame Kaaren Verne (soon to be made miserable as Mrs Peter Lorre in real life) which consists of the dancing men stick figures. When Tobel is kidnapped by Moriarty (Lionel Atwill), it's up to Holmes and Watson to track him down before he gives away the secret he hid in that message, and they have the help of Scotland Yard to boot, represented by Inspector Lestrade (new series regular Dennis Hoey). Watson and he make an interesting double act here as Sherlock strikes out on his own, even saving his life at one stage, and less bumbling than they would become, possibly because of the seriousness of the enterprise. Solid, then, if a little stodgy. Music by Frank Skinner.