England's Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes
Amanda J. Field
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England's Secret Weapon examines the way Hollywood used Sherlock Holmes in a series of fourteen films that spanned the years of World War II in Europe, from The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939 to Dressed to Kill in 1946. Basil Rathbone's portrayal of Holmes has influenced every actor who has subsequently played this popular character on film, TV, stage and radio, yet the film series has, until now, been neglected in terms of detailed critical analysis.
The book looks at the films themselves in combination with their historical context. Though the first two films were set in the detective's 'true' Victorian period, Holmes was then 'updated' and recruited to fight the Nazis. He came to represent the acceptable face of England for the Americans - the one man who could be relied upon to ensure an Allied victory.
Enthusiasm for a Nazi-fighting Holmes soon waned, and the series moved first into ghost-and-ghouls chillers, and finally into visceral horror films in which Professor Moriarty, Holmes' old enemy, had been replaced by a new breed of villain - a deadly female. England's Secret Weapon examines the way the studio steered a careful course between modernising the detective and making sure he was still recognisable as the 'old Holmes' - in clothes, locations and behaviour.
on scriptwriting; and sets and costumes for a contemporary-set film are cheaper than for a period film. Although Haralovich’s purpose is to make a specific point about industrial practice, in treating the films as products rolling off a factory-line there is an implicit dismissal of any aesthetic worth. Todd McCarthy & Charles Flynn, who were pioneers in deeming B-movies worthy of discussion (their book on the subject was published in 1975) detect a ‘strain of anti-capitalist thinking’
identity of the spy. In common with the posters, the trailers gradually downgraded the prominence of the characters’ names. In the trailer for Voice of Terror, Rathbone and Bruce were billed as appearing ‘in the roles they made famous on the radio network’; by The Pearl of Death, there was no cross-reference to the radio shows, but the stars’ names still appeared alongside those of their characters; and later in the series, there was no on-screen mention of Holmes or Watson at all, with
be temporal as well as spatial (Kirby, 1997, p.136). 60 Shooting schedule (22 Dec. 1938). 61 The vast proportions of Baskerville Hall accord with a Hollywood convention which Ramirez has commented on: although English buildings of this period would have had low ceilings,Hollywood consistently portrayed them as lofty spaces, partly because technical difficulties made representing ceilings difficult, but partly because of the ‘desire to reinforce the public’s
slang dictionaries of the time and was not a phrase used in the pulps. Until this film, the probability is that it had only been employed to indicate a repellent hybrid rather than a creature with the sexual power to lure men to their deaths. In retrospect, it is easy to see Adrea Spedding in Spider Woman as a prototype of the film noir woman, but in fact she probably owes more to Roy William Neill’s overlapping of the detective and horror genres. The fact that she, and the other evil
Neill introduced expressionist lighting and cinematography in what could be seen as a transfer from the Gothic horror film: identifying its use in this series opens up a fresh perspective on the development of film noir. Gothic settings drew on Universal’s 1930s track-record as a horror-genre specialist and presaged the final evolutionary phase of the series, into visceral horror where the ‘monster’ was a deadly female. These ‘spider women’ of the later films combined allure and danger, used