Saturday, November 3, 1973 (Noon): Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) / The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

Synopsis: In wartime Switzerland, an elderly peddler meets with a pair of German men in a cafe. The meeting looks innocent enough but has sinister intent; the men are Nazi apparatchiks and the peddler is a spy with a line on Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post, Jr).

Dr. Tobel is the inventor of a revolutionary new bomb sight and the Nazis are eager to capture both him and his prototype before he can deliver it to the English. Unfortunately, Tobel has stayed within his house for days and the Germans haven’t been able to kidnap him.

The plan is for the peddler to lure Tobel outside the house; then the Nazis will grab him and spirit him away to Berlin. The peddler goes to Tobin’s house and is admitted. Once inside it is revealed that the peddler is none other than a disguised Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), who has been dispatched by the British government to bring Tobel and his bomb sight prototype to England.

Using Tobel’s servants as decoys, Holmes gets Tobel away. Holmes brings Tobel to stay at his flat on Baker Street, but late that night Tobel slips away to meet with his lover Charlotte Eberli (Kaaren Verne). He writes a note using a cipher that looks like a series of dancing stick men. He tells Charlotte that should anything happen to him, she must get the note to Sherlock Holmes.

The next day the British air force tests the bomb site, and it proves to just as revolutionary as had been promised. The British are eager to put the Tobel bomb sight into production, but Tobel says that while he wants the British to use his design, he does not want to reveal his secrets. He wants to control every aspect of the production, and the British government reluctantly agrees.

Tobel goes to three different contractors and gives each one a different piece of the bomb sight to produce. No one part of the bomb sight, Tobel tells Holmes, is of any use without the other two; and in this way none of the contractors can betray the design of the weapon. But Tobel is soon captured by the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill) who is working on behalf of the Nazis to recover both Tobel and the bomb sight.

Failing to get the information out of Tobel, they gain possession of the cipher that Tobel has written for Holmes. Moriarty captures two of the weapon’s components, and with one more he can make certain the Germans will win the war….

Comments: Starting this week, we have a number of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes thrillers pressed into service as part of the Horror Incorporated Saturday matinee program. There are, of course, few horror elements in these films, but they do star Basil Rathbone, who played Wolf von Frankenstein in the high-gloss Son of Frankenstein. The Sherlock Holmes films also feature supporting players, sets and even stock music cues that will be cozily familiar to those who’ve sat through umpteen Universal horror titles.

This is the fourth Sherlock Holmes film in the series that started in 1939, and the second to be produced by Universal. Fox had made the first two, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and they didn’t diverge wildly from the source material, though Watson, played by the blustery Nigel Bruce, was made into a bumbling comic-relief character. Universal departed further from the stories, shifting them to 1940s London and making them wartime espionage thrillers. It’s jarring to see Sherlock Holmes pick up the phone and call Scotland Yard, or to see Holmes and Watson jump into a motor car and drive off to fight Nazi saboteurs, but we soon get used to it.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is pretty silly stuff, with plot holes big enough for a cat to jump through. Most of the plot complications arise because Dr. Tobel wants to keep the bomb sight’s design secret to everyone but himself. But it isn’t clear why he insists on this (or why he thinks the British government couldn’t simply reverse-engineer the device once the completed units were delivered), and incredibly, we’re asked to believe that the British government is willing to go along with this arrangement. As a result, Moriarty is able to hatch a plot to steal the prototype back and very nearly succeeds. By the end of the movie the bomb sight is safe, and it’s implied that it’s now being safeguarded by the British military, which should have been the case all along.

A Holmes-vs-Moriarty matchup requires clever wordplay and a battle of wits. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really deliver. It’s fun seeing Lionel Atwill play Moriarty, but unfortunately his material isn’t very good; neither his fiendish plot to capture the bomb sight nor the race to decode Tobel’s cipher (borrowed from the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”) are very convincing, and for all the talk of Moriarty’s genius, he doesn’t come across as particularly clever.

The Creature Walks Among Us

Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is a wealthy scientist who has his mind set on capturing the Gill-Man, who has been presumed dead in the Florida everglades since the events of Revenge of the Creature. A man tending to alligator traps in the area claims that the Gill-Man attacked him, badly damaging his face. He says he stabbed the creature with his knife. When Barton has the knife analyzed he discovers that the dried blood matches the blood samples taken from the creature when it was held at Marine Land.

Barton has assembled a team of researchers to assist him on his quest to capture the creature: Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson) and Dr. Johnson (James Rawley). He also brings along diver Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer). Dr. Barton’s beautiful young wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) also insists on coming along, though this seems to nettle Dr. Barton a great deal.

Marcia is in every way a faithful wife; yet Barton is consumed by jealousy, constantly demanding to know who she has been talking to and warning her to stay away from other men.

Morgan discovers that Barton’s motives in capturing the creature are rooted in his belief that the creature can be adapted to survive out of the water, and useful knowledge might be gained from the creature that would benefit future space flights, which might require humans to undergo similarly radical adaptation. Morgan disagrees with the potential cruelty of such experiments, but he stays with the expedition out of curiosity.

Barton’s lavish yacht plies the waterways of the everglades, and they reach the point where they believe the Gill-man is residing. The creature is tracked down, and later an expedition sets out by small boat to find him. As in both the previous films, the piscicide rotenone is used to drug him, but he still manages to attack the small vessel. In the melee, the creature is doused with gasoline and badly burned.

Back on the ship, the scientists struggle to save the creature’s life. Its gills have been badly damaged and Morgan and Barton perform a tracheotomy to allow it to breathe through its vestigial lungs. They discover that the creature’s outer skin has sloughed off in the fire, leaving an animal that appears more human underneath. Grant sews clothing for its ungainly body with sailcloth.

Back in California, the creature takes up residence in a caged enclosure outside Barton’s mansion. Morgan argues that the creature’s savagery is a response to how it has been treated. If it is treated humanely, he argues, the creature will likely behave in a more humane manner. Barton thinks such ideas are nonsense.

Meanwhile, Barton has become obsessed with what he imagines are Marcia’s infidelities. While Marcia and Morgan are clearly attracted to each other, neither does anything to encourage the other. However, Grant becomes more and more brazen in his advances on Marcia, and despite her continued rejection of him he remains undeterred. Later he tries to assault Marcia while on guard duty, allowing the creature to escape. When Barton learns of Grant’s actions he fires him. Grant taunts him about being unable to control his wife, and in a fit of rage Barton strikes him from behind, accidentally killing him.

With Grant’s dead body in front of him, Barton quickly makes a decision: he tosses the body into the enclosure, and blames the creature for Grant’s murder….

Comments: Creature From the Black Lagoon was a big enough hit to guarantee a sequel, and 1955’s Revenge of the Creature was about what you’d expect: it was louder, dumber and cheaper than the original. It also starred John Agar — the lead actor you called when the lead actor you really wanted wasn’t available.

But the third and final movie in the cycle, The Creature Walks Among Us, is different. Despite a number of plot holes and absurdities, it does something that Revenge of the Creature didn’t even attempt: it tries to say something interesting. The line between “the jungle and the stars”, as Dr. Morgan puts it, is vanishingly fine, and it turns out that the real monster running loose is of the green-eyed variety. Barton, for all his money and ambition, is in the end a pretty poor example of the human species. He’s much closer to the jungle, it turns out, than the stars. He and the creature are reflection characters, each one on a similar trajectory out of their respective comfort zones. In the end, Barton winds up dead and disgraced and the creature, staring bleakly out at the water to which he can never return, is forever out of his element.

Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s were openly hostile to science, seeing it as the province of arrogant men who dared to play God. By contrast, the 1950s championed scientific progress, often in embarrassingly grandiose terms. The Creature Walks Among Us is one of the few science-fiction films of the 1950s to be ambivalent on the subject, acknowledging that Barton’s research might have some utility, but questioning if progress is really worth the cost.

This movie starred Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason, who had appeared in the previous year’s Technicolor extravaganza This Island Earth. This film is clearly a much lower-budget affair but its nice to see the two of them reunited on screen.

Rex Reason is best known for playing This Island Earth’s Dr. Cal Meacham. I’ve always thought of him as too stiff to be a leading man and not interesting enough to be a character actor. But in The Creature Walks Among Us he’s surprisingly likable, bringing a very light touch to the character of the humane scientist Morgan. As an actor, Reason has a tendency to be an overbearing presence — his imposing height and basso profundo voice tend to work against him – but here he gives a very restrained performance, perhaps the best of his career.

The top-billed Morrow was somewhat more versatile, and while he was never a showy performer he does pretty well as the angry and deeply unhappy Barton. Leigh Snowden was an intelligent actress and makes the most of her scenes, none of which were particularly demanding from a dramatic standpoint. Essentially her job was to look beautiful and get rescued, and she pulled off both tasks effortlessly.

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