For Reel


Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
September 5, 2016, 12:33 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3 Stars
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret WeaponUniversal’s Sherlock Holmes series would transplant the famed detective into a contemporary setting, often involving espionage plots that pit him against the dastardly Axis sympathizers. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is the second of a series that would last another ten films (all directed by Roy William Neill), and it finely incorporates the studio’s Gothic aesthetic into the spy plot—dimly lit streets and secret passages are the meeting grounds for Holmes and adversary Moriarty (Lionel Atwill). Alongside Nigel Bruce (consistently the best thing about the Holmes films), Atwill saves the material with his reptilian performance. After being introduced halfway through the picture, he and Holmes engage in the expected battle of wits, each trying to outdo the other and being none-too-surprised when their adversary has seen through their plot. The mystery itself is lacking, but for the Holmes-Moriarty feud alone, it plays as a prototypical Holmes outing, reveling in both the character relationships and a Gothic aesthetic that often resembles the noirs of the period.



Terror by Night (1946)
August 20, 2016, 12:10 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3.5 Stars
Terror by NightBasil Rathbone had been feeling his career was limited by the Sherlock Holmes series by the mid-1940s, and during the production of Terror by Night he knew it would be his penultimate representation of the character. That fans of the film series applaud this installment as one of the best might have to do with a newly enlivened Rathbone—a man who not only saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but one who wanted to go out on a high point. It helps that the dramatics are limited to the confines of a train and in a brief sixty minute running time. The suspense levels are high and the story pushes forward at a nice clip. Director Roy William Neill takes a moment about halfway through the picture to explain who the main suspects are by providing each with a close-up and a brief description—if it’s gimmicky and even insulting to a perceptive audience, the technique actually works quite well not because it narrows down the field of potential suspects, but allows each of them to occupy a similar weight. If the ultimate reveal and a few late coincidences are overwrought (the film was loosely adapted from bits and pieces of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories), there are a few effective setpieces along the way, such as an attempted murder on Holmes in which he is shoved from an open train door. Alan Mowbray lends support as Watson’s friend and is quite good at both casting suspicion and quelling it in equal measure.



Blind Date (1934)
March 10, 2015, 7:45 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3 Stars
Blind DateBlind Date is a rare early showcase for star Ann Sothern, who would find her talents squandered at Columbia and RKO before heading to MGM and achieving success with the Maisie series. Here, she plays a switchboard operator who is torn between two men: an automechanic (Paul Kelly) and the wealthy heir of a department store (Neil Hamilton). A woman torn between the lifestyles of frugality and luxury is well-tread ground, and by the end of Blind Date one isn’t totally convinced that she’s made the right decision. Sothern, as in the Maisie films, is an interesting anomaly in terms of class–she’s too sophisticated and well-dressed to fit in with the working class, and too blunt and sardonic to effectively navigate a life of mannered opulence. She looks as beautiful as ever thanks to the elegant cinematography by Allen G. Siegler, whose romantic, gauzy renderings of the scenes involving Hamilton provide a nice contrast to the harshly lit scenes at Sothern’s impoverished home. Kelly’s performance is initially grating, but gradually earns more and more of the audience’s affection as the film wears on. It’s clear that he truly loves Sothern and that, in many ways, he seems to be the better fit.