In 2009, film historian Amanda Field wrote England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes, a book that explores the Sherlock Holmes films in their historical context. From the back cover:
“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.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films were not released in German theaters during the war years. Even those films that did not feature Nazis as Sherlock Holmes’s foe would have been deemed unacceptable in Germany because Sherlock Holmes was a British hero, symbolic of England.
By the mid 1950s, however, West Germany had a friendly relationship with Great Britain, and German attitudes towards Sherlock Holmes had changed. But, instead of simply releasing the Sherlock Holmes films, Argus Filmverleih put together four composite movies, each of which is made using footage from two of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films. The four films are:
- Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht
- Sherlock Holmes jagt den Teufel von Soho
- Sherlock Holmes in geheimer Mission
- Sherlock Holmes gefährlichster Auftrag
In each of these films Sherlock Holmes solves two cases. Holmes begins on one case then is “called away” to deal with another. The resulting composite film is longer than either of the originals.
Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht (released 14 February 1958) is a combination of The Scarlet Claw and The Spider Woman, and is 85 minutes long. The title Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht is a bit confusing. It literally translates to “Sherlock Holmes Looks Death in the Face,” which makes one think of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. But the compilation film has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. To add to the confusion, the poster shows Patricia Morison in her fur stole, suggesting the film Dressed to Kill. Compare it to this actual Dressed to Kill poster:
Released 25 February 1958, Sherlock Holmes jagt den Teufel von Soho (“Sherlock Holmes Hunts the Devil of Soho”) is a composite of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and The Pearl of Death. It is 95 minutes long. The “Devil of Soho” undoubtedly refers to The Creeper (Der Kriecher) from The Pearl of Death.
The description in the program reads:
“Even before the murderer is behind bars and the happy marriage can take place, Sherlock Holmes in company with Dr. Watson and the Inspector Lestrade has to bring the famous ‘Pearl of Death’ back to the British Museum.”
Sherlock Holmes in geheimer Mission (“Sherlock Holmes on a Secret Mission”) is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. It was released 6 March 1959 and is 98 minutes long.
This is a curious choice of films to use to make a composite film for German audiences. Both “Secret Weapon” and “Washington” addressed wartime issues and served as propaganda vehicles for the Allies. Remember the patriotic speeches Holmes makes at the end?
In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes quotes from Shakespeare: “This fortress built by Nature for herself . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (Richard II, Act II, Scene 1).
In Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Holmes quotes Winston Churchill: “It is not given for us to peer into the mysteries of the future. But in the days to come, the British and American people for their own safety and the good of all will walk together in majesty and justice and in peace.”
Perhaps the films were edited in such a way to focus on something else. Certainly, those final patriotic speeches must have been cut. Still, it seems as though it would have been easier and more appealing to German audiences if Argus Filmverleih had selected a pair of films that had more of a “timeless” theme, such as House of Fear (which dealt with an insurance fraud scheme) and Dressed to Kill (the search for stolen Bank of England plates). These films deal with people who committed crimes out of greed; there is no patriotic appeal.
Sherlock Holmes gefährlichster Auftrag (“Sherlock Holmes’ Most Dangerous Job”) is a combination of The Woman in Green and Terror by Night. Released 20 March 1959, the film was 97 minutes long. The first case is about a series of murders that are obviously related to hypnosis. Then Holmes has to prove his talent for improvisation in a complicated transport of a jewel.
While the Sherlock Holmes films in their original format were never released in German movie theaters, they were broadcast on German television in the 1980s.