An Appreciation for “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”
By the time that filmmaker Billy Wilder stepped behind the camera to direct The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970, he had already released a string of hits which endure as some of the most beloved films of classic cinema with titles including Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959) just to name a few. Wilder’s stab at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation remains one of his lesser-known films to general audiences, but persists in the Great Detective’s fan community for its quirky yet lovable approach to Holmes and Watson. Its legacy is a strong one and it remains one of the finest Holmes films yet made, and certainly one of the most unique.
Like so many pastiches that have sought to add new installments to Holmes’ ever-growing casebook, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was originally envisioned by Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to be made up of a series of vignettes each of which represented a heretofore unrevealed manuscript penned by Dr. Watson. Famously, these scenes were shot but cut from the film prior to its release amounting to nearly an hour of footage which is today totally or partially lost. In my writing on this film in the past, I have bemoaned what could have been. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes could have been a three-hour Holmesian epic which is as tantalizing a thought as any to this particular Sherlockian. Yet, on a recent re-watch, I realized that this point-of-view fails to truly appreciate what is left of the movie and I re-focused my attention on the tightly-wound script and the expert performances that anchor the film and make it as utterly charming as it is.
What makes The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes even more unique is its position as the only bit of Sherlockian cinema that is helmed by a filmic auteur; Wilder having complete control over his narrative and its production. What is important to remember is that the film is, at its core, a parody of the Conan Doyle characters, but its humor is never mean-spirited nor does it make light of Holmes, Watson, or their world. Indeed, the screenplay is one long love letter to what made the Doyle originals so beloved in the first place and why those same stories continue to resonate with audience today. If there is a defining scene in the film, then perhaps it is the first: Holmes and Watson return to 221b Baker Street following the successful completion of a case and, as the detective goes about busying himself to alleviate the boredom that comes from the lack of work, Watson proudly displays the latest copy of Strand Magazine containing his latest story. It is a scene that should feel familiar to fans, yet Wilder and Diamond undermine the tableau’s patina by establishing there is little about the Great Detective which is not some creation of the Good Doctor’s for the benefit of his reading public. Holmes is not as tall as he is made out to be, the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape are not his preferred method of dress, and his violin abilities have been over-exaggerated as has his distrust of women. Everything that follows will return to this dialogue as if it were the film’s thesis. To quote Mark Gatiss, co-creator of the TV series and global phenomenon, Sherlock, a series which he admits was heavily inspired by this film, it “gently take[s] the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes.”
Yet, for all that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes does to force its audience to reconsider the Baker Street detective duo, it is clear that much of the film’s comedy comes from its reverence to Doyle. The film’s heightened scenarios are clearly an homage to the writer who never allowed such pesky things as logic or simple science get in the way of telling an engaging story. In the same opening scene noted above, Holmes says that he has been contacted by the owner of a circus who asks for the detective’s help in tracking down a group of performing dwarves who have disappeared without a trace. Much to Watson’s awe, Holmes theorizes that the group are actually anarchists gone off to assassinate the Russian czar disguised as little children concealing bombs in bouquets of flowers. Of course, it’s all an elaborate fiction spun to take the wind out of Watson’s sails, but one cannot help but sense the nucleus of a true Doylean plot in the midst of the farce. After all, Doyle’s original Sherlockian tales included such curiosities as cannibalistic dwarves armed with poison arrows, snakes slithering down bell-pulls, and priceless gemstones found in the gullet of a Christmas goose. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not the logical extreme of Doyle’s most stylish excesses as a writer and, as the film’s plot ropes in spies disguised as monks, coded messages via parasol, and the Loch Ness Monster itself, the argument that the screenplay is really a love-letter to the whole Sherlockian Canon is only strengthened.
Despite these allusions to its own illustrious progenitor, the film does just as much to touch on what was not written by Doyle. The issue of women in the Holmes Canon is central to the film and is nowhere more prominent than in the film’s hilarious opening. Holmes and Watson are mysteriously lured to the Russian ballet on the pretense of accepting a case but as it transpires, the company’s leading ballerina, Madame Petrova, wishes for Holmes to father her child so that they may conceive the perfect offspring with her beauty and his brains. The detective, aghast, claims that “women are not his cup of tea”; the object of his affections lying elsewhere. More specifically, with Dr. Watson. In doing so, the film of course addresses the decades of misconstrued readings of the two men’s deep Victorian-era kinship and does so in a gentle and playful manner; the script never revealing the truth about Holmes’ true feelings for his friend and constant companion. Of course, the issue of Holmes’ love life is only complicated further by the introduction of Gabrielle Valladon played by Geneviève Page, whose dramatic arrival at Baker Street sets into motion the film’s central plot and whose unreadable countenance the detective seems to admire both intellectually and romantically. Come the film’s melancholic but inevitable finale, the audience is still left in a state of unknowing and the film is made all the stronger for it.
The subtlety with which the script raises these questions is expertly handled by the central cast lead by Robert Stephens’ impenetrable performance as Holmes. Stephens may not carry with him much name-recognition today, but he was one of the most revered actors of his generation and a major player in the Royal National Theatre, noted as one of the worthiest of successors to Sir Laurence Olivier. Stephens’ Holmes accentuates the marginalia of the Doyle original and he is by turns foppish, arrogant, witty, and deeply melancholic. Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson turns in just as noteworthy a performance, his comic take on Watson being one of the most calculated to date. Generally speaking, it is so easy to make Watson the slow-witted and ignorant of the pair, accentuating the worst excesses of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling and mumbling characterization, but The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes avoids this trope. Even when Watson is made to look the fool, the film never puts him down. Indeed, the scene in which Watson drunkenly dances with a group of Russian ballerinas remains the film’s finest visual gag. Blakely’s Watson is a deeply human character perfectly grounding the excesses of the script and serving as the moralistic opposite of Stephens’ Holmes.
When The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was released in the autumn of 1970, its reception from critics was muted at best. Reviewers failed to grasp its razor-sharp satire deeming it just another mystery, and not a very good one at that. Oddly enough, their criticism seems to have isolated one of the uniquely misunderstood aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves. Viewed from a modern perspective – a lens informed by over a century of imitators and appreciators who have pushed the mystery genre beyond anything that Doyle could have possibly realized – the Sherlock Holmes adventures are best enjoyed for their atmosphere and beautifully-realized depictions of Victorian London. The stories rarely baffle readers expecting the “fair play” parameters of writers like Agatha Christie and her ilk, but rather they surprise and beguile us with demonstrations of Holmes’ observational and deductive prowess; they fascinate us with their strikingly-rendered characters of heroes and villains alike; and – as Wilder’s film is keen to point out – they entertain us with their baroque displays of mystery, horror, and deception in a world that is just ever so slightly off-center. There is a reason, I think, that the stories are often referred to as “The Sherlock Holmes Adventures” because they resonate so strongly as adventure yarns above all else.
The enduring pleasures of returning time and time again to 221b Baker Street are preserved in amber in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; a film with a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of its source material than even some of the more slavish adaptations thereof. I cannot recommend the film highly enough as both a late-day masterpiece from one of the most revered names in Hollywood history, but as one of the handful of great versions of Sherlock Holmes to ever reach the screen.