Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Based on Characters by: Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Christopher Lee
Country: UK, USA
Running Time: 125 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I am by no means well-versed in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve seen the first Guy Ritchie film, read an abridged version of ‘Hounds of the Baskervilles’ when I was a child and literally a couple of short stories more recently. I’ve not even seen the popular TV ‘re-imagining’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch. However, I like the character and the general concept of the stories, even if I’ve barely acted on this attraction. So I was interested in watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s take on the hugely popular detective, even if I’m probably not the best person to deliver a thoughtful criticism on the film.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opens long after Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Watson (Colin Blakely) have passed on, but Watson’s private diaries are opened up for the first time, revealing a handful of cases deemed unsuitable for publication. Two of these make up the rest of the film. The first is a short romp in which Holmes is approached by a Russian ballerina named Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who wants him to father her child in exchange for a priceless violin. To escape this awkward situation, Holmes tells her and her manager that he is in fact in a secret relationship with Watson so isn’t interested. Although the film hints that Holmes may in fact be a homosexual, Watson certainly isn’t, and he is not impressed by the new rumours that appear.
In the second story, which makes up the bulk of the film, a Belgian woman, Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page), is fished out of the River Thames and asks to be brought to see Sherlock Holmes. She has a case of amnesia, but eventually comes out of it and begs the detective and his assistant to find her missing husband. This search brings the trio to Scotland, entangled in a strange case involving Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness Monster!
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was a commercial and critical flop on its original release. Perhaps due to the title and writers/director involved, people expected a bawdy spoof of the Sherlock Holmes formula. The film, however, is more of an affectionate homage coming from a fan of the source material, which is funny and only a little more quirky and risque than the original novels and short stories, but never an all out parody. Audiences and most critics at the time didn’t know what to make of this unusual tone, but, over time, love for the film has grown and it’s thought of as a bit of a forgotten classic, both in terms of Wilder’s work and in Holmes interpretations. Personally I felt the tone was spot on, as it’s off-beat enough to be a lot of fun, but honours Conan Doyle’s material enough to feel part and parcel of the Holmes universe. It certainly felt more in line with the author’s vision than Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline-fuelled twists on the formula which were enjoyable enough but must have sent Doyle spinning in his grave. Some of the directions the story takes here and people/things that pop up get a little daft at times, but never enough to taint the classic ‘feel’ for the characters.
The ‘private’ side of Wilder’s version of the characters has maybe dated a little now though. The suggestion that Holmes was a drug addict is fairly common knowledge to fans of the stories and less controversial than it may have been back then. The same goes for the allusions to Holmes’ sexuality which are used for a gag at first, but are a little more sensitively handled as the film goes on.
Wilder’s love of Doyle’s work shows in the care taken to bring it to life on screen. The production design is wonderfully lavish, detailed and, when matched with some classy cinematography, looks sumptuous. It’s probably the most beautiful film I’ve seen from the director.
The casting is spot on too. Neither Stephens or Blakely could be called household names, but they prove their worth and do a fine job of bringing the classic characters of Holmes and Watson to life. Christopher Lee is also excellent, as is to be expected, in his fairly small but important role, and Geneviève Page proves to be more than a mere damsel in distress.
The film is quite leisurely paced, but never dull. It was originally meant to contain another couple of cases and a lengthy flashback sequence, which would have drawn the running time out considerably – possibly too far. What we have in the end though is a pitch-perfect blend of light parody and tribute. It’s not as subversive or raunchy as the title suggests, but instead is an affectionate post-modern spin on the classic characters, decades before the Beeb re-invented the Holmes universe and Guy Ritchie turned it into a testosterone-drenched action movie.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is out on 22nd January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture looks reasonable, although light dust/dirt can be seen and a couple of shots are a little faded.
There are plenty of extra features included too. Here’s the list:
– A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
- The Missing Cases (50 mins): A presentation of the films deleted sequences, using script excerpts, production stills and surviving film footage. Includes the film’s Original Prologue, The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room, The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners
- Deleted Epilogue Scene (audio only)
- Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder – an archival interview with Christopher Lee about his experience working with Billy Wilder
- Interview with editor Ernest Walter
- Original theatrical trailer
- PLUS: A collectors booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp; the words of Billy Wilder; and rare archival imagery
It’s a fine selection of supplemental material. The interviews are all fascinating and it’s great to be able to see what was left out of the film, even if the deleted material is only available in a mish-mash of formats.