(0018X) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The Private Life of Sherlock HolmesNovember 1, 1970 | 1 week at #1

Seen by Martin before? No

What did I expect? A conventional, possibly substandard Sherlock Holmes adventure.

What did I get? I didn’t like it too much, but it’s a difficult movie to assess. The involvement of Billy Wilder raises expectations, and it should be said that the movie is intelligent but not very resonant. According to AllRovi.com, this must be regarded as a tampered, incomplete version, one that was initially intended to be three hours long (!). The strangest aspect, however, is the “private life” mentioned in the title. Admirers of the movie appear to think that the movie succeeded in showing a new side of Sherlock Holmes. I think the idea fails — and in fact was a bad idea in the first place.

The movie is structured strangely, which is probably a remnant of its “mangled” history. There’s a mini-story that takes up the first act, maybe 20 minutes, involving a famous Russian ballerina who wants Holmes to conceive a baby with her, which baby will presumably inherit the ideal genetic cocktail. Holmes extricates himself from that, and then the main plot begins, which starts with an amnesiac Belgian woman and takes Watson and Holmes to Scotland and the Loch Ness Monster and a few other things besides. As I say, it makes more sense for a story claiming to distance itself from “mere” sleuthery — for what else does this “private life” imply? — to have several mini-stories. Instead, there’s just one. Something feels incomplete here — probably excised.

Holmes pointedly complains to Watson that his accounts of their cases have exaggerated Holmes’ skills and eccentricities, and the movie is clearly an attempt to present Holmes as an exceptionally brilliant but not otherworldly — in other words, “ordinary” — Victorian gentleman of means. Stephens ably plays Holmes as a sensitive chap, and Blakely does a nice, emphatic job as a Watson who is less of a fool than he sometimes is.

Getting back to my initial claim: that the project to “humanize” Sherlock is misguided. Exaggerating to make the point, it’s a bit like asking Rembrandt to do his version of Dilbert — it may be “great,” objectively speaking, but it’s not like Dilbert will exactly be improved in the process. See, ideally a look at the private life of Holmes would involve no case whatsoever; the premise would be that his “inner life” would be interesting enough not to require mere cases. But there really is nothing to Holmes aside from his cases; that’s what he consists of, he exists to solve cases. If you put that “nuanced, brooding” Holmes in a typical Holmesian plot, what you find is that it takes extraordinary effort to get the audience to pay attention to anything other than that plot.

Wilder wasn’t an idiot, so he tried to combine this more sensitive Holmes with a familiarly Holmesian plot. The outcome is a rather typical Holmes story with a consciously slacker pace in which Holmes experiences some poignant moments and exhibits hardly any derring-do or, to be honest, any great feats of ratiocination. In any case it struck me as rather devoid of interest, considering. It’s a pretty good and slightly misshapen Holmes movie. That’s it.

What here smacks of 1970? More depth to a familiar icon, plus references to homosexuality and cocaine use.

IMDB score: 7.3

My score: 6

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond

Starring: Robert Stephens, Geneviève Page, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee

IMDB synopsis: When a bored Holmes eagerly takes the case of Gabrielle Valladon after an attempt on her life, the search for her missing husband leads to Loch Ness and the legendary monster.

Get it at Amazon!


2 thoughts on “(0018X) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Toby says:

    Given the apparent incompleteness of this work, do we see a three-disk Criterion treatment? With the right cover, Criterion can sell anything, even this…

  2. Next thing, you’ll be telling me that Criterion can put a classy face on even the likes of Michael Bay! Oh wait….

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