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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

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A throwaway plot hides a witty deconstruction of the legendary detective.

Image of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Billy Wilder/ USA/ 1970/ 121 mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 22 Jan 2018

Largely forgotten among the many glittering jewels of Billy Wilder’s work, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a revisionist depiction of Conan Doyle’s famous detective that we haven’t seen before or since.  It could be considered a pastiche, even a deconstruction of the character, while being a more than passable romp on its own terms.

Originally conceived and filmed as a three-hour epic that would take in four tales considered too shocking to be published by Watson (Colin Blakely), Holmes’ faithful amanuensis, a full hour was summarily excised, leaving a somewhat lopsided brace of tales.  The first sees Holmes feigning homosexuality to escape the wiles of a ballerina who wants to hire him to stud a baby genius; much to Watson’s blustering outrage as Holmes names him as his long-time romantic partner.  The meat of the film comes with the second tale that sees a delirious woman (Geneviève Page) fished from the Thames.  This leads to a castle in Scotland in a search for her husband, taking in a missing troupe of dwarf acrobats, sinister Trappist monks, Queen Victoria, and an alleged sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.

This isn’t the most complex of Holmes’ tales, but deserves a wider audience than it’s previously enjoyed.  Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond present Sherlock as a more Byronic figure than normal, prone to boredom-induced cocaine binges that Watson suppresses in print.  Robert Stephens is most enjoyable in the role, with a hint of the melancholy that Jeremy Brett would bring in his celebrated portrayal, but with the flamboyant soul of a romantic poet.  The story is mostly throwaway, so the real joy is seeing the Holmes behind Watson’s mythologizing.  He wears the deerstalker purely because its expected, he’s shorter in real life, and he doesn’t always get it right; not that Watson would ever allow those tales to surface.  The use of the Loch Ness Monster further emphasises the thematic concerns of the film, even if it tips towards silliness.

It’s unlikely that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is ever going to be considered in the same company as the likes of Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, or The Apartment, among many other inarguable classics, but is still evidence of a filmmaker well in control of his powers at the guttering wick of his career.  There’s a certain pleasing sense of elegy amidst the fun, and a great, imposing and pompous turn from Christopher Lee as Mycroft Holmes means he’s the only actor to have played both brothers.