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So there’ll be a little gossip about you… in St Petersburg.


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes


Billy Wilder’s Holmes send-up is often attributed the status of a mutilated masterpiece that would be held aloft as an unalloyed classic, were it only possible to lay hands upon those missing scenes. The truth is rather less enticing, I feel. Rather, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, as the title suggests, plunders the most obvious and unrewarding area of Baker Street tattle, the kind of fascination with its subject nursed by baser creatures seeking to besmirch classic figures (see nu-Who and, obviously the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss iteration Sherlock). To that extent, torrid latter-day explorations, seeking to puncture a, by design, elusive and unknowable veil, are nothing new. They’ve simply snowballed, with industrial shippers poring over any mutually chaste relationship – Mulder and Scully, Kirk and Spock – while programme makers, if they can’t actually have their hero/heroine bump uglies, will make damn sure they’re mooned over (the Doctor and Wose etc)

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is like a single-frame New Yorker cartoon stretched to feature length. Which is the problem. Wilder dangles the idea “What I plan is a serious study of Holmes. Here is a most riveting character. A dope addict. A misogynist. Yet in all the previous movies made about him, nobody has ever tried to explain why”. And you thought slavish and redundant attention to backstory and defecating on mystery were the provenance of recent Hollywood creative bankruptcy? Think again. 

Even that said, this could have been a worthwhile movie, had it not simply devolved into the flippancy of insinuation. Had it treated the idea with something more approaching the loving pastiche of Nicolas Meyer. Holmes is secretly gay? Fine. The least-nuanced and most-expected reading, but fine. Lend him a bit of psychology, though, rather than the flaccid flouncing Stephens – a great actor – has been forced into by the demanding Wilder. Alternatively, if you’re going in the comedy direction, make it funny; what we get in the early section is some protracted mugging as Colin Blakely (also very good, and a highly energetic dancer) delivers a Watson outraged that his friend should insinuate to the Russians that they are having a passionate affair. 

Wilder “wanted to make Holmes a homosexual… but unfortunately Adrian Conan Doyle wouldn’t allow it”, and “That’s why he’s on dope, you know”. Which is curious, as anyone watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and concluding Holmes is straight would be hopelessly self-deluding, strafed with such evidence as Stephens’ performance and repeated allusions. It’s suggested the much-vaunted deleted scenes would have clarified the non-gay Holmes’ reasons for reticence of the fairer sex, but Wilder is essentially doing an extended gay-play spoof without much payoff (he said of the tone that it “is not a comedy and it’s not serious”, and he’s right; it’s neither, as if that could possibly be a recommendation). He also said, though, that the four plots as envisaged would cover drama, comedy, farce and romance. None of those are present in a tangibly successful capacity.

This collapse between stools is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in every department. It fails to engage as a character study. It fails to engage as a “romance”; we’re supposed to believe Holmes has some degree of affection for Geneviève Page’s Gabrielle, but there’s nary a glimmer of why Holmes should be affected by her, à la Irene Adler, such that he would take up the syringe again on learning of her demise. There is no allure, no chemistry. The mystery side is feeble at best, non-existent at worse; this is a detective who seems to do very little detecting (we can work the clues out, and Mycroft delivers all the exposition). That might be fine, were this a comedy, but Wilder has already denied any such intention.

There’s also a colloquial carelessness to the dialogue that reeks of a modern writer(s). It thus relies on the performers to “class it up”, and while Stephens and Blakely are both more than capable, they’re suffocated by the requirements of their director. Consequently, period flavour, despite meticulous production design from Alexander Trauner, is sorely lacking. 

Indeed, watching it again, I was unconvinced Wilder, despite voicing his passion for the detective, is a good fit for this kind of movie: you know, actual cinematic fare. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes never looks interesting or distinctive, for a film with such painstaking attention to detail and expense unspared. This is echoed by cinematographer Christopher Challis – who knew a thing or two and worked with Michael Powell on a number of occasions – who said “I don’t think [he] is a visual director”, recalling Wilder’s “inability to imagine how things would actually look”. Challis added, of the setting, “I don’t think he was strong on period films. I don’t think he liked them terribly. His was essentially a sort of New York Jewish sense of humour really, and I don’t think it really fitted with that subject”.

Costume designer Julie Harris agreed that Wilder had “no real sense of period… No visual concept”. The result is a degree of charmlessness all round. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has no zip or energy, aside from a pissed Watson dancing with ballerinas, and it is neither very funny, nor very poignant. Nor very probing, when it comes down to it. It certainly isn’t clever (in plotting) witty (in dialogue) or atmospheric (in execution). The addiction side is tired and overplayed (and had pretty much been exhausted as an “untapped” avenue in movies by the end of the decade). Wilder called it “more The Odd Couple than Conan Doyle”, but since he doesn’t allow his leads to play recognisable versions of the characters, even that conceit falls rather flat. Of the actors, Stephens loathed Wilder’s obsession with perfection. Christopher Lee, in contrast, loved working with him. While he always said seemed to say that of any name director, it may be true in this instance; he appears sans hairpiece as brother Mycroft (he said he wore bald makeup, and there’s much debate on this point, but it’s a most convincing bald patch, if so).

Had the picture mustered the rush of adventure or intrigue to accompany its lame central conceit, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been more successful, but as it is, the plotlines rather flounder on a lack of… less idea than construction. This clearly isn’t the forte of Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond. Infamously, the picture lost two of its four main stories, The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners. While the first features an arresting visual idea (so doubtless less effective expressed through Wilder’s pedestrian realisation), it turns out to be Watson’s ruse to keep Holmes off the toot. The latter finds Watson requesting a go at investigation duties and bungling it. So the picture is expressly designed to undermine the very essence of why Holmes – and an accompanying entire imitation-sleuth subgenre – became so popular. 

I rather like several of the allusions here, though, even if they undermine Conan Doyle’s abiding fascination with the occult. Holmes, confronting brother Mycroft, references the cover stories of the Diogenes Club in its various missions for the British Empire. These include tracing the source of the Nile and popping up in the Himalayas “allegedly looking for the abominable snowman”. This is also true of the final case, following The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina and known as The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective (also called The Case of the Missing Husband), on account of it requiring Mycroft to spill the full beans. 

Holmes is able to deduce that the Club’s submarine, masquerading as the Loch Ness Monster and manned by circus midgets (or little people, or dwarves, depending on which you find least pejorative), previously encountered an accident that poisoned some of the crew. Wilder can’t even make the monster’s reveal dramatic (or comedic, for that matter). It just sits there. But it’s a neat enough idea, in a Scooby Doo kind of way. Wilder also highlights the Elite ties of Anunnaki Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) when it comes to Kaiser Wilhelm’s threat from gas bombs dropped by dirigibles (“Nonsense, we refuse to believe that our grandson Willi would do a thing like that”). The part he doesn’t get, again, invoking Adler, is that Gabrielle is a top German spy (and there’s nothing in Page’s performance to suggest layers, depths, anything).

Wilder had been considering a Holmes project since 1955 and had a musical in mind for a long spell (with Peters O’Toole and Sellers for Holmes and Watson). When he finished shooting the picture, it came in at over 200 minutes. Wilder honed it to 165 minutes, as promised, but United Artists insisted on further cuts and Wilder left it to editor Ernest Walter. Diamond and composer Rozsa couldn’t understand his decision to relinquish final cut; The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners went, the prologue was considerably shortened, and the flashback to Holmes’ younger days was removed. Wilder didn’t like to be reminded of the experience, let alone attempt to put it all back together (it seems The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room is destined to remain missing).

However, the picture, a resounding bomb on release, has since undergone a significant rehabilitation. It’s one I can’t really understand. It isn’t actually bad, or anything so dramatic, but it fails to hit any of the marks outlined above. As Pauline Kael said, “it doesn’t have enough bounce, and it isn’t really very interesting, but it would be quite pleasant if it didn’t dawdle on for over two hours”. Time Out’s Geoff Andrew attested to it as “A wonderfully crafted, underrated film”. Others (David Stuart Davies in starring Sherlock Holmes) criticised Stephens take, “an almost effeminate version of the character, with languid movements, a nasal drawl and wavy hair”; Alan Barnes labelled this Holmes a “whey-faced malcontent labouring under some unspecified melancholia. Fey and theatrical…” Albeit, on learning of Gabrielle’s demise “his mournful Holmes is a triumph”.  Hmmm, really? But there’s a point here; the excess of Stephens’ performance ultimately works against Wilder’s desire to shine a light on someone who is repressed, or supressed. He’s out on the surface and proud and not protesting too much, methinks.

Gatiss loved it – unsurprisingly, as you can see much of the concept seeping into Sherlock, all for the ill; “It was a template of sorts for Stephen Moffat and me” – and asserted “It’s a fantastically melancholy film. The relationship between Sherlock and Watson is treated beautifully; Sherlock effectively falls in love with him in the film, but it’s so desperately unspoken”. I mean, he does? I was able to discern no longing for Colin, however determinedly I scrutinised the proceedings. He considers the “Am I being presumptuous…” scene “Sensational”, which it is. If your qualitative yardstick is Mark’s work for the screen. Kim Newman seems to agree with him, though, prostrating himself before it as “the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made”. I rather favour Gene Siskel’s withering take that “Wilder had enough of an idea for a television variety show skit but unfortunately saw fit to expand it into a movie”.

I’m sounding wholly dismissive. I don’t think The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a stinker; it just isn’t at all great. Barring Irene Handl. She is great, of course. Bald Chris is good. But for all Wilder’s demands for precision, the picture feels woolly and formless, off-piste in its interrogation of its character(s) and lacklustre in its storytelling. An all-timer Robert McGinnis poster, though.

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