The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Directed by Billy Wilder

I think I was a bit misled by some of the things I had read about this movie. I don’t recall where I found them, but I had the impression The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was considered a forgotten gem from the famed old school director Billy Wilder. It’s not.

In a nutshell, this movie is a good example of an interesting idea that flopped. Actually, while sort of interesting, the idea itself had the seeds of the flop within it.

Initially conceived symphonically (in the structure sense), it was to have a prologue and four movements, or separate but vaguely related parts. (The key phrase is “vaguely related.”) This plan however, if executed, would have produced an extremely long film. (Apparently at the time this sort of film, referred to as a “roadshow” picture, was popular – at least among studios and directors. At the box office, not so popular.)

As it turned out, it was soon seen that this idea wasn’t working. The film was too long, for one thing. So cinematic triage was initiated and the film became truncated. The prologue vanished, as did two of the movements (or acts). We’re told director Billy Wilder saw the film wasn’t working and lost interest (which seems odd given the amount of time spent on developing the idea – four to ten years depending on whom you’re reading.)

But all that’s neither here nor there. We have a film called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and all the history really provides us is a clue as to why the finished work, what we have today, doesn’t work.

It’s trying to do too many things and be too many things all at once. It doesn’t decide on what it’s about and so it has, at best, a fuzzy focus.

I think the initial idea was to humanize Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) by using some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles references from the Holmes-Watson stories. But these qualities are seen and improvised on in disparate sections (those movements). So they never cohere into a story that feels complete. Rather, there is an episodic sense to the finished film (and I suspect, to the original script).

There is also a problem of tone. Is this a comedy? Or is this a romance? It’s not that comedy and romance can’t be in the same film; the romantic comedy is a Hollywood staple. But the comedy and romance are kept separate, each within those disparate parts and they seldom if ever unite. Also, perhaps because there is no unity, neither develops into anything either separatley or together.

The comedy here is a hit and miss affair. There are amusing moments but, since Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) is one of the key comedic elements and in a slapstick style, within the context of a Holmes movie he becomes simply annoying by his unfathomable stupidity. Would a man of Holmes supposed brilliance really have that close a relationship with someone that loud and dull-witted? To work with the Holmes character, Watson’s ignorance needs to be played more subtly and his other, more human qualities (like gentleness and kindness) need to be played up more to contrast against Holmes’ traditional coldness.

With the romance, we get a story that never convinces because it doesn’t develop. If nothing else, the romance doesn’t get enough screen time. So when the movie’s ending comes, it is hard to buy into its emotion because we have yet to be persuaded Holmes’ feelings for Ilse (Geneviève Page) are very deep.

With a character of Holmes’ reserve, you need a little something more to make it credible.

The tones and stories also need to intermingle and intercut better too. As they are, they arrive in chunks with little reference between them. While efforts are made in the first part of the film to establish a theme and storyline that sounds throughout the film, they don’t come across well. Given the symphonic metaphor, the themes don’t recur sufficiently to make the whole seem like a whole.

This is often the problem with something built on an episodic design. There is a lack of coherence, a missing sense that it all holds together.

While there a very good moments in the film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feels incomplete and is something of a let-down. For a much better Wilder movie of roughly the same period, go with Avanti!

As for the DVD … On the whole, it’s not a particularly good film visually. It often appears soft and there are some darker scenes that come across very poorly – washed out and faded.

© 2003 Piddleville Inc.

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