Forgotten Films: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

To my heirs:

In my lifetime, I have recorded some sixty cases demonstrating the singular gift of my friend Sherlock Holmes — dealing with everything from The Hound of the Baskervilles to his mysterious brother Mycroft and the devilish Professor Moriarty. But there were other adventures which, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date. They involve matters of a delicate and sometimes scandalous nature, as will shortly become apparent.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle’s perennial deductive literary creation is making a big-screen comeback, I thought it high time to dip into the dusty tincture of other celluloid Holmes and examine an artifact from another era. Of course, I speak of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his truncated 1970 Road Show glimpse into the man, the myth and the pipe. Wilder and favored screenwriter I.A.L Diamond envisioned the film as a three hour epic, with four separate episodes connected by a larger story. Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers were set to star but the whims of fate led Wilder to settling for little-known actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, who he thought would be more vulnerable than well-known stars.

This brave but suicidal box-office decision led to the film receiving far less attention than it should have, and the real death-blow came with United Artist’s decision to reduce the three-hour Road Show with intermission down to two-hours, mucking up the intricate screenplay and Wilder’s intent to create a “symphony in four movements.” Originally, there were to be four stories showing Holmes and Watson in various deductive modes, from comedy to melancholy, but the original prologue and two of the tales were trimmed — and sadly lost — forever. We can still read the complete screenplay to see how it would have played, and one is unsure whether the addition of “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” or “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” would have given the film more depth, but it likely would have given the characters resonance and completed the symphony.

Although I’ve yet to read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed series, I’ve always liked the Holmes mythology for its British eccentricities, such as his devotion to a seven-percent solution of cocaine. This is the first time the movies would deal with his addiction, and does so in a low-key humorous manner. Wilder and Diamond play with sub-textual aspects of his life and adventures, specifically why he mistrusts women so (we find out in one of the excised flashbacks to his college days) and the exact nature of his relationship with Watson. This leads to film’s most risque, amusing segment, wherein the deductive duo attend a Russian ballet and to get out of fathering a Countess’s child, Holmes admits that Watson is more than just his partner in crime. Especially funny is Watson dancing with a chorus of beautiful ballerinas only to be replaced one by one with painted male dancers. To Wilder and Diamond’s credit, the gay humor here is subtle and witty, and there’s no attempt to demean the characters with this “false” revelation. In fact, the episode ends on an amazing hint that Holmes might in fact not be what he seems.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is also Billy Wilder’s most expensive (10 million dollars) and opulent film, with exquisite widescreen photography by Christopher Challis and a beautiful Miklos Roza score. Though there are few “stars” on display, Christopher Lee is a delight as Mycroft, Holmes’ smarter brother, and Lee counts this as a turning point in his genre-straddled career. There’s even an appearance by the Loch Ness Monster. Robert Stephens is a wonderful actor, though due to personal stress and strain, he was unwell during filming and sometimes it shows in his pale countenance and shaky hands. Colin Blakely is a lively Watson, yet he often seems like a stand-in for Jack Lemmon. They all know how to deliver the screenplay’s urbane dialogue, which is one of the real joys of the film. If you read the screenplay, you’ll see that it’s all there on the page, and Diamond was unwavering in the idea that no word could be changed or improvised during filming. If the actors veered from the script, he was actually allowed to say, “Cut.” Writers.

Though it was seen as old-fashioned upon release (not hardly except in directorial style and presentation), THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES reputation has grown over time, and remains one of my favorite Billy Wilder films and likely the definitive cinematic version of the Holmes mythos. It’s elegiac, melancholy, and as Kevin Jack Hagopian from the Media Studies at Penn State accurately stated, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is “…a valentine with a syringe in its hand.” Anything but elementary.

20 Responses to “Forgotten Films: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)”

  1. Thanks for this, I had no idea that the movie we got is much shorter than originally intended. Fascinating post.

  2. thank you for this, xian. one of favorite movies ever. i m a huge holmes fan, and this one may be the most faithful in spirit. i know this can sound heretic to some die hard canon guardians, but the essence of holmes perspired in every frame – even his soloist performances are THE sound of holmes in my mind and guts. the rozsa score is a perfect beauty and the plot is a pure steampunk affaire – much more detailed than the seven per cent solution, much too swashbuckling imho. the movie is funny, sad and harrowing, and some of its mysteries are still the best around (the canaries in the dark room). i wish i could see the whole symphony. interestingly, there is this very old book, which has nothing to do with the movie, but does delve deeper in the issues wilder brought forward… aaah so much to say….

    now, a post on without a clue would be welcome (yes, the one with michael caine ^^)

    • I assumed you for a Holmes fan. I will star reading in order this week the series.

      And you nailed it, if this isn’t the first “steampunk” film than I don’t know what is. Well, maybe 20000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA…

      Still haven’t seen WITHOUT A CLUE yet….what do you think about this new action man version of the character?

      • time after time came like in 74… 20.000 leagues under is the first in our hearts but i m pretty sure we can find some others steampunk pearls… the time machine with rod taylor ?

        didn’t have a chance to see the holmes yet. openingh in february here… maybe i ll be able to grab a screener before it’s too late and i have to pay for a sad turd….

        if you start reading the canon, don’t bother reading it in order. sometimes, the timeline can get pretty messy. besides the watson love stories and the holmes / moriarty gang stuff, you can do pretty much what you want. start with the beginning, though, study in scarlet / sign of four…. there is a pretty good anthology with the original pidgett drawings available… with strand fac simile… you ll love every single moments of it…

  3. Anguilla sounds like a nice place.

    • christian Says:

      Doesn’t it though?

      • Great web site. Lots of helpful inmrtfaoion here. I’m sending it to some buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you for your effort!

      • As far as unconstitutinality goes I don’t believe the political parties do a great job upholding it. However, the court – which is the final authority rather than you and I or the parties we currently support — has decided that the ACA is consititutional and Jindal has refused to comply. Can you find five specific examples where the court has overturned a policy of Obama’s?To say something is unconstitutional requires more than just you and I thinking it is.

  4. finally got to see the new HOLMES. against all odds, it was pretty fun ! downey and law are down right perfect for the roles. their banters, singing and relationship are perfectly written. dialogs are witty, funny, referenced. no self indulgence here. making a badass holmes was a very dangerous idea, but the science of deduction applied to close combat fighting (understand systema) is just perfect. the script was so so, obvious but nicely executed. great zimmer score (!!!). direction, shaky but sometimes inspired. too bad the final fight sucks.

    • christian Says:

      Wow. I guess from a Holmes fan that’s high praise. The film looks more like WILD WILD WEST but I’m willing to give Downey and Lude a shot.

  5. i may be partial because i love downey jr ;)

  6. This was a truly brilliant film, and could have been so much more had it not been derailed by shortening it. It still stands the test of time as a true masterpiece.

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