One of Hollywood’s most glorious careers began a steady downward slide with this intelligent but overwrought riff on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved fictional detective. Billy Wilder, who directed and produced the film in addition to co-writing the script (with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond), was probably the wrong person to make a Holmes movie, simply because Wilder’s career was filled with so many brilliantly original stories and witty adaptations. In other words, making a new iteration of a familiar character was beneath his talents. Further confounding expectations is the misleading title, since The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is more of a mystery than a character piece. (The 1976 Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution dug far deeper into the detective’s psychological makeup.) Another caveat regarding The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is that the movie is far too long given its trifling narrative. Released at 125 minutes but originally envisioned as being even longer, the picture represents a tendency toward cinematic bloat that troubled Wilder throughout the last decade, give or take, of his career.
Taking these disclaimers into consideration, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is perhaps best characterized as frustrating but rewarding for viewers who are willing to accept narrative detours.
The clever story begins with a long preamble about Holmes’ amusing meeting with a Russian ballerina, which leads to an elaborate mistaken-sexuality joke at the expense of Holmes’ best friend, Dr. Watson. Wilder stages these farcical scenes beautifully, and the prologue introduces viewers to the enchanting world of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of Christopher Challis’ painterly cinematography and Miklós Rósca’s resplendent music. Nonetheless, the whole sequence is superfluous. After the prologue, Wilder unveils his main story, a larky caper involving a beautiful Belgian amnesiac; ancient Scottish castles; nefarious monks; clandestine operations of the British government; Holmes’ secret-agent brother, Mycroft; and, after a fashion, the Loch Ness Monster. Had Wilder simply filmed this surprising story, without the prologue, and given the piece a less ponderous title, the public reception of this movie might have been much different. (Changed, too, might have been the studio’s attitude toward the project, since MGM reportedly ordered the removal of large sections from Wilder’s first cut.)
Yet another problematic aspect of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the casting. To be clear, British stage actor Robert Stephens does a fine job as Holmes, filling his characterization with erudite bitchiness that feels like a logical extension of Basil Rathbone’s classic take on the role. Similarly, Colin Blakely is wonderful as Watson, dependable in a pinch but flummoxed by Holmes’ wilder schemes and occasionally, for comic relief, prone to buffoonery. Furthermore, French actress Geneviève Page’s beauty and poise define her character as a formidable companion for Holmes, which pays off nicely at the end of the movie, and it’s a kick to see horror star Christopher Lee in one of his straightest roles, as Mycroft. Clearly, Wilder cast without taking the U.S. box office into consideration. (American ticketbuyers responded in kind, avoiding the film in droves.) Viewed as a career move, Wilder’s choice to eschew Hollywood stars was reckless, but viewed from the perspective of cinematic artistry, it was prudent—especially given the dexterity with which Wilder’s actors tackle his wonderfully intricate dialogue.
In sum, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not for everyone, but it’s an interesting museum piece that overflows with sophistication on many levels.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: GROOVY