Synopsis: The “acting, photography and score are tops” (Leonard Maltin) in this lively satirical homage from seven-time Academy Award winner Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard) and his long-time writing partner I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment).
When a beautiful woman claims that her dear husband has disappeared, the investigation takes Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) to Scotland, where – to their surprise – they uncover a plot involving a clandestine society, Her Majesty’s Secret Service… and the Loch Ness Monster! But before he can deduce matters to the elementary. Holmes makes an error that may jeopardize the national safety of Britain… and ruin his reputation!
I can’t say that I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes. While I like the basic idea behind the character, I’ve actually never really been drawn to Conan Doyle’s stories or any fiction based on them. And whenever I’ve watched a movie, read a story or played a game based on the legendary sleuth, I was invariably disappointed with the overall experience.
But, I have been slightly curious of late, what with the resurgence of Holmes in the mainstream – which is due in large part to the successful Guy Ritchie films and an incredibly popular BBC series. So I’ve picked up a few things here and there, figuring that I would eventually find out what the whole fuss was about.
Since Billy Wilder made ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’ and I was on a Wilder trip, I decided that now was as good a time as any to finally tackle all these Sherlock Holmes-related films and television programmes that are gathering dust on my shelves. And, who know, this may very well inspire me to move on to my Agatha Christie ones afterwards. Or not. À voir.
While I didn”t really know of the existence of this particular film until I scouted the Billy Wilder boxed set, going in I already knew that this would be a very different Sherlock Holmes film: with a title such as this one (his private life? really? ), being familiar with Wilder’s affinities, and having read that this was considered a terrific take on the character, I had an ambiguous but positive first impression.
What I did not know going in, however, and only found out later, is that almost two hours of footage is missing from the final product. ‘TPLOSH’ was originally intended as a 4-part story with an intermission in the middle, in the old-school road show tradition. It was meant to be an event, but the studio balked at the notion even after greenlighting, financing and filming it. In the end, Wilder had to trim it down to just a little over two hours.
Unfortunately, most of the original footage has since gone missing. While the DVD features what little that has thus far been found, and attempts to reconstruct full sequences with the aid of the screenplay, still pictures and source music, most of is M.I.A. – which is truly unfortunate, because there are some very intriguing set pieces proposed for the original, full-length version of the film.
As it stands it’s still very good, and one can’t actually tell that anything has been excised – if one were unaware of the picture’s history, it could easily be appreciated as is. Having said this, perhaps its minor pacing issues would be addressed if these scenes were integrated. I hope we will someday find out; maybe, one day, this will be restored and the film will be returned to Wilder (and co-writer Diamond)’s original vision.
Still, this light-hearted take on Holmes was most enjoyable. I especially liked the first part, which was all behind the scenes, peering into Holmes’ home life. When he and Watson got wrapped up in a mystery/adventure, one that was barely more engrossing than a Scooby-Doo episode, I lost interest. It was still a decent film, actually, if only due to the writing, but it wasn’t nearly interesting to me.
Wilder opened the film in just the right way, with a post-mortem letter from Dr. Watson being read over the reveal of a number of Holmes’ paraphernalia and mementos (presumably these items are all references in the various books, but, since I haven’t read them, I can’t confirm this). Most of the books were narrated by Watson, so this opening makes total complete sense.
*Minor spoiler alert*
*Minor spoiler alert*
I like that ‘TPLOSH’ makes Holmes a more grounded, imperfect human being. Perhaps this is typical of the books but, in pop culture, he’s often portrayed as the perfect detective, and that’s about it. I also liked that the film flirts with reality by suggesting that Watson is the one who wrote all of Holmes’ adventures, embellishing them along the way – suggesting that Holmes is real and has been weighed down with everyone’s overblown expectations of him.
The two leads were good, but not exceptional. In fact, they made of the pair a slightly humdrum duo – perhaps realistic, grounded, but hardly cinematic. Let’s just say that this version of Holmes would hardly be iconic. Even Holmes’ screen entrance lacked punch; I half-expected the standard foot stepping out of a horse carriage bit, some shadows, …etc. Nope: he walked into the house casually, from the back. Mind you, this was not the original opening, so this was not Wilder’s intention.
Similarly, Christopher Lee is his usual solid self, but he’s not nearly as magnetic as he typically is, scene-stealer that he tends to be. On the flip side, he immersed himself in the character to such a degree that I didn’t even recognize him; only the credits revealed his presence to me. I actually had to look again to confirm that it was indeed Lee in the role of Mycroft Holmes.
Unsurprisingly, having not read the books, I didn’t even know that Holmes had a brother. I’ve since discovered that Sherlock is the intellectual weak link of the two. It’s astonishing to imagine that someone might have a superior mind to Holmes, and that he is actually looked down upon by Mycroft, who condescendingly mocks his abilities. Incredible.
Another thing I discovered is that Holmes is a cocaine user. All I remembered were the needles, so I always thought that he took heroin. Anyway, at first this led me to believe that the filmmakers had substituted the drug for some reason, until I read that he did indeed inject cocaine and also dabbled in morphine. But not heroin. Strange thing, injecting cocaine…
So I learned quite a few things in watching this film, both about Sherlock Holmes and about the film itself. And that was a nice touch. ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’ is already enjoyable enough as it is, but having something else to sink one’s teeth into is always nice when watching movies – even if it only as entertainment, not as anything deep.
And, as an opening salvo, a first adventure, in my Sherlock Holmes fiesta of the coming weeks, I think it really did the trick; it started it on the right foot. I’m truly looking forward to seeing the many interpretations of Holmes, good and bad, that are coming next.