cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, and Tamara Toumonova
director: Billy Wilder
120 minutes (PG) 1970
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
MGM DVD Region 2 retail
review by J.C. Hartley
The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes
Billy Wilder was responsible, as writer director and producer, for some of the greatest films to come out of Hollywood. He had an incredible range, from the classic film noir of Double Indemnity, the social drama of The Lost Weekend, a bitingly contemporary examination of the power of the press in Ace In The Hole, a great war picture Stalag 17, films about Hollywood like Sunset Boulevard and Fedora, everyone’s favourite comedy Some Like It Hot, and even underrated flicks like Kiss Me, Stupid were ahead of their time in their dark comedy and analysis of modern morality.
Wilder used to tell a story of having to be interviewed for a directing job late in his career, when the work wasn’t so regular, a young executive asked him to list his achievements in Hollywood, Wilder said “You first!” Wilder’s later work isn’t as sharp as the early stuff but there is still plenty to enjoy. The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes is one of those late Wilder pieces, coming four years after his previous film The Fortune Cookie and two years before his next, Avanti! Although slight, it has two fine central performances, and at least one excellent joke.
The film was heavily cut upon its original release and there are rumours of versions in various stages of completeness, although MGM insist that all subsidiary footage has been lost. The film has a single central plot and some subsidiary storylines designed to highlight certain facets of the character of Sherlock Holmes. Essentially, Dr Watson muses upon his friend Holmes’ attitude to women, is the latter the soulless automaton he appears to be? With the great success of Guy Ritchie’s modern take on the story of Sherlock Holmes it seems appropriate to look at a classic director’s version. Perhaps eventually I could persuade myself to review all my favourite Holmes’ movies, from Basil Rathbone up to Guy Ritchie’s promised Holmes sequel.
An introductory scene purports to show the release of hitherto unseen papers from Dr Watson’s chronicles of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Holmes (Robert Stephens) is bored, and consequently indulging his cocaine habit to the frustration of his physician and friend Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Despite Watson’s efforts to interest his friend in cases drawn from the newspapers, including that of some missing midgets, Holmes is inconsolable. Summoned to an audience with the great Russian ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumonova), Holmes leaves his friend to the attentions of the pretty female members of the corps de ballet.
While Watson dances with the young ladies, becoming increasingly excited in the process, Holmes discovers that Madame Petrova wishes him to father her child. In order to extricate himself he insinuates that he and Watson are ‘a couple’. Gradually, as this news is spread through the corps, Watson finds his pretty dancing companions replaced by handsome, muscley, but rather camp, male dancers. Watson is distraught at the damage to his reputation but comes to wonder at Holmes’ real attitude to women.
A young woman, Gabrielle Valadon (Genevieve Page) is fished out of the Thames after an attack. When lucid she appeals to Holmes for help in locating her missing engineer husband. Gabrielle stays at the detective’s lodgings and, sleep-walking naked and under the impression that the detective is her spouse, she embraces the enigmatic detective. Holmes is summoned to visit his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who warns him off searching for Valadon, but a phrase uttered by Mycroft to a lackey convinces Holmes to travel to Scotland to attempt to unravel the mystery.
In Scotland, a curious group of mourning midgets leads Holmes to disinter a corpse which proves to be that of M. Valadon. A nocturnal trip on Loch Ness ends in an attack by the eponymous monster, and the discovery that the British government has developed a midget submarine, disguised as the supposed denizen of the Loch, and manned by the missing troupe of midgets. Mycroft’s triumph at this advance in modern warfare is short-lived, when Queen Victoria declares it to be un-British and voices her intention to write to her grandson the Kaiser about his militaristic ambitions.
Mycroft reveals that Gabrielle is really a German spy; and she is arrested to be exchanged for an imprisoned British agent. At the end of the film Holmes receives a letter from his brother informing him that, while in Japan, Gabrielle has been arrested and executed. The inference of the final scenes where Holmes absents himself with the doctor’s supply of drugs, is that this is a woman Holmes might have loved.
Clearly the character of Gabrielle owes something to that of the clever and resourceful Irene Adler, ‘the woman’ who outwits Holmes, from the story A Scandal In Bohemia. But here the character is used in a more poignant role to suggest that she and the detective might have found happiness together if their respective circumstances had been different. This is a slight film, pleasing and frustrating in turns. Stephens’ performance is magisterial but the insight into ‘the private life’ is never really achieved. The vignettes, diversions, and subplots, rumoured to comprise the missing scenes, might have done much to flesh out the bare bones of this perfunctory mystery. That said, it shows what a great director and a supremely talented cast can do with humble ingredients.