The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)


(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: I.A.L. Diamond/based on Arthur Conan Doyle characters; cinematographer: Christopher Challis; editor: Ernest Walter; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr. Watson), Genevieve Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Tamara Toumanova (Madame Petrova), Clive Revill (Rogozhin), Michael Balfour (Cabby), Irene Handl (Mrs. Hudson), Mollie Maureen (Queen Victoria), Catherine Lacey (Woman in wheelchair); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Billy Wilder; United Artists; 1970-UK)
“Stage actor Robert Stephens brilliantly plays Holmes with a nod and a wink.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billy Wilder’s (“Stalag 17″/”Some Like It Hot”) irreverent take on Sherlock Holmes as the flawed but still the world’s greatest consulting detective holds up fine despite having forty minutes lopped off the original version (reducing the four case stories to two), making its continuity difficult to adjust to initially but no great problem once things start rolling along. Stage actor Robert Stephens brilliantly plays Holmes with a nod and a wink, while Colin Blakely sparkles as Watson. Coscripted by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, longtime collaborators, there’s both a faithfulness to the Conan Doyle book version and the personal Wilder touches that give this mystery story a unique flavoring.

The story revolves around a secret manuscript Watson, Holmes’s loyal assistant and official biographer, opens in which Holmes became involved with women. The first story is played as satire as Holmes concocts a fake story about having a gay romance with Watson to duck out of a case he’s uninterested in so as not to embarrass the potential client, a star Russian ballerina (Tamara Toumanova). The second tale switches direction and plays it more straightforward, yet still debunks the Holmes myth as the perfect sleuth. There are intriguing mentions of Holmes becoming miserable when inactive and resorting to using cocaine, being a hater of women and a possible misogynist.

The main story unfolds when a mystery foreign woman, whom we will later learn is named Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page), the wife of a missing Belgium inventor, is brought by a cabby to Holmes’ Baker Street after being pulled from the Thames and in a state of temporary amnesia is unable to remember why she wanted to see the sleuth. Soon the adventure picks up when Gabrielle’s luggage is retrieved at Victoria Station and we learn that she’s come to London to search for her missing husband. The place Gabrielle sent her missing hubby letters is where she thought he was working, but it turns out to be an empty storefront where an old lady in a wheelchair picks up the mail and cares for the many caged canaries. Holmes is warned off the case by his estranged brother Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee), a member of the snooty Diogenes Club and secretly employed by the government in national security matters. Of course, this only makes Holmes more curious and leads to a trip to Inverness for the detectives and their client, where the location shifts from a cemetery to an abandoned castle and where the plot line furnishes us with midgets to Trappist monks to an uninformed tour guide to the Loch Ness monster to keep the sleuth on his toes.

Holmes wallows in sad reflection over a lost love while still managing by the end to be his usual logical thinking self, not letting emotions get in his way, though showing signs that even he can go through a slump while sleuthing. The score by Miklos Rozsa is rousing; the sets by production designer Alexandre Trauner of Baker Street are grand; the location photography in Scotland is appealing; the setup for the espionage story is well-conceived; the tongue-in-cheek humor is delicious; and, there are enough subtleties for a submarine crew to feast on. The film might not satisfy all the purists, but there’s a magical affection Wilder shows for his lead characters that is catching and his execution is just right.

When released it was a box office failure, but over time it has received much critical acclaim. This is very much an underrated gem.