Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely explore the mysteries of the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr John Watson), Geneviève Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Irene Handl (Mrs Hudson), Clive Revill (Rogozhin), Tamara Toumanova (Madame Petrova), Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger), Mollie Maureen (Queen Victoria), Catherine Lacey (Old Woman)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may just be the best Sherlock Holmes film you’ll see. It’s certainly one of the most original. Wilder’s semi-pastiche, described by Mark Gatiss as “both reverent and irreverent”, was a major box-office disaster at the time, but it’s a film that has grown richer and more enjoyable with age – particularly as we’ve caught up with its “fan fiction” style, its placing of the great detective in unusual emotional and social situations.
Wilder’s film follows two “buried” cases of Sherlock Holmes, both suppressed by Watson. In the first (taking up the first quarter of the film), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr Watson (Colin Blakely) are invited to a production of Swan Lakeby the Russian Royal Ballet, where a curious and unusual case is proposed to Holmes. In the second story, a mysterious woman suffering from amnesia (Geneviève Page) winds up on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. Investigating who and what has brought her there leads into a case that covers continents, the upper echelons of the British government, and (possibly) the deeply hidden depths of Holmes’ own heart.
First off, it’s impossible to talk about Private Life without noting we only really have half the film. Not only did audiences not get it, nor did the studio. Both were expecting a traditional Holmes adaptation. Getting an amusing and wry exploration of Holmes’ psychology, built into a film where the great detective makes several errors, was categorically not that. So half the film was cut and chucked in the bin (including two whole cases). The footage no longer survives (there is an excellent recreation of what is left on Eureka’s new blu-ray) – but it’s a film that might have been.
It’s also a film that was apparently hell to make. Wilder had always been demanding – he demanded a completely faithful interpretation of his text, and often gave scrupulous line readings. It went to extremes here: epic rehearsals before every shot, with every line and movement dictated. For Stephens – a fragile alcoholic going through a divorce – it was too much, and part way through filming he attempted suicide. Shooting was delayed while he recovered, though Stephens’ pale, wan face needed to be overly made-up to compensate (in the opening scenes he genuinely looks like a drag act).
So you can’t forget the turmoil that brought it to the screen. But the end result (what remains) is largely a delight, even if it isn’t perfect. But it really is decades ahead of its time. Just like Sherlock (and it’s certainly the parent of that show), its main interest is not the case but the detective, his foibles and his emotional hinterland. Motored throughout by the wonderful chemistry between Stephens and Blakely (the two actors were good friends), it’s a wonderfully written film, full of wry humour and banter, mixed with moments of genuine heart and emotion.
The film asks: who is Sherlock Holmes? Is he the cold fish he appears to be? While it doesn’t want to answer the enigma, it enjoys trying to unpeel those layers. Stephens’ Holmes is wry, witty, slightly fey, playful but also distant. He stands off from genuine intimacy and emotion – and why is that? As he spends time with Gabrielle Valadon, how much does he warm towards her – when he ruminates on his fears about trusting people, particularly women (in a marvellous late night conversation in an overnight train bunkbed), the film asks us to think: how damaged can this man who lives to investigate crimes but seems to have only one friend, be? It’s everything Sherlock took further: in fact the relationship between Holmes and Vardon has more than a few echoes in A Scandal in Belgravia.
The film’s real genius though is its opening short story, revolving around Holmes, a ballet company and a serious of unusual requests. This pastiche is very funny, very clever, beautifully played and crammed with invention and wit. The dialogue is beautiful, while both actors are perfect: Blakely is hilarious as a Watson full of joie de’vivre while Stephens’ drily amused Holmes works hard to never let surprise penetrate his raised eyebrow. The story goes down some mysterious alleyways – not least some curious questions around Holmes’ sexuality and experience with women. But it’s just about a perfect half hour of Holmesian pastiche: probably the best of its kind ever made.
The larger story doesn’t quite live up to it, but there are some beautiful moments in there, not least the growing bond between Holmes and Vardon in which nothing is ever said or done – and much is left open to interpretation – but where Holmes shows more of his humanity than he has perhaps ever done. The case itself is half humour, half expansion of Conan Doyle. By the end we are left asking ourselves how much on the back foot Holmes was for most of the case: and the case’s resolution eventually sniffs of satire. But the film itself ends on a bittersweet resolution, with Holmes facing the impact of emotions in a way he perhaps never has before.
Wilder’s film is sharp, witty and crammed with great scenes and jokes. It’s very well acted, particularly by Blakely as a hilarious Watson, full of good humour and bombast but with a sharp sense of cunning. He may not be as bright as Holmes, but he’s certainly bright enough to get the most out of life. Stephens is a little uncomfortable as Holmes (this film sparked a career nosedive that it took nearly 20 years for him to emerge from) but at certain moments he gives the part a really unique lightness masking an unknowable emotional hinterland.
It’s a film that’s easy to mistake for straight comedy, but it really isn’t. It’s a fascinating, entertaining and rewarding exploration of the leading character’s psyche, by writers who clearly know of what they speak. It throws in a case framework that smacks of the high-blown, Giant Rat of Sumatra-style cases Watson makes passing reference to in the stories. It’s a film that focuses on character and relationship – that captures a sense of friendship between Holmes and Watson that few other films have managed – and that spoofs the cannon while still feeling very true to it.
It’s not perfect: it’s overlong and sometimes the pace drags or the sparkle fades. But Wilder and Diamond’s script has plenty of jokes and cannon knowledge (this was the first pastiche to explore Holmes’ cocaine use – and the psychological reasons for it) and has some terrific performances. Christopher Lee makes a wonderful urbane, whipper-thin Mycroft while Irene Handl is a wonderfully bumptious Mrs Hudson. Not only did it inspire Sherlock – it must also keep inspiring all fans of the great detective.