Wilder - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder – The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Director Billy Wilder adds a new and intriguing twist to the personality of intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens). One thing hasn't changed however: Holmes' crime-solving talents. Holmes and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) take on the case of a beautiful woman (Genevieve Page) whose husband has vanished. The investigation proves strange indeed, involving six missing midgets, villainous monks, a Scottish castle, the Loch Ness monster, and covert naval experiments. Can the sleuths make sense of all this and solve the mystery?

PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes1Ryan COMMENTARY w/ RatingI think The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the movie that shows that Wilder is a man out of his era better than any of the other movies we have seen lately.  While Kiss Me Stupid was a horrible film that tried to exploit the 60's sex and free love time period, at least there he tried to make a film for the time. With Sherlock Holmes he made a film that isn't bad at all, where the cinematography is very lush and the set design (especially their apartment) was wonderful, but it still feels like a movie made 15 years too late.

The original idea for the film was a roadshow film that was to be three hours long and include an intermission. Wilder was going to make a grand epic in the flavor of DeMille or Lean and shot the film that way, only to see that type of movie lose favor with the studios thanks to bombs like Dr. Doolittle and Around the World in 80 Days.

Instead of the three hour film, it was cut down to just over two hours, and you can feel that the movie is incomplete while watching. Some subplots are forgotten and some character moments seem to be thrown in haphazardly as almost a patch for missing footage. These types of things are not common in Wilder written films, and I would love to read the full screenplay to see if things gel better.

The movie has a lot of potential that it never reaches fully. The idea to have stories about Holmes less famous adventures unearthed long after the characters had died was a new spin. I liked how Wilder cast two lesser known actors in the main roles and Robert Stephens was a good Holmes and Colin Blakely played a very Wilder-eque version of Dr. Watson.

So to wrap up this introduction I have to ask you a question: considering how the movies tone fluctuates, would you classify this film as a mystery with comedic elements or a comedy with a mystery?
Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes2DannyCommentaryBannerShortThere's a trend nowadays to movies that are revisionist, that take older properties and reformat them to explore new ideas for a new audience. Westerns get this treatment a lot, as do historical dramas that reconsider a man and judge him as a product of our own times-- see Spielberg's Lincoln for plenty of that.

Sherlock Holmes has been a popular object for just such modern reinterpretation, unsurprising since he speaks to the brilliant egomaniac in us all. From a medical doctor to a clone awoken in the future to a mouse, the many different interpretations of Holmes play with the facts but keep the essence, and use that to set out to capture their own slice of Arthur Conan Doyle's magic.

Billy Wilder does something that you rarely seen done with the iconic detective, and that is to make him old. Not ancient or beyond his abilities, but a detective with an established reputation who is beginning to find that people knowing who he is is simply more handy than his skills of deduction. He is a man battling his own myth, and his boredom and desire for excitement are taking their toll on his personal relationships and his own mental health.

Undoubtedly this is something Wilder himself could feel akin to as Holmes meets admirers and begins to lose his better nature. He grows restless, and jumps on every opportunity for a new adventure. His eagerness betrays him, and the film's revelation that he's a relic is a slow but admirable one.

Watson, meanwhile, is a charming buffoon, better handled here than elsewhere. He's competent but blustery, and while he tries to keep his friend safe, it's apparent that he still doesn't grasp Holmes as well as the other stories have portrayed. The movie uses the fiction of him being a legitimate biographer to frame him as fabricating the events in several of Holmes' other adventures, giving Watson some leeway between this one and his other idealized fictionalized portrayals.

For your question, Ryan, I consider this more of a comedy. The central mystery never really is much of one, though it too speaks about age and irrelevance. The looming wars in Europe figure heavily, and it's obvious that while Queen Victoria believes manners and obstinacy will delay the inevitable, Mycroft is the only character who understands the enormity of the threats that Britain faces.

And that's one of the things I find really interesting about the picture. Mycroft was always referred to as the 'brains' in the Holmes family, which, to extend the metaphor, would indicate Holmes is the heart. One normally can't imagine cold, cynical Sherlock Holmes as just such a thing, but it's apparent in this movie that Holmes' compassion has begun to override his sensibilities. He's becoming-- dare I say it-- human.

Before we talk about the missing footage or the ending (which is spectacularly downbeat), what do you think of the Cold War parallels Wilder inserts into the film's closing? Too on the nose, or just right?

PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes3Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingIt is funny that you are talking about the revisionist takes on old properties because Sherlock is EVERYWHERE right now. Right now we are blessed with my favorite version of Holmes with the excellent BBC series "Sherlock", we also have Guy Ritchie's movie version starring Robert Downey Jr, and the very bland CBS show "Elementary".

While The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes wasn't a hit, I see a lot of inspiration nowadays beign drawn from this film. Like you said, we are looking at stripping down our heroes and making them human, and that is what Wilder did really well with his Sherlock. Sherlock is older but not wiser and past his prime.

While England might win in the end, Sherlock does not get the victory. He is fooled and used as a means to an end, something that Sherlock (and Sherlock fans) were not accustomed to. It has been said that Wilder wrote this with personal experiences and you can see a lot of Wilder's misses of the last decade on Sherlock's face near the end.

Before we get to the end and the footage, I have to bring this up again. This movie once more paints all women in a negative light. One wants to use Sherlock to make the perfect baby and the other one uses him to spy on his country. Sherlock says he doesn't trust women and the movie never makes the case that his viewpoint is wrong.

Other than Irma, I can't think of one female in the last decade of his films that come off well. Wilder was happily married until her death so I really don't know what happened to him to make all women either shrews, temptresses or just there to look good. He also has not cast good actresses in his films (Genevieve Page is awful) to elevate the roles. I haven't seen most of the films coming up so I just hope that this reverses in time, because it is not a trend that I have liked.

PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes4DannyCommentaryBannerShortSee, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. Genevieve Page's Gabrielle is a wonderfully wicked creature and one of the best spies in all of Germany. She manages to use a blend of perplexing clues and sexual power to overwhelm Holmes' better reasoning. She's never weak or cruel, and does her job remarkably well. Her job is a job for her country, and she's seen as no different than Mycroft in that regard. If it weren't for Mycroft's love of popping Sherlock's balloon of pomposity, she may never have been discovered.

Holmes spends most of the film decrying the usefulness of women, and it's important to note that he's proven wrong in the end. Gabrielle is clever and sensuous, and proves to Holmes, who starts off the film as a clear misogynist, that women are more passionate and damn smarter than he'd ever considered.

However, this does bring me to another subject that I feel we may hit some contention on. The first portion of the film, which involves Sherlock being propositioned by a world famous ballerina, ends with him leaving Watson with the indication that me he may or may not be a homosexual. Much of the second half of the film tries to reverse or undermine that, indicating that his feelings for Gabrielle are more complex than we are understanding.

I should also note that one of the film's several deleted vignettes showed Holmes' first major confusing sexual encounter, where a girl he longed for turned out to be a prostitute. Wilder loaded him up with neurosis and a blanket fear of intimacy that would make any person weak in the knees.

But even with this added bit, I never really got the feeling that Holmes was indeed a committed heterosexual. Noted playwright Oscar Wilde would be undergoing prosecution at the time this film was set for his homosexual proclivities, and it wouldn't be much of a surprise that Holmes' panicky fear of women may have led to a suppression that even his own noggin couldn't untangle. Does Wilder think Holmes might have been a suppressed homosexual? I could see it.

Going back to the deleted footage, the MGM DVD that accompanies the film contains the closest reconstruction of the missing material possible. This includes a prologue set in then-present day, Holmes recollecting his first serious sexual encounter to Gabriel, Watson's attempts to confound Sherlock to keep him away from his drug habit, and a funny tidbit with Watson attempting to solve a murder in the wrong room. It's a fascinating glimpse, though I will admit I do think the finished and hacked film is certainly a lot tighter with its themes.

However, these scenes bring up one thing I really enjoyed about the film: there is no true villain. Even in the deleted scenes, the problems almost entirely come from Watson or Sherlock attempting to head off their own shortcomings. In the main picture, the final solution comes from a threat so big that neither could have imagined it coming. It's a film that's entirely about their weaknesses as humans, and it undermines the classic Holmes finale to deliver some surprisingly beautiful observations.

Did you watch any of the deleted scenes, Ryan? I admit I think ditching the prologue was definitely for the best, but the other segments were certainly clever.
PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes6Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating
I agree with what you say about Gabrielle but I still see her as the main argument on why Holmes shouldn't trust women rather than an argument against his theory. A big part of this movie is showing the audience who Holmes is and I came to the conclusion that he wasn't attracted to men but he didn't understand women.

Could Holmes have been gay? I would not have been surprised if that was what Wilder was hinting at, but I think he was more asexual where he saw both sexes as beneath him but at least understood men a bit better enough to be able to tolerate their presence.

I unfortunately have not seen many of the deleted scenes but have read the Wilder/Brackett screenplay and saw what they were going for. They wanted Holmes to be a little more human than superhuman in this film, and like we have said decided to make him a bit older and out of his element. This movie takes place at the turn of the century and nations in Europe still behaved with a sense of code about warfare. Yet, they are less than a generation from WWI where all the rules will be quickly blown up.

This brings me to the next thing I want to discuss and that is the fact that there is no overt villain in the picture. Until you said that, it didn't dawn on me, but it is very true. There isn't a Moriarty or his like in this film. The spy is still lovable and the other Germans were just background characters. I think the real enemy in the film is time itself.

With the deleted beginning and end, we see parts in the present day and that was a strong way to show that time has changed more in the last 50 years than it had in the previous 100. And, like you said, Holmes and Watson could never imagine the solution to the case because it is like nothing that they had encountered before.

Mycroft, the only one who can see the future, is actually the one that has to spell it out to Sherlock in the end. It is similar to the athlete who has lost his step on the field and is the last one to see it or the action star who is too old to be running from explosions but doesn't know how to do anything else. Sherlock is still trying to reason out the case in a world that didn't truly exist at the time.

The women are not the damsels in distress and don't need his help but only want him for his DNA or the secrets he can unwittingly uncover. Truly, the only person who is still in awe of him at the end who knows all of these events is Watson, and that's because he too has become a dinosaur. Is Wilder writing this kind of Holmes that reflects how he felt in Hollywood at the time? If so, who was his Watson? Was it Brackett? Or am I reading too much into this film that wasn't actually there?

PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes9DannyCommentaryBannerShortI think you may be reading too much into it, though at this point it would be I.A.L. Diamond rather than Brackett. But, then again, it could also be that Watson is the more general fan or admirer or all of them who knows him for long distant glories rather than anything more recent. It's an elegiac sort of understanding that things are changing, and that's how life works. Sad, but sweet.

Of course, that might not come across in the ending. The DVD features didn't cover a supposed epilogue, but I'm amazed that they went with the ending as is at the moment. Sherlock Holmes, so upset by the death of a woman he cared for, asks Watson if he can go get high now, and then does. The secret to Sherlock Holmes may not be that he's completely baffled by his own sexuality or that he can't see things in macro terms, but that he can't deal with it. He simply can't come to terms with the possibility that he doesn't know everything.

Now is that a cheery thought or what?
PrivateLifeofSherlockHolmes10Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingI guess it would be Diamond rather than Brackett; Brackett would have been disappointed slightly in him, though Diamond might not have seen the forest through the trees like Watson. I agree that Sherlock can't live in a world where he doesn't know everything and I was almost convinced it was going to end with him overdosing on purpose because of that fact... but I guess that would have been too depressing. I hope that this version of Sherlock dies before Watson because if he doesn't have Watson, I think he would drift away fairly quickly.

Speaking of Watson, do you agree with me that he was the most Wilder-esque role in the film? There were many quirks and line readings that Colin Blakely did that reminded me heavily of Jack Lemmon. This Watson was a bit more of a horndog on the outside and more boisterous than the typical characterization of him. I think this was 100% Wilder and where I saw his fingerprints on the movie more than anywhere else. I don't think I ever saw Blakely in another film, so it could actually have even been Wilder in really good makeup.

Finally, I just wanted to say that I really like what Wilder was going for in tone and character development with Sherlock as an older sleuth. I thought the movie was very ambitious and above what most Sherlock movies aim to do. The problem is that the movie feels very disjointed. Granted, this is because the movie was cut to shreds after filming but that was because Wilder was making a movie not in style anymore. He was going for an elegant epic when the mood in film were gritty character pieces.

Even Wilder the writer was trying to do the 70's aesthetic of film with a deeper look at what made Sherlock the man he was, but Wilder the director wanted to make his Lawrence of Arabia. The two didn't mesh and we ended up with an epic that really wasn't epic and a character study that was too broad for its own good. I enjoy the film but am a bit disappointed with what it could have easily been. Danny, where do you end up with this film?
I'll be honest, Ryan, I don't agree with any of your complaints with it. Some may pick The Fortune Cookie or Avanti, but this is the later day gem in Wilder's crown.

The film is absolutely gorgeous, and is one of the better examples I can name of the late-60's aesthetic filled with color and soft glowing light. Wilder's previous films in color-- The Emperor Waltz, The Seven Year Itch, and Irma La Douce-- absolutely pale in comparison to this, as the film is simply gorgeous to look at. Look at Scotland here, or the hues of red and blue that deepen 221B Baker Street. Or, hey, Gabrielle's constant disregard for clothing. That looks great too.

I think Wilder felt trapped after The Apartment. He kept trying to compensate between comedy and pathos, and too often the comedy kept verging towards being despicable at worst, meek at best. The premise of Holmes is the first movie in a decade to give him a jumping off point to a cultural fascination, and I think he absolutely nailed it. It's personal, intelligent, luscious, and, damn, it's fun to watch.

Of course, saying that, I have to admit and warn... Ryan? It's all downhill from here.

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Next time: Avanti! (1972)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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  1. I’m with Danny 100%. The film is splendid, flawed yes, but I think the strengths overwhelm any problems in terms of formalism or content. Had the movie been made even a mere five years before its 1970 release date, it could have been something of a success, but it was too old-fashioned by the time the new decade rolled around. Its sense of comedy, elegy, and melancholy make it one of my favorite Wilder pictures.

    • Thank you for the comment. Danny doesn’t write for Can’t Stop the Movies anymore, but your comment prompted me to revisit this piece. I remember being a tad too distracted the first time I watched The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, so your comment inspired me to give this another look.

      If you want to follow-up with Danny, he’s got a spectacular website about Pre-Code movies:


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