Billy WilderIrene HandlFrank ThorntonLoch Ness Monster
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Medium: film
Year: 1970
Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft, Loch Ness Monster, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Mollie Maureen, Stanley Holloway, Catherine Lacey, Peter Madden, Michael Balfour, James Copeland, John Garrie, Godfrey James, Robert Cawdron, Alex McCrindle, Frank Thornton, Paul Hansard
Format: 125 minutes
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 3 July 2009
It doesn't really work. I'm not convinced that the full-length version as conceived by Billy Wilder would have been completely successful either, although that would obviously have been better.
This was going to be Wilder's "Big One", you see. It had a 260-page script, a £10 million budget in 1970 and a planned length of 165 minutes, but the rough cut after a six-month shooting schedule came in at an hour longer than even that. It was going to be an anthology picture, containing various separate stories and a flashback sequence showing Holmes at university. The plan was for this to be a road show picture, touring major cities and even having an intermission. Sounds exciting, right? Unfortunately United Artists had a string of flops in 1969, so Wilder's road show had to go and the film got hacked back to a mere 125 minutes. Fortunately (ahem), the film's episodic nature simplified this process. The opening sequence, the Oxford flashback and two full episodes are now gone, with no full print believed to exist. Wilder took it like a punch in the gut.
Incidentally the missing episodes are The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners (15 minutes) and The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room (30 minutes). I particularly like the sound of the first one, since there's quite a bit of nudity from Genevieve Page even in the film as it stands. It's only from behind, but even so. Ooooh. Anyway, what remains is a brief episode with a Russian ballerina and then the main show, involving a lady in the Thames, Mycroft Holmes, the Loch Ness Monster, Queen Victoria and midgets. You'll have already realised that this isn't one of Holmes's grittier adventures. Instead it's a light-hearted piece of fun without much urgency or danger, which might have worked in the context of a larger anthology but as the sole attraction, feels a bit lacking. I quite like this film, but it doesn't have much of an adventure element. One could even argue that it doesn't even have a villain, although you'd need to qualify that statement to be able to defend it.
The Russian ballerina episode is mildly revisionist. The film starts with Holmes having a go at Watson for embroidering on reality in his stories for The Strand, then goes on to play with fan theories, in particular the notion that Holmes might be gay. In this film, there's no "might" about it. This entire episode exists only to explore the concept, with Holmes getting out of something with a woman by claiming that Watson is his long-term gay partner. Note that there was no reason at all except for script convenience for him to drag Watson into it. It's funny, but more importantly it's also the impetus for a related discussion between Holmes and Watson back at 221B Baker Street. Admittedly the film later throws in a fiancee who died from influenza and unspecified feelings between Holmes and their client, but there's no doubt about how they're playing it. Robert Stephens's Sherlock Holmes is almost effete, to the point where I'd say it's the main point of his characterisation. They maintain a veneer of deniability, but there's no doubt about what the film's really saying.
I liked all that. It's funny and it's perfectly compatible with the original stories. Note that the Jeremy Brett series occasionally hinted at this too. The only problem with it is that I'm not wild about what Stephens is doing. He's okay, but I'm also happy that he never took the role again.
While I'm talking about the actors, I wasn't taken with Colin Blakely's Watson either. He's overacting, in my opinion in an attempt to get past his moustache. Great Scott, that thing could block doors. Originally Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers were going to play Holmes and Watson, but that fool Wilder decided to go with less famous stars instead. The biggest name in the film as far as I'm concerned is Christopher Lee, here playing Mycroft to go with his appearances as Stapledon in The Hound of the Baskervilles and as Sherlock himself in quite a few productions. Obviously this is a good thing, but somehow in his first scene I was a little disappointed. I've heard that Lee in real life is terrifyingly huge and imposing, but I don't think this comes across well on film. His best weapon as an actor might actually be his voice. I've liked him best to date as Terry Pratchett's Death.
As for the main story, it's okay if you're not looking for thrills. Holmes detects. He follows clues and everything. He comes across perfectly well, not one of the more intelligent Sherlocks I've seen but still doing the job Wilder's asking of him. It's pleasant, but I'm tempted to say that the film either needed to run in full for over three hours, or else get hacked back even more mercilessly.
The film has its share of goofs. We're told that some chlorine gas was produced by sulphuric acid mixing with sea water, despite the fact that: (a) I think they mean hydrochloric acid, and (b) Loch Ness isn't the sea. There's an attempt to get around the latter, but even this poses practical problems. Which way did they go? The river Ness? The Caledonian Canal? Furthermore the Loch Ness Monster wasn't widely known of in the 19th century, while the Holmesian dating is all messed up. Madame Petrova has read The Hound of the Baskervilles, which wasn't published until after the death of Queen Victoria (who's not only alive but a character in the film). Is it 1888 (as per the hotel register) or post-1891 (Watson's stories are being published in The Strand). I wasn't convinced by the Scottish accents either. Admittedly none of this is important, but I must admit to rolling my eyes at the sulphuric acid.
However on the other hand, the film's obsessively faithful to Holmesian canon. They directly reference Conan Doyle and are at pains to demonstrate that their gay Sherlock is a valid reading of the original stories, not a subversion of them.
The Diogenes Club's porter is Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served, by the way.
Overall, I'm not wild about this one. It's amiable, but not very urgent. Apparently it was verboten to like this film in the 1970s, although its reputation has recovered somewhat since. Understandably it's something of a sore spot with Billy Wilder too. As it stands it's funny, charming in a Children's Film Foundation kind of way and perfectly watchable, but the over-ambitious version Wilder wasn't allowed to release would have obviously been a more interesting and important film.