Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The

Tagged: Film

Film (1970). United Artists and the Mirisch Production Company presents a Sir Nigel Films and Mirisch Films production in association with Compton Films, Phalanx Productions and the Mirisch Corporation. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder and I A L Diamond, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Cast includes Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Mollie Maureen, Genevieve Page, Robert Stephens and Tamara Toumanova. 125 minutes in its original cut. Colour.

A languid and dissolute Sherlock Holmes (Stephens) takes the case of Amnesiac-in-the-Thames Gabrielle Valladon (Page) and with Doctor Watson (Blakely) follows the trail of her missing husband to Scotland, whereupon he finds brother Mycroft (Lee) involved in the production of submersible Technology disguised as the Loch Ness Monster.

The film's central conceit – that Holmes's "private life" has been revealed neither by Watson's write-ups for The Strand magazine nor by the host of adaptations since – is in the first instance beautifully written by long-time collaborators Wilder and Diamond, and in the second played wonderfully well for both pathos and laughs by Blakely and Stephens. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the first film in which one of the long-suspected but all-too-subterranean truths of the Holmes narrative dares speak its name: Sherlock Holmes is profoundly and melancholically homosexual.

Holmes and Watson become enmeshed in the marital machinations of Russian ballerina Madame Petrova (Toumanova) – she is an admirer of "Big Dog From Baskerville" and has already attempted without success to unlock the genetic potential of Russian composer Tchaikovsky – wherein Holmes is obliged to explain the implications of "bachelor living with another bachelor for five years: five very happy years ..." Watson – dancing backstage with a bevy of ballerinas, flower behind one ear – is apoplectic on discovering Holmes's ploy and, more than reasonably afraid of any resulting scandal, pleads to Holmes of the number of women around the world who might vouchsafe his sexuality: "You do too, don't you?" Holmes is silent. Watson asks: "Am I being presumptuous? There have been women, haven't there?" "The answer is yes," replies Holmes, "you are being presumptuous."

There follows an entertaining melange of the pantomimic signage of the Holmes oeuvre – pipe, deerstalker, circus midgets, graves excavated at the outer reaches of the United Kingdom's home colonies, all clues to deeper truths, and all, of course, at the instigation of "that woman" – "I don't dislike women, Watson, I merely distrust them" – here personified by German spy Ilse von Hoffmanstal, who has been posing as Gabrielle Valladon throughout the story. Mycroft eventually tips Sherlock off to her Identity at a base concealed beneath Urquhart Castle. The younger brother learns that the monster is an experimental submarine Mycroft is constructing for the Royal Navy, a Weapon whose real-life historical prototype was first developed on behalf of James I of England by Dutchman Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel in 1620, and whose proto-Steampunk elements are here restricted to a sulphuric acid Power Source that produces chlorine gas on contact with salt water. Queen Victoria (Maureen) – arriving from nearby Balmoral – is, however, unimpressed, notwithstanding Mycroft's dire prognostications concerning Germany's development of a dirigible (see Airships) and the coming of World War One. "I despair at the state of the world," Her Majesty pronounces, ordering Mycroft to abandon the project. "What will Scientists think of next?"

The uneven parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes were further unbalanced by the excision of scenes on its release. These included a sequence of Holmes in his university days and one in which Holmes investigated the case of a corpse found in an upside-down room, the latter of which was restored first to its release on laser disc (1994) – this also included a subtitled sequence without audio called The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners – and then to its release on Blu-ray (2014), to which further deleted scenes were added. Critical reactions to the film ranged from "the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made" (Kim Newman) to "disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication" (Roger Ebert). Writer and actor Mark Gatiss cites The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as "a template of sorts" for the BBC television series Sherlock (2010-current). The dénouement – like the eponymous Hero's relationship to Irene Adler in the first of Doyle's short Holmes stories to be published in, "A Scandal in Bohemia" (June 1891 Strand) – alludes to the possibility of a romantic fascination with Ilse von Hoffmanstal, but it is clear that she represents his finer feelings rather than his sexual inclination: both she and they are executed by firing squad in the film's epilogue. Only cocaine will suffice: it is all Watson has to offer, having rebuffed Holmes's coded declaration of love. Such are the depredations of Sex and War. [MD/GSt]

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