The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)


Our rating: 3 out of 5

Rated: PG13

reviewed by Charity Bishop

After the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unlike many other great literary authors, he encouraged the public to continue their pursuit of stories concerning the legendary detective. Out of this liberal freedom sprang numbers of pastiches on screen, stage, and film. Most retain the original spirit of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer but along with them come degrees of liberal varying opinions, stories of Holmes' early and late cases, his true feelings toward the female sex and why, and his drug addiction. One later series of novels by Laurie R. King proposes that the great detective married a woman less than half his age by the name of Mary Russell. Yet another had him solve the true case surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the excellent Surrogate Assassin. The film pastiches have been less successful... with the exception of one. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which bills itself as a serious drama but is actually an intriguing story part satire and part genuine nod to the canon.


Somewhere in a London bank vault lies the unpublished volume of Dr. John Watson concerning his dearest friend Sherlock Holmes. Because of the sensitive nature of the case in certain events, as well as his friend's feelings toward the case's conclusion, the story was never turned over to Strand magazine for public consumption. Only fifty years after Watson's death may it be unlocked. The tale is one of puzzling elements. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stevens) is bored after one of his successful cases, but tributes the solving to the singular lack of talent toward the criminal class. They simply have no imagination anymore! He accuses Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) of "Romanizing" his cases and turning them into entertaining fairy stories, while building up his eccentric nature in the eye of the public. For example, he is not a cocaine addict simply because he indulges on an occasional basis. Nor has he ever said, "Elementary, my dear Watson."


None of the recent cases which have been pressed before him are of interest and only through Watson's persistence does he accept two anonymous tickets to the ballet (Holmes abhors ballet). Afterward he is taken backstage to meet the leading ballerina (who does not look 39 because she's actually 49!) and discovers she merely wants him as an alliance to create the most "beautiful and brilliant child in the world." Worming his way out of this situation and ruining Watson's reputation in the process, Holmes is given a case of consequence when a beautiful foreigner (Genevive Page) turns up on his doorstep suffering from amnesia. She can remember nothing except being attacked in London and thrown into the Thames. Through their resulting investigation they are lead into a peculiar case of canary birds, the woman's missing husband, seven midgets, and a London writing address no more than an empty house.


They are also brought into the social circle of Holmes' brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee) and end their journey at Loc Ness, where sightings of a monster have been reported. Though the film is sometimes tongue in cheek and a few of the gags in bad taste, I was surprised how serious and deep it was able to turn in the second half. The great detective is surprisingly humane but still retains the characteristics we've all grown to smile tolerantly over. When confronted with a hysterically sobbing woman, he uncomfortably tells her to "stop it this instant!" There's a hint of the mischievous and even flirtatious in his manner particularly when dealing with Gabrielle. Entering her darkened room in the middle of the night and first covering her bare shoulders up, he then noisily bangs the copper fixture over his head with her parasol. "I am sorry," he says gleefully when she starts awake, "but as long as you're up..."


The film toys with his affections, never quite telling us whether Holmes merely appreciates Gabrielle as he did Irene Adler or if he did in fact fall in love with her at some point. The rest of the characters are well enough but the movie does have two demeaning elements to the Holmes brothers. The first is Mycroft's appearance as a rather jaded dark horse. He insults Sherlock's methods of investigation and sneers at him contemptuously from his position in the government, whereas the true Mycroft was always in awe of his little brother's ability to solve difficult cases unassisted. I wasn't very happy with this exchange since it sets them at odds rather than working compatibly as they did in the books. There's a bit of humor added through this aspect when Mycroft receives a response he didn't anticipate and Sherlock is able to give him a dignified jibe. The second is Holmes and how easily he was outsmarted in one aspect of the case. Seeing him brought to his knees in humiliation (though no one ever learns of it) is demeaning somehow.


Having originally been planned for a three and a half hour production, over an hour of footage has been chopped from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and disappointingly never restored. It would have blended together the odd opening with later events. As it stands now, there are flaws aside from production and personal taste to be found in the script. There is little violence and only two profanities. But director Billy Wilder was well known for his fanciful little explanations and jokes. Taking advantage of a then-obsessive fascination with Holmes' lifelong bachelorhood, he engrained a segment which questions Holmes' sexuality. Having been introduced delicately to the Russian ballerina's desire for him to spend two weeks with her abroad in the hope a beautiful child will result, Holmes worms his way out the only manner in which will fail to insult her. He mentions that her similar rejection from a composer who does not "like" women (Holmes was a third choice) is not an isolated case. Naturally they assume Holmes is gay, and Watson is his lover.


When discovering the truth in another tongue in cheek conversation, the doctor storms home and rallies about their reputations and how they'll have to part now lest gossip ruin their careers. Holmes persuades him this is preposterous and no one would dare repeat such a story. Watson agrees and proposes that at least they have women to back them up... don't they, Holmes? With a delicate little smile the detective tells him not to be too presumptuous. (This mild implication and possibility is later countered by his gentleness toward Gabrielle.) Watson is something of a ladies' man but nothing is shown other than dancing with ballerinas (he backs out when Russian men begin taking their place, believing that he is homosexual) and commenting that they have fine backsides. When Gabrielle is brought to the house there's a little banter about what's to be done with her. She's put into Watson's room (at Mrs. Hudson's accusing stare Watson exclaims, "I'll sleep on the couch!") and they discover her the next morning in Holmes' apartment.


During the night the disoriented woman woke up and mistook Holmes for her husband, coming out undressed to embrace him. (The camera shows her bare back and shoulders but nothing more.) He was intrigued by something on her hand, the print of a railway ticket. He covered her up and sent her back to bed, not returning until the following morning... when naturally Watson and Mrs. Hudson believe he took liberties. Humorously he allows their speculations before uncovering the truth. From there on out there's very little in the way of inappropriate conversation or speculation. Holmes and Gabrielle go undercover as a married couple in Scotland but sleep apart. We see Gabrielle's bare back again before he covers her up. She wears a dressing gown that reveals some cleavage. There's also some drug content but it's always implied and never shown.


These elements -- particularly the gay segment, however lightly portrayed -- are enough to give viewers a pause but it's actually quite a good mystery. It's also quite funny without demeaning the characters to slapstick comedy. Incidents such as Holmes asking Watson to kindly clasp his hands and then using them as a stepping stone, his explanation to Gabrielle why women are unreliable (his fiance had the audacity to die the week before their wedding), and banter with Mycroft make for some wonderful moments. Despite my initial concerns that Holmes would be butchered by an overly sarcastic script, I found him both likable and humane. It's a film quiet in its deeper implications and something I would watch more than once for the artistic and literary merit.