1970s, 3/4, Billy Wilder, Crime, Review

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Related image

#15 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.

With knowing winks and nods, Billy Wilder tells a witty and fun Sherlock Holmes tale. It was originally planned and even shot to be a much larger movie with more individual episodes (which made cutting it down from three and a half hours to two hours and change a lot easier, much to Billy Wilder’s bitter acquiescence), but even in this shortened format, the movie is a fun adventure for the Victorian detective.

What survived the cut was two episodes. The first takes about half an hour to tell, and it’s of Holmes and Watson being invited to an ballet. Watson drags Holmes there where the detective discovers that he’s been invited not to solve any crime, but to accept the proposal of the lead ballerina Madam Petrova. It’s not a normal proposal, something Holmes wouldn’t take to normally, but one simply for him to impregnate Madam Petrova so she could have the smartest and most beautiful baby in the world. Holmes gets out of it by implying that he and Watson are homosexual lovers. It’s a fun little diversion that sets up the two main characters well, but it feels a bit disassociated from the rest of the film.

It’s at about the half hour that the second episode starts, and it lasts until the end. A mysterious nearly drowned woman gets deposited on Holmes’ doorstep, and he starts on an adventure that takes him to Scotland. Along the way, they make a visit to the Diogenes Club and Mycroft, meet some mute Trappist monks on a train, and have a close encounter with Nelly in Loch Ness. It’s a mystery with some fun twists and turns while giving Holmes a counterpart in the woman, Gabrielle Valladon, whose husband they are searching for. There’s an undeniable attraction between the two that acts as a nice counterbalance to Holmes’ reaction to Madam Petrova.

Watson takes his place as a comic foil and vehicle for audience participation, asking the questions the audience needs asked and picking up at the slightly slower pace (compared to Holmes), giving the audience a window into the next revelation. And the revelations are fun, holding up on subsequent viewings. It’s not just that the plot has an unpredictable quality, it’s that the details are amusing along the way. Four of six midgets who ran away from a circus (mentioned briefly in the first episode) appear at a grave for two of their brothers. Nelly turns out to be a small submarine. Queen Victoria even shows up, giving her well-worn line, “We are not amused!” at a perfectly appropriate moment.

The movie does turn sad in its final moments when we discover that Gabrielle is not who she says she is. This allows a deepened connection with Holmes, but their parting is inevitable.

The private life part of the title refers to the fact that the story is being told from Watson’s private collection of stories he never published but hid away until fifty years after his death. The titles of the film play over the opening of that hidden box (in what was part of a fully episode involving Watson’s grandson that didn’t make the cut), and they’re hidden because Holmes considers the adventure to be a failure on his part. He didn’t see through Gabrielle, and Mycroft ends up explaining most of what he missed. It’s a Sherlock Holmes adventure where he ends up following the right trail of breadcrumbs but comes to the wrong conclusion. It’s an interestingly humbling take on the character.

From what I’ve read, the prospect of seeing the full four hour roadshow production of Billy Wilder’s original film are close to nothing. The cutting down to a two-hour film happened without Wilder’s involvement at a time when studios rarely kept footage that they didn’t use in the final print. I would be interested to see it. Wilder called it his most elegant production, though I do wonder how an episodic and long movie would actually work dramatically, especially considering the descriptions of some of the lost episodes I’ve read. It seems like they are largely standalone pieces, which is why the movie, despite losing almost half its runtime, is still so cohesive.

The film is fun, and a pleasant diversion. A good time at the movies from a master of the craft.

Netflix Rating: 4/5

Quality Rating: 3/4

1 thought on “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s