Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Tamara Toumanova
Long-time readers of this blog* might note I have a liking for Sherlock Holmes. If someone does a version of the story, it’s likely I’ll be there.** But it did take me awhile to get to Billy Wilder’s 1970 version. I had heard bad things about it, and just never got around to it until recently.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Stephens as the character and Colin Blakely as Watson. The setup is the same as always: Holmes and Watson sharing an apartment with their landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Irene Handl).
The movie consists of two stories. The first has Holmes called by a Russian Ballerina, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova) with a proposition that she father a child with her to get the best of brains and beauty. What is interesting, and quite surprising given the time, is that Holmes gets out of her proposition by claiming to have a gay relationship with Watson, possibly not the first time this was suggested, but the first time it was portrayed on screen. The idea was far more daring for its time then it would be today.
That over with, the movie moves on immediately to the case of a mysterious woman (Genevieve Page) who is found in the Thames and brought to Holmes to find her identity. Her mystery, and the disappearance of her husband, for the bulk of the film. It’s really more of a spy film than a mystery, as everything turns out to be part of a secret project that enemy agents are trying to quash.
The movie is an odd duck. It was evidently meant to have two more stories, one of which was actually shot but dropped from the final version. It’s also strange that the first story is completely dropped, even though elements introduced as a sideline to it turn out to be important to the main story. It’s certainly not the type of script that Billy Wilder and his long time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond were capable of. It marked the beginning of Wilder’s decline; the movie got so-so reviews, as did three of his last four film.***
But the movie has its moments: Watson’s discomfort at being thought gay, and Genevieve Page as a woman who manages to outdo Irene Adler as a love interest. The dialog is also Wilder and Diamond’s high level, enough so that it makes up for the un-Holmesian plot. And Stephens and Blakely make a fine Holmes and Watson.
It’s a worthwhile addition to the many Sherlock Holmes films.
*If such creatures exist.
**I hadn’t heard the the BBC was doing a version of the story. My wife just happened to catch the opening credits and called me in; I fell in love with it.
***Only The Front Page had critical success, because it was the first accurate adaptation of the play (with the final line intact) and because Walter Matthau was born to play Walter Burns.