By Philip Schweier
I have been a Sherlock Holmes since I was 12, when I was given a collection of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. No, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t give me the collection himself. What I meant to say was the stories were written by – oh, never mind. It was shortly after this that I saw my first – and what has become my favorite – Sherlock Holmes movie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
In this era of revisionist takes on heroes, it is interesting to note that film legend Billy Wilder directed what is a surprising example of departing from what the public expected. An admitted fan of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder opted not to seek out an actor who resembles the Sydney Padgett illustrations from the original Holmes stories.
Instead, Wilder cast Robert Stephens, whose portrayal bears little resemblance to Holmes in any way, shape or form. In the script co-written by Wilder and long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond, this is addressed in the film’s opening scene. As Holmes berates Watson for taking too much poetic license in his chronicles, the doctor argues, “It’s those touches that make you colorful.”
“Lurid is more like it,” responds the detective.
Colorful, lurid, to-may-to, to-mah-to. Regardless, Holmes is depicted as snide and snarky, often to the point of rudeness as his personal life is examined on film, from his liberal use of cocaine to his dealings with the fair sex. Some pundits have even gone so far to suggest Homes and Watson were lovers, and this too is addressed in what may be the most amusing scene in the movie.
Holmes is propositioned by a Russian ballerina to father her child, but despite his attempts to politely decline, he finds himself cornered. His only way out is to suggest, much to Watson’s fury, the idea that there is a reason the two men have been living together for “five very happy years.”
Sometimes believed to be a cold, impersonal thinking machine, Holmes vulnerability lies in how he can be hurt, and Wilder presents the detective with a case in which he is not only hurt but almost soundly defeated. The appearance of Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page) on their doorstep launches Holmes into an investigation of her husband’s disappearance.
Also joining the cast is personal fave Christopher Lee, in which he completes the Sherlock Holmes hat trick. He played Henry Baskerville in Hammer Films’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959); Holmes himself in a German production, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962); and in Private Life he is featured as Mycroft Holmes.
Mycroft urges Holmes to drop his investigation, presumably a thinly-veiled order from Her Majesty’s government. But soon enough, the trail leads them to Inverness, where there have been reports of a strange creature haunting the nearby loch. There, after an encounter with the “creature,” all is revealed, and Holmes discovers even he is susceptible to feminine charms.
The film is witty and charming, and all in light-hearted fun, though Holmes purists may find it too radical a departure from the Sherlock Holmes canon, especially in this post-Jeremy Brett era. Stephens overly made-up features only serve to reinforce the question of Holmes’ sexuality, but as the film progresses, there is a noticeable change in that regard.