Movie Critique - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

For all movies of Sherlock Holmes or related to Sherlock, go here.

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: Has tons of entertainment, with shades of mystery and intrigue attached to it, sort of a celebration of Holmes and Watson with a twinge in your heart. Definitely a strange film, but enjoyable to watch at least once.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a 1970 DeLuxe Color film in Panavision directed and produced by Billy Wilder and co-produced by I. A. L. Diamond; distributed by United Artists. It stars Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes and Colin Blakely as his trusted partner Dr. John Watson; supported by Genevieve Page, Sir Christopher Lee, Irene Handl, Tamara Toumanova and George Benson. It is set in 1887.

Uniquely filmed, it is divided into two separate stories. The shorter story delves into the rumors of sexual orientation of Sherlock Holmes and the part Dr. Watson plays in it. In the longer and main story, a Belgian woman, Gabrielle Valladon (portrayed by Genevieve Page) asks Holmes to find her missing husband. 

The film is a mix of parody and "real" characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with the story-line a mix of comedy and mystery. Story was written by I. A. L. Diamond and Billy Wilder. The film's length ran over 3 hrs so several scenes were deleted from the final version that was released to the theater. 

Wilder explored the possible homosexuality of Holmes; his aversion to women; that he resorted to cocaine because of the burden he couldn’t bear of hiding his sexual orientation; and his love for Dr. Watson; contrary to what we have read in all of the books written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the several movies, radio programs and television series made after. He basically wanted to show the man behind the myth, just as the title suggested. 

At the time of filming, Sir Christopher Lee was very famous for his role as Count Dracula in many horror films. He plays Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft Holmes in the film. But he is also known to play Sherlock Holmes on screen - the only actor perhaps to play both Holmes brothers on-screen in various movies.

Wilder wanted lesser known stars to play Holmes and Watson, so he picked Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. However, Stephens had played Sherlock Holmes on stage prior to this film. This was Billy Wilder's most expensive film. It fell into the long list of Sherlock Holmes satirical movies that were made in the 1970s. 

Wilder showed Dr. Watson as more of a ladies man rather than the devoted husband and friend we have come to see in Doyle's books; or even the bumbling fool that we see him as portrayed by Nigel Bruce. Stephens' Holmes is also quite different from the other actors who have portrayed him. He reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock. Since the series creators were inspired by this film I wonder if they modeled their Holmes and Watson (Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman respectively) after these two actors. 

Genevieve Page as Gabrielle Valladon reminded me of Irene Adler, Sherlock's supposed lover who first appeared in the 1891 short story A Scandal in Bohemia. And the ending what Wilder gives to Page's Valladon is also reminiscent with Adler in many of the derivative works of Sherlock Holmes stories. 

The film opens with Cox & Co. Bankers' name plaque on the bank's wall with the street scenes reflecting on it. And then Dr. Watson's lines open the film when we are shown a tin box with his name etched on it. His line "Somewhere in the vaults of a bank in London, there is a tin dispatch box with my name on it" is actually taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1922 short story The Problem of Thor Bridge.

The actual line in the story is little more than what the film has: "Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid."

Colin Blakely's voice reminds me so much of Orson Welles when he was narrating his tales on the radio shows during his time. The two bank men open the tin box and as the titles roll, we get to see artifacts and mementos of Holmes & Watson all packed in that box.

Even though Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are fictional characters, they have been immortalized in our world and we begin to think them as actual living human beings. So it felt really nostalgic and sad to see all these mementos displayed, wrenching my heart. 

Original story and the film that subsequently was made actually consisted of four mysteries with a prologue and epilogue, increasing the run time. Wilder and Diamond had to chop the movie considerably to what we have seen now. It was not a box office hit when it was released first, but has achieved critical acclaim since then over the years. 

It garnered more attention for the Loch Ness Monster prop that was used in the film. The 30ft original model of Loch Ness Monster which was built in 1969 unfortunately had sunk. However, in April of 2016, a Scottish expedition unearthed the prop from the bottom of the lake, Loch Ness, where it had drowned in 1970. It created a lot of interest and murmur in the world of those who believed in Loch Ness Monster, but it turned out to be only a prop. 

Despite it's less fame at the time of release, I think it is a fun movie to watch at home. Has tons of entertainment, with shades of mystery and intrigue attached to it, sort of a celebration of Holmes and Watson with a twinge in your heart. Definitely a strange film, but enjoyable to watch at least once.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Emmy and BAFTA award winning British crime television series Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss credit this film as inspiration for their TV series.

b. Sir Christopher Lee portrayed as Sherlock Holmes in three films - 1962 mystery film Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace; 1991 made for TV film Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady; the 1992 made for TV film Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls.

c. This was the final theatrical movie of Catherine Lacey. She plays an Old Woman in wheelchair in the film.

d. Note Clive Revill as Nicolai Rogozhin in the film. I remember him fondly for his role as Joe Devlin in the Season 7, Episode 5 of the TV series Columbo, titled The Conspirators. Recently I saw a much younger version of Revill in the 1965 British psychological thriller film Bunny Lake is Missing, where he portrays the role of Sergeant Andrews.

e. Dr. Watson mentions that they had just returned from Yorkshire after Holmes had solved the baffling murder of Admiral Abernetty and the mysterious family business. He reminds viewers how Holmes had solved the case by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day. This is actually a fictional case which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had never written for Holmes, but had been mentioned in his stories. But it was expanded into a full story for radio and was broadcasted on November 30, 1946 with Tom Conway as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, in the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the beginning of the film, in his narration, Dr. Watson begins in the August of 1887. But when they enter their rooms, he shows an advanced copy of the Strand Magazine which had published The Red Headed League. In reality, Doyle's short story The Red Headed League doesn’t appear until 1891. 

b. Holmes and Watson attend a ballet in 1887, the famous Swan Lake, which had actually not premiered in London until 1911.

c. After the ballet, the Russian ballet dancer, Madame Petrova (portrayed by Tamara Toumanova) mentions that she is a fan of Sherlock Holmes and has read all his adventures. Her favorite being The Hound of Baskervilles. However, the novel hadnt been published until 1901, and the film is set in 1887. 

d. When Holmes and Watson meet his brother Mycroft, there is a reference to the case of the Greek interpreter. Doyle had written a short story titled The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter as part of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes series, and was first published in 1893; six years after the year this movie was set in, 1887.

e. Also in the conversation between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock mentions that Mycroft's club was involved in a supposed quest of the abominable snowman. The term "Abominable Snowman" wasn’t coined until 1921 by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury. So how did Sherlock know the term in 1887?


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