The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The Mirisch Film Company 1970.

Before watching the movie:

While I liked the new Sherlock Holmes movie, some Sherlockians (and presumably British Holmesians) disliked how the character portrayals clashed with their understanding of the canon. Even those who based that understanding on something more faithful than the Basil Rathbone serials found some big things to complain about.

While looking around Hulu’s film collection, I happened upon a Holmes adaptation that seems to be another reimagining that may well be more faithful to the idea that lives in many minds than the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes.

Additionally, while I don’t like to bring up school on this blog, my Film Studies professor was a big fan of Billy Wilder, so when I saw that Billy Wilder directed this film, I couldn’t pass it up.

I’ll find out what Billy Wilder’s idea of Holmes is in the main article.

During/after watching the movie:

As is often the case, this story opens in a dull point in Holmes’s life. But not only is Holmes bored with his life, even at its most exciting, it’s not as interesting as Watson writes. The very first scene makes very plain the fact that Watson over-romanticizes his stories. However, beyond the arguments held in the books, the film goes into detail about all the problems Watson’s enhancements cause for Holmes.

A hasty escape from a Russian ballerina with a ticking biological clock brings a question of Holmes’s sexuality into focus as a minor plot point, making it clear early on that the writers are working hard to update the material for the 70s, making Watson the, er, butt of a joke that would not have been thinkable among Victorians.

A mysterious woman arrives on their doorstop in the middle of the night. Her missing person story leads Holmes and Watson to a matter of international delicacy. Holmes’s brother Mycroft insists they drop the case, but they press on to what answers await them in Scotland. Unfortunately for my respect for the film,  they seem to include the Loch Ness Monster

Robert Stephens’s portrayal of Holmes is at first glance rather stock, but teased in a direction that could allow speculation that he is gay. Physically, he has softer features than one would expect, but the discussion at the beginning indirectly suggests that the illustrations are completely fallible.

Watson is not the complete dullard he’s been often misportrayed as, but can be quite foolish or excitable at times, normally for a joke sequence. He’s awed by Holmes’s deductive ability, but capable of a few observations of his own, when the moment suits it.

Christopher Lee plays a fair obstructing authority, but he is no Mycroft Holmes, in demeanor or appearance. I’m not clear why the writers decided to turn the Diogenes club into a secret Foreign Office agency when Mycroft was overtly freelancing for the Foreign Office in canon, except that they felt a need for a sinister-sounding organization to watch out for.

The story has been made accessible to modern viewers, but as influenced by the seventies as the material allows. Between the homophobia at the beginning, and the antiwar message near the end, the film is definitely a product of its time, but with numerous references to canon.

See this film: If you like the morphine-shooting melancholy, business-as-usual Holmes.

Don’t see this film: if you’re a fan of Victorian elegance.


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