The beautifully constructed opening credits to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes are set fifty years after the character’s supposed death, where his personal artefacts are being reopened and methodically inspected. It suggests that what we’re about to witness is the ‘real’ story behind the fabled detective.
Even by 1970 – the year this film was made – the character’s mythology had taken a well-trodden cinematic path, the first screen adaptation stretching back over 50 years prior. But what Wilder and co-screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond do here isn’t so much a radical reimagining of the legend, more a witty and playful re-examination. A stormy night see’s the arrival of a cold, sodden Belgian woman (Geneviève Page) on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street, having been discovered floating in the River Thames. She instantly pleads with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) to find her missing engineer husband.
Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) initially seems more sympathetic to her plight, while his colleague would rather saunter around playing his violin and studying the ash from the myriad of cigars he has hooked up to a piping system. Reluctantly agreeing to take on the case, Holmes first consults his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee) at the Diogenes Club, before embarking on a trip with Holmes and the woman to a castle in Inverness, Scotland, where a whole slew of weird occurrences are afoot, not least the sighting of the infamous Loch Ness monster.
Given the fanciful adventure, this film itself is a largely grounded affair, much more concerned with characters rather than spectacle. It’s often very amusing, sometime surreal, and the script is chock-full of some wonderful zingers, delivered with razor-sharp timing by the magnificent Stephens. He truly is the film’s key ingredient, playing the famous detective with a mix of mild camp and insouciance, and sparking off brilliantly against Blakely’s neurotic, slightly bumbling Watson. It’s the mismatched duo we’ve seen numerous times before, but the actors manage to bring something fresh and endearing to that familiar conceit.
For a film which was aggressively cut down in length by a nervous studio (much to Wilders’ chagrin), the missing vignettes don’t impact on what remains. It could be argued that the actual plot doesn’t kick in for a good half hour, but the prologue – a mini escapade where Holmes is forced to fight off the advances of a famous Russian ballerina – is so entertaining and shrewd in how it toys with the audiences’ preconceptions of the character’s sexuality, it never feels superfluous. Give or take the odd blemish, the transfer of the film by distributor Eureka Entertainment is largely excellent – the trio’s jaunts through the Scottish countryside looking particularly striking and painterly. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a delightful take on an iconic literary creation, deeply appealing to both those familiar with the character and neophytes.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76