Focus On Film: The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Now in the third week of their Focus On Film: Adaptation course, the University of Dundee’s Dr. Brian Hoyle and Dr. Chris Murray take on one of the most prominant and recogniseable characters in the transmedia landscape: Sherlock Holmes.

The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes

50 years after Doctor Watson’s (Colin Blakely) death, a case is uncovered containing a number of unpublished stories deemed unsuitable for Sherlock Holmes’ (Robert Stephens) contemporary audience. One sees the detective propositioned by a famous Russian ballerina (Tamara Toumanova), while the other chronicles his hunt for the husband of an amnesiac Belgian woman called Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page). Despite being warned off the case by the British Government, Holmes and Watson journey to Scotland where they encounter undead midgets, Queen Victoria and The Loch Ness Monster.

The longevity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character really is almost beyond comprehension. Despite being originally conceived over 126 years ago, the adventures of arguably the world’s most famous detective (fictional or otherwise) continue to this day, having been adopted, adapted and assimilated by just about every single medium there is.

The last ten years alone have cast Sherlock Holmes as a valium-addicted diagnostician, a steampunk action hero and Detective Who. It has become the done thing to re-imagine, subvert or deconstruct our icons and heroes, and it is difficult now to appreciate just how unusual Billy Wilder’s The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes must have seemed when it found its way into cinemas back in 1970 — a good thirty years ahead of its time.

Originally envisioned (and shot) as an anthology of four original Sherlock Holmes stories, audiences only ever saw approximately half of the movie Wilder directed. Despite such studio interference — and while the other two chapters exist in various stages of completion (one of silent images and the other of blind sounds) — it is remarkable just how well the film holds up in its truncated form. Each individual adventure holds its own, while the two also work together — complementing and completing one another beautifully.

Starting out as a loving lampoon, with Sherlock bemoaning his public image and Watson taking advantage of his creative licence, the film slowly develops into a much more mature and unashamedly traditional detective yarn. Never descending entirely into out-and-out parody, Wilde and co-writer I. A. L. Diamond manage to have their cake and eat it as the second (and always intended as final) episode juggles mystery, love and even Nessie to winning effect.

This success is in no small part down to Wilder’s impressive cast. Both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely excel as Holmes and Watson respectively, each  embarking on a very different arc that sees their characters dealing with the former’s sexuality, drug dependency and attitudes towards woman. They prove more than capable during the earlier comedic moments, before bringing real pathos and poignancy to the more dramatic second half. It is Christopher Lee, however, who steals the show as Holmes’ brother Mycroft, particularly in his dealings with Mollie Maureen’s Queen Victoria.

While it would of course be nice to one day experience the film in the way Wilder had intended, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes is still a wonder to behold even at half its original length. What’s more, it may even be best adaptation of Conan Doyle’s creation to date.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Focus On Film: The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

  1. Pingback: February 2013 – Snitches end up in ditches! | popcornaddict

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