A Movie A Day: THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) I don’t hate women, I merely distrust them.
Published at: Jan. 1, 2009, 12:22 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Let me start out by saying I’ve found a new favorite with this film. Billy Wilder crafted a completely entertaining, fast-paced laugh fest that not only succeeds as a comedy, but also a character study as well. The dramatic elements don’t interfer with the comedy, they just support it.
I’m no expert on Sherlock Holmes. Outside of a few Holmes movies, I’m rather in the dark with the history of the character. I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be let in on the joke, since the film starts off with Dr. Watson’s will be executed and his trunk full of Holmes relics opened. I thought I wasn’t getting each item brought out, but luckily for me they were all items from the story being told in the movie.
I saw a giant book compiling every one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories at Costco recently… very affordable… something like $20 for a nice, leatherbound book. Might have to pick it up because I’d love to revisit this movie after reading the complete Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
While I never felt in the dark as a viewer I can guarantee there’s a deeper level of understanding that can be gained from being familiar with the case files. Watson and Holmes discuss many previous cases, sometimes Holmes chastises Watson for exaggerating. The banter is already funny, thanks to the ingenious casting of Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson, but I could tell that there’s a whole other level of appreciation I could be having if I wasn’t such a retard and actually read up on my classic literature.
The idea is that the story we’re seeing is a secret accounting of a particular case that Watson promised would go unpublished until well after they were both in their graves. When Watson’s (unseen) heir opens a trunk 50 years after his death (during the opening credits) a lot of items are pulled out, everything from Holmes’ cocaine syringe to his iconic pipe, hat and clue that are found throughout the adventure follow. Also included is the manuscript for this case, outlining a darker, truer version of Sherlock Holmes than those accounts published to the mystery rags of their time.
Sounds like a dark drama, doesn’t it? Never forget this is Billy Wilder telling this tale. The overall tone is very light, but it is punctuated with very serious character moments, like Watson’s fruitless attempts to talk Holmes out of his cocaine habit, which only manifests itself when he’s very low (usually due to boredom having no cases worthy of his intellect).
Stephens plays Holmes almost effeminately, which actually is important to the story. There is a question about Holmes’ sexuality that is never wrapped up in a nice bow. Early in the movie Holmes is summoned by a famous Russian ballet star. His interest is piqued and when it is revealed she is looking for her child’s father he gets excited.
When did he go missing? Where is the child? Well, there is no child yet. It got lost in the translation. She wants a child and has picked Holmes to be the father, wanting his brilliance… she believes her beauty and his mind will make a worthy child. His excuse to get out of it is that he and Watson are two bachelors who have lived together… for five years… get it?
Of course, this is news to Watson who is busying himself dancing and flirting with all the supporting ballet starlettes, who are swooning over him. This makes for an absolutely wonderful scene as the rumor starts spreading and the beautiful girls he is dancing with start slowly being replaced by the male ballet dancers until it’s just Watson and these guys in tights arm in arm.
When Watson confronts Holmes about it, he explains the situation, but it is very open-ended as to whether or not Holmes might be playing for the other team. Does that explain his misogeny? Or was his heart broken earlier in his life? There are cases to be made for both, as he does have a story about a young fiancée. I like that they keep it ambiguous.
MVP of this movie is Colin Blakely as Watson. He really is a bright beacon of energy and enthusiasm that keeps even the more drab-ish moments from becoming a bore. He is in a couple of the latter PINK PANTHER films, but I can’t say I remember him from those. It’s quite possible this was his one shining moment, the perfect casting in the perfect role.
If it wasn’t for Blakely the MVP would undoubtably go to Christopher Lee, who connects us to yesterday’s ‘80s satire SERIAL, who shatters his pigeon-holing horror casting with this role as uptight Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older, smarter brother. You get the feeling this dude balances the fate of countries, his decisions ending regimes and starting new ones.
He pops in when Sherlock and Watson have taken a case from the lovely Genevieve Page, playing an amnesiac looking for her husband, trying to talk them out of it. He can’t go into any details, but if Sherlock continues he will be trampling on a situation Mycroft views as too big for him to handle.
It’s a wonderful role for Lee, who had previously played both Watson and Sherlock and is to this day the only actor, I believe, to have played both Holmes brothers and Dr. Watson. As Mycroft he’s able to be very strong, but not threatening. He’s not a dark character, even though he is shrouded in mystery.
In fact on this DVD there’s a brilliant special feature which is just Christopher Lee talking about Sherlock Holmes as a literary character, his insights to the books and to Arthur Conan Doyle himself and the debt he feels to Billy Wilder. It’s worth the price of the DVD alone, nevermind the great movie itself.
After a little digging, I discovered that Wilder actually shot a lot more than what is in this movie. It was originally intended to be a big, roadshow type movie, complete with intermission, chronicalling multiple “newly discovered” Holmes tales. Wilder apparently shot and edited together a three hour and 20 minute epic series of Holmes tales that the studio ultimately cut down to just over 2 hours, eliminating all but the main tale involving the Loch Ness monster, the Queen of England and midgets (I’m not kidding).
Supposedly that footage is lost and nobody expects it to turn up. Pretty insane… how the hell do you spend a ton of money on footage like that and not at least keep the original camera negative? I mean, seriously… I know there wasn’t home video and the idea of owning different cuts of movies wasn’t even hatched, but still… there must have been re-release value or something, yeah?
Final Thoughts: This movie has Wilder’s trademarks: effortlessly entertaining and a vehicle for some perfectly cast actors, from big names like Christopher Lee to relative unknowns. In fact, rumor has it that Peter Sellers was originally going to play Watson to Peter O’Toole’s Holmes… which would have been fascinating, but I can’t imagine that would have turned out any better than Stephens and Blakely. The chemistry between all the players is perfect, the cinematography is gorgeous and dreamlike and the balance between drama and comedy is nailed. I highly recommend this one.
Here are the final run of A Movie A Day titles:
Thursday, January 1st: IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)
Friday, January 2nd: THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE (1974)
Saturday, January 3rd: THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977)
Sunday, January 4th: LOST IN YONKERS (1993)
Monday, January 5th: THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975)
Tuesday, January 6th: CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978)
Wednesday, January 7th: A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977)
Tomorrow begins our final week of AMAD, following director Billy Wilder over to the Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine reteaming romantic comedy IRMA LA DOUCE! See you folks for that one!