The casebooks of the great consulting detective of Victorian London, as serialised in The Strand Magazine by his dear friend Doctor John Watson, a total of sixty adventures told across four novels and fifty-six shorty stories, have remained in the public consciousness for well over a century since first publication of A Study in Scarlet in 1887, yet for all the insight they offer into his mind and methods the private life of Sherlock Holmes remains frustratingly opaque.
Diplomatically choosing not to publicise “matters of a delicate and sometimes scandalous nature,” it was not until 1970 that a trunk was opened containing artefacts and papers relating to these previously undisclosed cases, some of which were then suppressed for almost another five decades, among them The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room, The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners.
With a career as long and celebrated as the detective himself, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was the twenty-third of twenty-seven films directed by Hollywood legend Billy Wilder and one of eleven on which he collaborated with writer I A L Diamond on the screenplay, their most successful partnerships having been on Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and The Front Page, all of which starred his other frequent collaborator Jack Lemmon.
Here Wilder’s leading man is Robert Stephens, at the time a hugely respected stage actor whose prior film credits included the epic Cleopatra and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and who would later appear in the horror films The Asphyx and The Shout and the television production of The Box of Delights as well as providing the voice of Aragorn in the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
A performance on which opinion remains divided, Stephens was far from the traditional perception of Holmes as a man whose intellectual brilliance was matched by his kindly demeanour as had been portrayed Basil Rathbone in the forties and Peter Cushing in the sixties, though his acerbic manner, cutting words and dismissive attitude informed later interpretations such as that of Jeremy Brett, considered by many to be the “definitive” Holmes, as well as the currently popular Benedict Cumberbatch.
At his side is another stage veteran, Colin Blakely of the National Theatre, giving what is regarded as one of the finest interpretations of Doctor John Watson, again a departure from what had become in Hollywood a “bumbling sidekick” role, capable and caring and on the whole patient with the whims and frenzies of his constant companion whose life he has chronicled.
Their complex relationship examined both within the walls of 221B Baker Street and as perceived by outsiders, unlike Without A Clue which posits Holmes as a front for Watson’s skills or Broken Holmes which satirises their friendship as abusive, here Holmes’ frustration stems from the overinflated portrayal which Watson has crafted in order to boost the popularity of the printed stories.
As might be expected, the script is sharp and witty, with much of the dialogue lifted directly from the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the whole is delightfully subversive and wilfully preposterous as Holmes and Watson first take a diversion to Swan Lake for an encounter with a prima ballerina who goes full diva on them before, after half an hour of frivolous but entertaining preamble, the plot arrives, announced by a late night knock at the door.
The woman pulled from the Thames suffering from amnesia after her assault, Holmes is able to piece together her identity as Gabrielle Valladon (Belle de Jour’s Geneviève Page), seeking her missing husband, but despite the urging of Holmes’ elder brother Mycroft (The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Christopher Lee), the trio set off for the Scottish Highlands and a monstrous encounter on the waters of Loch Ness.
A grand production restored and released on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, the focus is soft but the colours are ravishing and show off the exquisite sets and costumes magnificently even before the glorious location filming of the north, Urquhart Castle by Loch Ness, Drumnadrochit, and Nairn’s somewhat more rustic railway station masquerading as Inverness.
The plot is slight but the journey is the more important part, Wilder’s reserved style in keeping with the Victorian era in which the story unfolds, April 1888, simply placing the camera and letting the actors perform, among them the wonderful Irene Handl whose Mrs Hudson takes no nonsense from her often ill-mannered and demanding lodger.
Assured in the role and handling witnesses, suspects and a Stradivarius violin with equal skill, Stephens was a friend of Jeremy Brett who would go on to play Holmes from 1984 to 1994, that long running Granada series allowing a deep exploration of the canon while, with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes neither a critical nor commercial success on original release, Stephens and Blakely were never permitted to go beyond what is given here.
That loss to history is somewhat mitigated on this new disc where great efforts have been undertaken to piece together the remaining clues as to what would have been Wilder’s original vision of this film, released in October 1970 running 125 minutes but with several segments excised completely.
Unfolding over fifty minutes, The Missing Cases recreates these scenes through excerpts of the script, on-set photography, preserved audio recordings and, for The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, with the original footage, regrettably without an audio track but with the dialogue subtitled instead.
Each segment of the film self-contained, the decision of the studio to cut down an unwieldy three-hour film is, from a practical perspective, understandable, and certainly the additional prologue and epilogue add little, but both The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room and the train journey which leads into it, totalling barely twenty minutes, add disproportionate insight into the characters and heighten the overall experience of the film with their gleeful absurdity and should have been retained.
The disc also containing interviews with editor Ernest Walter, film scholar Neil Sinyard and Sir Christopher Lee, the latter is vastly informative as he discusses his relationship with Holmes across many productions and his friendship with Adrian Conan Doyle, son of the author. Regarding Wilder as “the greatest director I ever worked for,” his appraisal of the legacy of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is typically direct: “I thought the film was superb.”
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is available on Blu-ray now from Eureka