Forty years before Guy Ritchie and company re-imagined Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder offered his own take on the character with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a somewhat more traditional approach that nevertheless paid more attention to the man’s quirks and possible quirks than films had hitherto undertaken. Earlier films had made passing reference to Holmes’ drug use; Wilder brings it into the open. He also raises—and cheekily never quite answers—the question of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In the bargain, he offers a credible-enough Holmes adventure. The problem—at least for me—has always been that the adventure is no more than credible enough.
As it stands The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a difficult film to fairly assess. Wilder’s concept was for a three-hour film. What we have is a 125-minute version of that concept. Quite a few things are obviously missing. Perhaps the most telling is the modern prologue. Originally conceived and shot as a fairly lengthy scene, the final version reduces this to a Maurice Binder montage of the effects in Dr. Watson’s tin trunk being examined 50 years after his death—including some stories of a “scandalous nature” that he’d deliberately withheld. Those stories make up the bulk of the film.
While this change doesn’t do much to the film itself, it perhaps sheds some light on Wilder and his place in film at that time. The original version goes out of its way to decry the baseness of the modern age (especially the James Bond movies). It’s difficult not to suspect that this is very personal for Wilder, whose films had often been thought of as shocking. By 1970—with the advent of the rating system and more permissive atmosphere—Wilder was simply no longer very shocking, and his perception of this (and a certain sourness) comes through strongly in the deleted opening. What follows may have been his attempt to be as shocking as his modern counterparts, but it tends instead to be rather charming and slightly old-fashioned.
Probably the most theoretically shocking business involves just exactly how Holmes feels about Watson—something that works in large part on the slightly fey and playful performance of Robert Stephens as Holmes. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, Holmes finds himself being asked to father a child—an awkward situation he extricates himself from by “revealing” that he and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakley) are more than friends. This has the unfortunate side-effect of finding Watson being “fixed up” with a group of male ballet dancers, resulting in the good doctor’s outrage over the whole thing. Holmes isn’t very helpful, since he refuses to take any of this seriously, suggesting they can always “meet clandestinely on a bench in Hyde Park” when Watson decides they can no longer live together. Holmes finally calms his friend down by noting that Watson has a good record with the fair sex and can get women to vouch for him, prompting Watson to say the same of Holmes. Then thinking about it, Watson probes, “Let me ask you a question. I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but there have been women in your life?” All this affords him, however, is Holmes’ response, “The answer is yes—you’re being presumptuous.”
This—and indeed most of the first half of the film—works splendidly (even if it fails to be shocking). The film’s setup is brilliant. The central mystery—concerning Mycroft Holmes (a splendid Chistopher Lee) and the Loch Ness Monster—is less rewarding, and its shaggy sea-monster solution somewhat less than that. The story is OK and it’s neatly tied to earlier aspects of the film, but it’s never really more than OK. It’s certainly not worthy of the first half of the film, and I really doubt that Wilder’s complete three-hour version would change that. Still, when The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is at its best, it’s both good Wilder and good Sherlock Holmes—and those are qualities not to be lightly dismissed.