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1 review, 4 user ratings

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Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Holmes as he is seldom seen."
5 stars

Paperback mysteries are not generally thought to be the most nourishing literature, but devouring them in junior high and high school taught me a few things. Aside from the vocabulary expansion 19th century books like the Holmes series offer, they were my first exposure to the device of the unreliable narrator. The most obvious example was in a certain Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, but also in Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Within the stories, Holmes would occasionally mention that Watson's accounts were not necessarily wholly accurate, usually accusing him of sensationalism. It was seldom a factor in the story, but it did leave open the idea that we didn't fully know these characters - an idea which Billy Wilder uses to intriguing effect in "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes".

It comes up almost immediately, as Holmes (Robert Stephens) complains to Watson (Colin Blakely) upon their return to Baker Street that he is not as tall or misogynistic as Watson has portrayed him, and then there's the ridiculous costume ("blame the illustrator!" says Watson). A pair of women will soon throw Holmes's life for a loop - prima ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who wishes his services not as a detective but as a man, and an initially-unknown woman (Genevieve Page) fished out the Thames with temporary amnesia and a card with their address. Sherlock soon deduces that she is Gabrielle Valladon, wife of an engineer who has disappeared. However, Sherlock is soon warned off the case by his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and Mycroft's words should carry some weight; after all, he not only represents the British government, occasionally he is the British government.

Billy Wilder (who produced, directed, and co-wrote with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) originally envisioned Private Life as something of an anthology film, with a number of shorter stories and an intermission in the middle of its three hour run time. The studio wound up cutting it down to a bit over two hours by removing episodes, and perhaps could have cut further by removing the story of Mme. Petrova, but it remains because it is an amusing bit and does a nice job of showing how Holmes is extremely tentative around women. I can't say whether this cutting improves the film from the hypothetical roadshow edition - it simply doesn't exist in its complete form - but even though Wilder was reportedly upset by the cuts, they do hit a good balance between the film being focused and simply being another Doyle pastiche ("The Adventure of the Loch Ness Monster", perhaps).

Instead, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes winds up remaining true to its title; we learn about the Holmes that Watson didn't much tell us about. Wilder, Diamond, and star Robert Stephens give us a man who does live a life between cases, and had one before he met Watson. He engages in conversations not directly linked to solving a case or demonstrating his deductive prowess, although still portraying him as somewhat harsh and difficult to get along with, having a tight focus on detection. Stephens does a really nice job with this, considering that Holmes is a character where it is very easy to lean on caricature and exaggeration; he makes Holmes a man as much as an icon. It's one of the least theatrical, most naturalistic performances of the character on film, and while it might not work in all cases, it's one of the very best.

The rest of the cast is impressive, too. Genevieve Page makes Gabrielle a worthy match for Sherlock Holmes without her being obviously a female analog or complement to him. She's intelligent, witty, and sexy, and as Holmes and the audience learn more about her, it always fits together. Christopher Lee is almost unrecognizable as Mycroft, but delivers a great air of authority. He also does a fine job of showing that concern and frustration for his younger brother is something that is on his mind (though not the only thing), without having "what I think of Sherlock" dialogue or obvious meaningful looks. Compared to the rest, Colin Blakely plays Watson in a rather broadly comic manner; it's amusing at times, but seems a little out of place.

The mystery story they're involved in is a fun one. It's fanciful but all in all stops just short of ridiculous. Wilder and Diamond find a balance between light comedy and intrigue, moving smoothly from one to the next as the film goes along. The script is peppered with references to other Holmes stories while creating a consistent universe of its own. The filmmakers also manage to find ways to hint at what's going on in a way that is interesting but not overdramatic, as well as work Holmes's cocaine habit into the film in a way that is neither overtly moralizing or self-satisfied.

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is not the traditional Sherlock Holmes story, but part of the idea behind it is that the traditional Sherlock Holmes characterization was never complete, and even the original stories acknowledged it as such. It's an intriguing examination of the character, with enough humor and adventure to make it more than academic.

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originally posted: 12/11/09 16:00:00
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User Comments

6/26/12 matthew thompson dalldorf Holmes semi-spoof tarts off witty & original, then becomes a run of the mill. 3 stars
6/05/10 User Name Wilder succeeds in creating a late-career masterpiece with strong performances. 4 stars
3/03/10 Richard Brandt Ultimately melancholy but catch the respectful look Holmes eventually shows Watson 4 stars
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  29-Oct-1970 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Jul-2003

  03-Dec-1970 (PG)

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