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Monday, January 18, 2010

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The current film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, while not inspiring me to make a trip to the movie theater, has inspired me to reconnect with one of my favorite fictional characters. I have been sporadically making my way through the Grenada Television adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories, starring the magnificent Jeremy Brett as the great detective, and I have been seeking out other film adaptations to place on my Netflix queue. I have seen several of the old Basil Rathbone movies, and while Rathbone portrays the character admirably, I have never enjoyed those movies very much. They suffer from weak scripts and logical gaps in the plot, an unforgivable error in a Sherlock Holmes story.

In my searching I came across a movie I couldn't believe I hadn't encountered previously. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a 1970 feature directed by Billy Wilder, who in a previous post I put forth as my suggestion for best director of all time. How had I missed a movie about one of my favorite characters, by my favorite director?

The answer is because the movie was something of a flop and a disappointment upon its release. It also features no real stars, the original plan to cast Peter O'Toole as Sherlock and Peter Sellers as Watson being scrapped early on. Robert Stephens plays Sherlock instead, and gives him a bit more wittiness and more fun than most incarnations. At first he didn't seem like a good fit, but his performance grew on me as the film went on. Colin Blakely's Watson would have been better without the constant over-acting and attempts at comic relief, but was not too much of a drag on the story. The only ancillary character to really stand out is Christopher Lee's Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's influential brother.

The script is very strong, which you would expect in a Wilder movie, co-written with his recurrent partner I.A.L. Diamond. There are several knowing nods to the original stories, and some slight poking fun, but of the sort done by people clearly in love with the original material.

The set-up is that, fifty years after his death, the effects of Dr. Watson are unsealed and found to contain accounts of Holmes' cases thought to be too sensitive for publication during the author or the detective's lifetimes. The movie tells two of these stories. The first is an odd choice, it is essentially one long, drawn-out gay joke that isn't funny at all today and couldn't have been a screamer even forty years ago. After a prologue in which the famous pair argue about cocaine and other matters, they curiously receive two tickets to the Russian ballet. Turns out the aging ballerina wants her child to be brilliant as well as beautiful, and thinks Sherlock's genes will do the trick. Holmes is only able to get out of it by telling the lady's interpreter that women "are not his cup of tea." Hilarious, I know.

After that dreadful opening though, the movie really picks up steam. The second story feels more like an authentic Holmes story, featuring fantastically strange and disparate elements. A woman with no memory shows up at 221B Baker St, and deduction leads Holmes to suspect she is looking for her husband. The man is a mining engineer hired to design an air pump for a shady outfit called Jonah, Ltd. which turns out not to exist. Along the way, the story expands to include missing midgets, smuggled canaries, and the possible existence of the Loch Ness Monster. It all to comes to an interesting, logical, and best of all, unexpected conclusion. It feels like a real accomplishment by Wilder and Diamond that they were able to pen something in the style of Conan Doyle and make it feel original at the same time.

The story behind the movie is also rather interesting. This was supposed to be one of the biggest movies of 1970, and also one of the longest. Wilder's original cut was well over three hours, and told four unique Holmes stories. But the studio lost a lot of money, and they wanted this to be a bigger box office hit, which meant cutting it down to two hours. Two of the stories were jettisoned, and the film was lost. The DVD includes a deleted scenes section, but because the original film wasn't preserved, these are pastiches of still photographs, a few audio recordings, and at times, shots of the actual script. Two of the deleted scenes were really quite interesting, and would have been much better inclusions than the painful Russian ballerina section. One of them features an incredibly puzzling set up: a dead body in an upside-down room. The other features Holmes allowing Watson to try his hand at solving a case, with hilarious results. Apparently, the decision to cut these was not Billy Wilder's, but rather that of the editor, Ernest Walter.

Anyway, I found this a very interesting film, deserving a much better reputation. It is not among Wilder's best, but I don't think the man was capable of making an uninteresting film. This one gets 7.8 out of 10. If they'd left the right stuff on the cutting room floor it would have scored even higher.

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