Ever wondered whether the Sherlock Holmes cases collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes et. al. are complete? Ever asked yourself whether Sherlock could also fail and keep Watson from writing down the story?
This is what happens in Billy Wilder’s 1970 movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
The movie can be seen as a parody accumulating all the fascinating set pieces that make up our modern perception of Sherlock Holmes: You get his signature clothing, his drug addiction, the violin and a Sherlock who personally starts the rumor of him and Watson engaging in a homosexual relationship when a Russian ballerina asks him to become a sperm donor. Billy Wilder intelligently plays with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories weaving in allusions to famous cases such as The Scandal in Bohemia or having Watson’s short stories published in Strand magazine, the actual magazine in which the detective stories were published in the 1890s. Interestingly enough the film’s Holmes does not always correspond to Watson’s stories, which draws attention to the fictional quality of the stories and to Holmes as a already-fictional creation within a fictional movie.
Yet, what is most intricate about Wilder’s movie starring Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson is his focus on the detectives failure which is brought by by the one phenomenon that Holmes’s genius mind can never quite understand: women.
“Holmes, let me ask you a question. I hope I am not being presumptuous but… There have been women in your life, haven’t there?”
“The answer is yes… You are being presumptuous.”
Although the title is a bit misleading as the viewer does not get to see a more private Sherlock than the one in other representations of the detective figure apart maybe from a scene in the bathtub, the film is highly recommendable. Wilder skillfully juggles with icons of Britishness from Holmes himself to a very feisty representation of Queen Victoria to the Loch Ness monster, for which he had a life-size model built which unfortunately sank during a test run. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a witty parody on how myths of Britishness come to life and are transformed over time.
Holmes: “Take my fiancée for instance.”
“She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat. 24 hours before the wedding she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable and not to be trusted.”
Billy Wilder himself, who could not personally oversee the editing process demanded by the studio, said of his film: “It was an absolute disaster. The way it was cut. I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing… It was the most elegant picture I’ve ever shot.” Unfortunately many scenes, including a prologue, have been cut and couldn’t be restored so far. Just as Holmes himself, the film is a representation of mysteries and myths. It allows us to guess whether Holmes’s account of his later fiancée is true or whether there actually have been women in Holmes’s life at all. It wittily uses the Loch Ness monster, Queen Victoria and Holmes himself to show the viewer that all of them become “myth” at some stage whether actual historical persona, literary character or phantasmatic phenomenon in the first place. Sherlock is a bit like Nessie: They are cultural creations and we know that they are not real but on some level we’d all just for them to actually exist and to have a private life after all.