The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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By Scott Ross

One of Billy Wilder’s loveliest movies, cut drastically before its premiere. Worse, over time the sound has gone missing from at least one sequence and the picture from another, so barring a minor miracle no true reconstruction is possible. A genuine pity, since this autumnal masterwork deserves a much wider following.

Wilder and his compatriot, I.A.L. Diamond, conceived their Holmes (Robert Stephens) as a melancholy, acerbic misanthrope, both amused by and irritated at the fictions of Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Wilder and Diamond caught the ire of Sherlockians everywhere by implying that their Holmes might be homosexual (“You mean you and Dr. Watson — he is your glass of tea?” “If you want to be picturesque about it.”) but the matter is more or less settled when the consulting detective becomes entranced by a duplicitous double-agent (Geneviève Page.)

Also around to upset traditionalists is Christopher Lee as a very gaunt Mycroft Holmes and Irene Handl’s less-than-enchanting Mrs. Hudson. Lee later credited Wilder’s casting with lifting him out of the horror ghetto typecasting he’d been subjected to, although the filmmaker could not resit, on seeing a bat flying near Loch Lomand at dusk, remarking to Lee, “You should feel right at home here.”

Stanley Holloway also shows up as a gravedigger (a nod perhaps to his famous turn in Hamlet?) The exquisite cinematography is by Christopher Challis, the marvelously detailed production design is Alexandre Trauner’s, and Miklós Rózsa provides the sumptuous, haunting score; at wilder’s request he adapted his own Violin Concerto, a canny move that dovetails beautifully with Holmes’ plangent choice of musical instrument.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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