Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes'
is the most overrated Holmes film?

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page and Christopher Lee
Director: Billy Wilder
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Holmes and Watson (Stephens and Blakely) endeavor to learn the identity of a woman suffering from amnesia (Page) after she is dropped off at their apartments at 221B Baker Street. They soon find themselves drawn into a mystery involving a missing Belgian engineer, Holmes' politically powerful brother Mycroft (Lee) and the Loch Ness Monster.

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" features an ill-implemented attempt at presenting a more vulnerable and human Holmes. During the film's first half hour, Holmes expresses discomfort at the way Watson's writings have turned him into a star and laments that he feels obligated to run around in a deer stalker hat and tweed cloak because that is how artists protrayed him in Strand magazine. Comments made by Watson in this early part of the film also seems to imply that he as exaggerated some of Holmes' exploits and characteristics.

However, as the film unfolds, this approach is dropped and it slips into a story-telling mold that was established with the Basil Rathbone-starring series from Universal Pictures during the 1940s, with Holmes abusing Watson at almost every turn yet still insisting that he's his friend. It's not the clever and unique approach that some reviewers paint it as.

Perhaps this is because they don't get past that first half hour. It was a description of that half hour from a friend whose taste I trust that made me move this film up in my review stack, because her description of Holmes starting a rumor that he and Watson were a committed gay couple sounded intriguing.

Sadly, like the idea of presenting a more human Holmes, the gay rumor angle ends up going nowhere in the picture as a whole. It's little more than an extended bit of sketch comedy within the picture, and as a story element perhaps one of the most aggregious examples of Holmes behaving like a jerk toward Watson for no reason whatsoever other than to let the viewer develope an intense dislike for Holmes and cause one to wonder why on earth Watson continues to consider him a friend.

This would have been a stronger film if that first half hour had been strongly edited, with the entire business involving a Russian ballerina and Holmes pretending that he and Watson were gay lovers had been dropped. It's material that has nothing to do with the rest of the story and it adds nothing positive to the overall portrayal of Holmes or Watson.

This would also have been a stronger film if a more suitable actor had been cast to play Holmes. I never thought I would see a more effeminate version of the character than the one portrayed by Christopher Plummer in "Murder by Degree", but Robert Stephens has proven me wrong. Plummer's Holmes comes across like more macho-than-macho when viewed in light of what Stephens did.

The rest of the cast, however, does a good job--and Stephens isn't bad once one gets used to the simpering, limp-wristeed interpretation of Holmes--although there does seem to be a tendency to overact. Both Page (and the mystery woman) and Blakely ham it up just a bit too much in some scenes. It's expected from Blakely, as his Watson is pure comic relief, but Page should have dialed back on the melodramatic stylings once or twice.

If you enjoy the general tone of the Basil Rathbone Holmes, I think you'll like this one, even if you'll often find yourself wondering how much better the film would have been if Holmes had been better cast. You'll like it even more if you enjoyed the humorous approach found in the Ronald Howard-starring television series. What you won't find, however, is the alleged genius of writer/director Billy Wilder. Overall, this is an average presentation of the Doyle's classic characters with some glimmers of what could have been a great film shining through here and there. If only Wilder had been a little more aggressive with his reinterperation instead of falling back onto familiar and safe territory that had been thoroughly explored during the 1940s and 1950s.

Trivia: Christopher Lee is, so far, the only actor to portray both Sherlock Holmes (in "The Deadly Necklace") and Mycroft Holmes (in "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes").

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