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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder, 1970)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s excellent extension of Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of popular detective novels, is a risky attempt to transform one of pop culture’s key figures into something a bit more human. On its surface a forgotten entry into the series of the detective’s great cases, the film in many respects plays much like any other adventure that the world’s most filmed character has partaken. It revisits a familiar setting and characters that fans have grown to love, and inserts particularly Holmes-ian touches into its mystery such as the inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, and an amnesiac. Still, Wilder is after something more profound than a simple mystery tale here, and to a large extent he succeeds in his quest to cast Sherlock Holmes, the man, in relief when held up against Sherlock Holmes, The Legend. As played by the brilliant Robert Stephens, this film’s Holmes is a mess of contradictions and compromises so convincing that it is likely to make one question the unfettering stoicism that other Holmes films feature.
This Sherlock’s ingrained distrust of the opposite sex and his unwillingness to indulge in anything as reckless as emotional passion make him a great detective (and make the excitable Watson a perfect comic foil), but they also make him eerily similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the way that he puts his logic before his heart. What’s interesting about this attitude toward the detective are the ways that the mystery that he investigates during the course of the film comment directly on that questionable mindset. Through a series of plot twists, we see how Wilder’s attitude toward Holmes grows increasingly complex. In the very first scenes of the film, Wilder begins what would almost feel like an attack on the character’s character, were it not for later compassion the film shows him. Holmes is not only presented as an inferior version of the figure we know from the familiar stories (he can’t play the violin nearly as well as one might think, for example), but also as a dope fiend who makes excuses for his addiction and, for a moment or two, as Watson’s gay lover. As the story proceeds, he’s blessed with his usual, uncanny deductive skills, but he’s also revealed as man who’s pragmatic to a fault, and his unwavering faith in his logic becomes problematic when he, inevitably, begins to become emotionally involved in an assignment. By the film’s end, his great intellect has become a huge liability, his reputation has turned into an outright burden, his greatest liability becomes a refuge, and his figure can only be looked at with much uncertainty. Yet for all of that doubt, the film doesn’t feel like a nasty look at the beloved character. If anything, its poignancy begs why Arthur Conan Doyle himself hadn’t seen the same dangerous compulsions in his creation and examined them.
Though the emotional crux of the film is rooted in the Sherlock Holmes mythology, it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to see how its questioning of a life spent overanalyzing could apply to a dyed in the wool cynic like Wilder himself. Indeed, if anything is Holmes’ problem, it’s that he’s too intelligent to convince himself that he’s happier than he really is. His intelligence is a curse of sorts because it allows him to see all too clearly the mistakes that he’s made and the hypocrisies of the world. Thanking no one in particular that his failures not chronicled by Watson at the end of the film, Holmes at once exhibits his well-deserved ego and his shame at possessing it. Much like the film that surrounds him, this Holmes is too self-aware to be content with easy answers or simple opinions of people, and that makes him rather fascinating. That the solution to the mystery confirms the director’s cynical worldview, despite any affection toward the central characters or comic bits that were scattered throughout, suggests that the self-reflection should be viewed more as awareness of Wilder’s own predilections and less as an attempt to reform them. Whatever the case, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes offers a compelling what-if that seems much at home in Wilder’s cinema of the ambivalent.