Sherlock Holmes Week Day 3: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Private Life of Sherlock HolmesDirector: Billy Wilder

Writer: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Mollie Maureen, Stanley Holloway

Plot: Many years after the death of Dr. John Watson (Colin Blakely), a lockbox is opened containing previously unrevealed tales of his adventures with the great Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) – tales too sensitive, or perhaps too personal, to share with the general public as he published their adventures during Holmes’s life. This film presents us with two such tales.

In the first, Holmes berates Watson for the romantic nature of his published tales – making him out to seem taller, more quirky and more capable than he really is (the last charge Watson vehemently disagrees with). What’s more, he’s growing bored – the criminal class has become too unimaginative for his tastes.  Holmes is turning more and more to a cocaine solution to distract himself. Concerned, Watson convinces Holmes to accompany him to a performance of Swan Lake. Holmes is invited backstage to meet the show’s star, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who has a proposal – she wishes to conceive a child with him, hoping to combine her physical perfection with Holmes’s flawless mind. Unwilling to participate, Holmes tries to find a delicate way out of the situation, claiming to be a hemophiliac, claiming that English men are terrible lovers… Petrova is not swayed until Holmes implies that he and Watson are more “involved” than the Doctor’s published stories reveal.  Although Holmes slips from the ballerina’s grasp, Watson is enraged when he discovers the rumor. Holmes convinces Watson his reputation as a ladies’ man will protect him, but Watson is stunned when he realizes Holmes has no such protection – he has virtually no track record with women at all.

As Watson ponders his friend, a cabbie arrives with a Belgian woman named Gabrielle (Genevieve Page). Watson puts her to bed, diagnosing her with temporary amnesia, and is determined to help her. Holmes agrees, but only to get rid of her as soon as possible. The woman awakes, mistaking Holmes for her missing husband, Emil. He plays along, hoping to uncover clues. In the morning, she has regained her senses and begs the detective for help finding her husband. The investigation leads them to a message from Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who asks them to abandon their search for Gabrielle, in the name of national security. Instead, Holmes takes her to Scotland, where he believes the solution to the mystery lies.

Holmes follows the clues to a cemetery, an anonymous man found in the river is being buried. They search the coffin to find Gabrielle’s husband, Emil, while Watson makes a very different discovery – the Loch Ness Monster. On the lake they see the creature and set out to find it, instead encountering Mycroft in an experimental submarine, its periscope disguised with a monster head. Mycroft reveals that the real Gabrielle Valladon is dead and the woman they travel with is a German spy, sent to use Holmes’s keen mind to help hunt down the missing Emil and steal the submersible from the British government. Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) arrives to inspect the submersible. Initially impressed, when she realizes it is intended as a warship, she declares it “unsportsmanlike” and orders it destroyed.

Holmes returns to Gabrielle – really Ilsa Von Hoffmanstal, and uses her to send a signal to her German friends to lure them into a trap. Mycroft will obey the Queen’s command to destroy the ship, but takes the German spies with it. Holmes, meanwhile, arranges for Ilsa to be sent back to Germany, traded for a captured British spy, instead of being sent to jail.

Some time later, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft with painful news – Ilsa was captured spying in Japan and executed. Holmes is struck silent for a moment before asking Watson for his cocaine for the first time in months. The great detective locks himself away, while Watson picks up his pen and begins to write.

Thoughts: This film has a rather odd pedigree. Originally conceived and shot as a 165-minute “road show” picture intended to tour the country and play special engagements, United Artists suffered a series of flops that led to them forcing Billy Wilder to cut it down to 125 minutes for a standard theatrical run. Fortunately, the series of short stories in the film made it easy to cut, but there are two whole episodes and a framing sequence that were excised completely. Some chunks have been restored on the film’s DVD release, but to date a complete original print has never been discovered.

I fear my synopsis doesn’t quite get across the tone of this movie. Although it deals with some serious ideas, such as Holmes’s cocaine addiction, the script itself is actually quite funny. An early scene during the ballet, for example, contains a perfectly-written and timed scene in which Watson relates the number of men who have committed suicide out of love for the prima ballerina. (I swear, that’s funnier than it sounds.) Watson’s delight at being left alone with a set of Russian-speaking ballerinas is also really amusing. Unlike the first two films in this project, this is a Watson I can get behind. He’s lighthearted, he’s unrelentingly male in his behavior, but he never comes across as goofy or incompetent, and that makes him my favorite Watson to date.

Robert Stephens’s Holmes isn’t quite as iconic as Basil Rathbone (who gets a bit of a nod in this film, as Stephens laments the fact that he has to wear a seersucker hat and matching coat because the public now expects it thanks to the illustrations published with Watson’s stories). His performance, nevertheless, is exemplary. He comes across as very clever, but a trifle less eccentric than Rathbone or Lee, which well befits the conceit that Watson has always exaggerated Holmes in his writing.

I’m not sure what the missing segments of this film are about, but the ones we get here fit together nicely, with an undercurrent of doubt regarding Holmes’s sexuality being the connecting thread. There could be no doubt that Billy Wilder, creator of classics like Some Like it Hot, would be perfect for this material. Although in the canon Holmes fiction the detective never has any real romantic connections, it always seems clear that this stems from a distrust of women. This movie brings that up at the beginning, but allows it to dangle as a sort of question mark. Is that the real reason Holmes has remained alone for so long? Gabrielle complicates things in a very pleasant way, giving us hints that Holmes’s interest in her case (despite the fact that he believes her to be a married woman) is more than simply professional without ever knocking us over the head with his attraction to the point where there can be no doubt.

By the end, the ambiguity is somewhat sponged away. It seems clear that Holmes allows his affection for the woman he called Gabrielle to arrange the freedom of a dangerous enemy spy. It’s a small but very humanizing gesture on Holmes’s part. The look on Stephens’s face as she rides away, signaling “auf Wiedersehen” with her umbrella, truly sells the storyline – there’s a bit of satisfaction mingled in with just a hint of regret.  When he reads Mycroft’s letter, the face shifts again to severe – but contained – agony.

For a while on Loch Ness the film seems like it’s going to veer a bit too far into silly territory, particularly with Watson’s determination to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster and the cheesy way the legendary beast manifests itself. When we discover the truth, though, those qualms are sponged away – the idea of Mycroft using the legend of the creature as a distraction is really quite brilliant and builds the character well. In fact, Christopher Lee acquits himself very well as Holmes in this movie, far better than he comes off as the detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the Holmes movies I’ve taken in this week so far. It will be interesting to see how future adventures with the detective really measure up.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on May 29, 2013, in 4-Icons, Comedy, Mystery and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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