“If my little creation of Sherlock Holmes has survived longer than it deserved, than I consider it’s very largely due to those gentlemen who have associated themselves with him.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Robert Stephens asked Billy Wilder how he would like him to play Sherlock Holmes in Wilder’s brilliant screen rendering of the world’s greatest consulting detective, Wilder replied that he should play it as if he was playing Hamlet. For Billy Wilder, and as it happens for me too, the Sherlock Holmes stories are as significant and as precious as the works of William Shakespeare.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes brings new adventures to the screen, previously unpublished for reasons of delicacies and reputation keeping, discovered in Dr Watson’s safe in Cox & Co, and just as the title of the film promises, the new stories introduce a different Sherlock Holmes, a private Sherlock Holmes, away from Strand reading public.
Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond, the original script was composed of four such private stories and was set to be a three and a half hours film. It was suppose to be Billy Wilder’s grand epic and Robert Stephens’ big break into the big screen. But while all the material was shot, United Artists, who suffered quite a few failures with big epics the year before, decided to cut the film into two stories making it a 125 minutes film. Sadly Wilder was busy with another project and had left the film in the hands of Editor Ernest Walter, and since the butchered film didn't do very well and didn’t bring Stephens the coveted screen success, he too has lost interest in the film.
However, even with only two beautiful stories The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not only an outstanding pinnacle of Sherlock Holmes screen adaptations, it is also a classic in its own right. It is such a sad and beautiful film that sometimes, as Mark Gatiss pointed out in his Screen Epiphany at the BFI, it is easy to forget how incredibly funny it is.
Wilder has passed on Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers for the roles of Sherlock and Watson, in favour of the lesser known Robert Stephens as Sherlock and Colin Blakely as Watson. Stephens is an unusual casting for Sherlock Holmes and his portrayal of the sleuth is quite unlike anyone before or after him. Together Stephens and Wilder shine a light on sides of Sherlock Holmes that exist in the books, but are rarely shown in the screen adaptations. Stephens' Sherlock is a gentleman, with a sense of humour, compelling and indeed private. Whenever I watch The Private Life of Sherlock HolmesI am filled with great hankerings for Robert Stephens, it is a real loss that he hasn’t become the great actor that this film should have made him. Colin Blakely’s Dr Watson is wonderfully enthusiastic, caring and silly but not a buffoon as he was often portrayed in other adaptations. He is almost the perfect Dr Watson. (Martin Freeman’s Watson is in a way the truest to Doyle’s Watson and is still my favourite Watson, but only by a tiny bit more than Colin Blakely’s Watson).
The biggest name in The Private Life is Christopher Lee, who plays Mycroft Holmes. Mark Gatiss has often said that his portrayal of Mycroft in BBC's Sherlock is directly extrapolated from Lee’s Mycroft in The Private Life. Wilder told Christopher Lee, that he wanted his Mycroft to be unlike any character he played before. By then Lee had already played Sir Henry in Peter Cushing’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as well as Sherlock Holmes himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, but he was mostly known for his roles as Count Dracula and as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein. His Mycroft is indeed unique, he is much colder than Sherlock, almost cruel, he is smarter, secretive and possibly dangerous. But then the whole relationship between the Holmes brothers is different. Unlike in the books, here there is rivalry and mistrust between Sherlock and Mycroft, but at the same time it is clear that Mycroft worries and cares for Sherlock and at the end of the day The Private Life’s Sherlock respects Mycroft. It is a beautifully subtle relationship.
It is also suggested in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes that Mycroft’s Diogenes Club is in fact the secret service. Since in the books Mycroft is described as practically being the British government and his hand is in everything everywhere, it is not unlikely that the Diogenes Club will be some kind of secret organisation, a no talking policy helps with keeping secrets.
It is clear that other than Gatiss' portrayal of Mycroft, the sibling's relationship and the idea that Mycroft is a sinister character who control everything in the Sherlock, is influenced by The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
The two stories that made it to the finished film, are stories of romance and sexuality. In the first story, involving a Russian Prima Ballerina who wants Sherlock to father her child, Sherlock's sexuality is in question and remains ambiguous to the end. Stephens walk the line of ambiguity with great flair and class. Wilder has admitted that he regreted not making Sherlock Holmes more obviously gay, but while that would have been quite exciting, I find the ambiguity more appealing, and even with the heterosexual romance of the second story, Sherlock’s sexuality remains wonderfully blurred. Always ahead of his time, intelligent, critical and a cynic, this was not the first time that Billy Wilder has cleverly blurred the lines of relationships between men.
Usually I am not a fan of adaptations that give Sherlock Holmes a love interest, particularly when the love interest is Irene Adler. Not only is it not true and not even within the spirit of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but it seems like the only way to humanise Sherlock Holmes and make him more compelling for the movie going people is to give him a love Interest. This is something I could never understand as there are so many qualities that make the Sherlock Holmes of the books so human, compelling and wonderful, why is it that in adaptations love is the only answer is beyond me.
That said, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of the exceptions. (The other exception is Christopher Columbus and Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes). To begin with in The Private Life the love interest is NOT Irene Adler and so the film does not try to retell and undermine the perfectly wonderful A Scandal in Bohemia story by inventing hidden meanings to it, The Private Life leaves Irene Adler happily married to someone else as she was in the story, and by doing so also remains true to the promise of stories that were never told before. Moreover, the romance is not exactly a romance and yet it is very romantic. It remains in the almost area of romance and it is so beautiful and so sad that despite my instinctive objection, I can’t help but fall in love with it. And finally, The Private Life’s romance, is not an attempt to humanise Sherlock Holmes, it is once again a story about a private Sherlock Holmes, a vulnerable Sherlock Holmes, one who failed and one that takes his drugs in an even more privacy than a film about his private life.
Even in its viciously shortened version, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is and always has been my favourite Sherlock Holmes and one of my all time favourite films. It is astonishing how by inventing completely new stories, with only a minor reference to the Doyle story The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plan, and with an actor who looks nothing like Sherlock Holmes, Wilder's private Sherlock Holmes is surprisingly loyal to the character Arthur Conan Doyle created.
Recently I discovered the complete script, my happiness reached a ridiculous levels of joy and silly. It is still inconceivable to me that this treasure is available here, online, just like that, for everyone to read and I did. Hungry for more of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes I devoured every precious word.
What struck me most when reading, is how incomplete The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes suddenly felt, which made me even sadder than the ending of the film. The two missing stories, The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room, which exists in sound only, and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, which exists in visuals without sound, are stories that put the emphasis on the private relationship of Sherlock Holmes and his best friend Dr John Watson and it is sublime! Another wonderful piece of the picture of Sherlock’s private life.
But it isn't only two stories that are missing, but several crucial scenes, like the opening scene in which the Dr Watson comes to Cox & Co to collect what his grandfather THE Watson left for him. It is a scene that conveys Wilder's view that Sherlock Holmes is as important as Shakespeare. The first Sherlock and Watson scene, which exists only in the script felt so true to Sherlock Holmes it is as if Doyle himself imagined it. Even the two stories in the film have been cut short, taking out an all important flashback of Sherlock Holmes in his Oxford days.
As I was reading I kept imagining Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely in those missing scene and realised what a crime it was to cut the film and what a complete picture of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes it should have been!