nys writers logo

posterThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

(United Kingdom, 1970, 125 minutes, color, 16mm)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Deception painstakingly unmasked, and casual decadence as a way of life: these have been Billy Wilder's twin obsessions as a filmmaker from his days as screenwriter among the lavender excesses and delights of Weimar Berlin. In THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his last great film, Wilder found a way to combine these two themes in a film that seems sweet and perverse at the same moment, a valentine with a syringe in its hand.

Wilder had been fascinated with Conan Doyle's urbane, obsessive sleuth since childhood. Several of his first films as a screenwriter, such as THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF (1931) and EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES (1931), were films of crime and detection. But Wilder's affections for Holmes went much deeper than a respect for the famously relentless Holmesian logic. Wilder saw Holmes as at least as complex a personality as himself, a singular creature of many more moods than Basil Rathbone had dreamed of.

As with almost all of Wilder's films, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES underwent a complete makeover. He began tinkering with a Holmes project as far back as 1957. The first intriguing idea was to mount a Holmes musical on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison. Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe were briefly enlisted as collaborators, but Wilder's great run of film successes -- SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE -- intervened. Next, in 1963, there was the idea of a film musical, now with the remarkable cast of Peter O'Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. But what really stymied Wilder was the matter of plot. For virtually the only time in his career, Wilder had a shelf full of engaging characters -- the brooding genius Holmes, the genial, loyal Watson, and the marvelously arch stock Holmes villains -- and no plot that he felt could adequately service them. Wilder went through several collaborators, including his long-time alter ego I.A.L. Diamond, Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and British playwright John Mortimer, before he resettled on Diamond, and work on the screenplay began in earnest. Still lacking a plot, they went ahead anyway. Wilder and Diamond didn't feel the whodunit nature of most of the Doyle stories did justice to the subtleties of Holmes' character. (Wilder was most fascinated by those rare cases Holmes was not able to solve, such as "A Scandal in Bohemia.") He determined to write new capers for the Baker Street shamus which would show off the dark pools at the core of his personality, rather than rehash the parlor tricks of Holmes' ratiocination that previous Holmes movies had doted on. The conceit they chose was the discovery of several "unpublished" Holmes tales: "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room," "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina," "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners," and "The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective," all stitched together in omnibus format. Wilder purposely chose as the film's stars the sterling theatrical actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely because he did not wish to associate his Holmes and Watson with the characters of well-known Hollywood leading men.

It's easy to see what Wilder loved about Holmes. Brilliant, irascible, witty, impatient, cultured and cynical, Holmes was a bundle of the same paradoxes as Wilder himself. Holmes' cocaine addiction, included as an aside in several Holmes stories, fascinated Wilder, as the very symbol of decadence. Here, Holmes' needle points to the curiosities and bizarre, even diabolical behavior which walks the streets of Victorian London, just as Wilder's Berlin of the 1920's had hosted its own happy perversions and fin-de-siecle revels. Like Wilder in those long-gone jazz age cabarets, Holmes is a figure who negotiates the hypocritical upperworld and the joyfully strange underworld with equal ease, a relaxed tour guide that shows an audience how easy it is to range between the seemly and the unseemly. Conan Doyle's stories had many exotic locales, but he could never have imagined the things Wilder's Holmes sees through the murky gaslight, the thick fog, and the cloying mannerisms that encase his world.

What resulted from Wilder's dissection and reassembling of Holmes was a gigantic work, perhaps the most ambitious of an ambitious career. The final screenplay ran to a portly 260 pages, and the film looked to be three hours long, with an intermission. At ten million dollars, this was to be Wilder's biggest budgeted picture ever. The film took six months to shoot, and as Wilder's biographer Kevin Lally notes, while the company worked in its London studios and on its Scottish locations, "an awful chill came over the Hollywood studios." These were the sad years of the late 1960's and early 1970's, when the failure of big films like STAR!, HELLO, DOLLY and PAINT YOUR WAGON were bankrupting studios and sending them to the auction block. United Artists, for whom Wilder had made millions, got cold feet. They ordered THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES chopped from its rough cut of 3 hours and 20 minutes. Out went the "Naked Honeymooners" and "Upside Down Room" segment, as well as a modern prologue. The release prints were two hours and 5 minutes long, and the critical connecting material that explained the tales' relation to one another was missing. It did no good. The film took in only 1.5 million dollars, and bumped Wilder from the "A" list of directors, a list he had headed for 25 years. United Artists was eventually sold to Transamerica Services, a faceless conglomerate. And the missing material from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES? Frustratingly little has been located.

But the remains of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES are anything but ghostly. Like THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and GREED, this is a film whose existing foundation is as entrancing as its celebrated but unrealized blueprints. Wilder's fascination with ambiguous sexuality, initiated in the overdeveloped 12 year-old of THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR as far back as 1942 and advanced in the cross dressing-with-intent in SOME LIKE IT HOT, finds its most subtle endpoint in the coy and curious Holmes, whose attractions for both sexes simmer quietly throughout the first half of the film. This Sherlock Holmes fails as often as he succeeds, in love as in crime. The film exudes an autumnal grace, as Holmes learns not only to conquer, but to forgive, not only to gloat, but to mourn. This is a lovingly fallible investigator, often a winking burlesque on the Holmes of legend. Wilder's Holmes is markedly different from all those other Holmeses, the Holmeses of the great ego, of the supreme intellect, of the Nietschean disdain for the rest of humanity. But that difference only shows us what was lacking in those creatures of worldly accomplishment: an open ear, a wry smile, a transparent heart.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at