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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

July 26th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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In present day London, a tin box is opened in a bank vault revealing the personal effects of Dr. John H. Watson. This includes “other adventures, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date. They involve matters of a delicate and sometimes scandalous nature, as will shortly become apparent.” Moving back in time to August 1887, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) return to 221-B Baker Street from a case in Yorkshire.

Unable to find a case to engage his mind, Holmes indulges in his “seven percent solution” of cocaine. Watson accepts an invitation for them to attend a performance of Swan Lake, where a Russian ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) requests an unusual service from Holmes. He turns her down by insinuating that he and Watson have a relationship. Watson is livid at the scandal that might erupt, but before long, a challenge presents itself: Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page), who arrives at Baker Street with no memory of how she came to London or what she wants of Holmes.

Distrustful of women, Holmes devotes himself to a quick resolution to the case so he can get rid of Valladon. He discovers she’s in search of her husband, an engineer who was brought to England on an assignment. His disappearance involves canaries, seven missing midgets, a sect of Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster and the powerful Diogenes Club, a shadowy government organization which includes Holmes’ brilliant older brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee). Traveling to Scotland, Holmes finds himself drawn to Valladon, but all is not what it seems.


Production history
A lifelong fan of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle, Billy Wilder felt the social climate of the mid-1960s was ripe for a big screen, tell-all musical based on the sleuth. Wilder thought of Lerner & Loewe to create lyrics and music, while Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers could possibly star. The plan never got off the drawing board. In 1968, Wilder revived the project – this time as a non-musical – and worked on a script with Harry Kurnitz. Unhappy with the results, Wilder waited for his frequent collaborator and screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond to become available.

Wilder & Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 165-minute epic that would include an intermission and tour the country as a roadshow. This meant that the film would be screened at only one of the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging a higher admission price, but offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady were among the many films presented in this format during the 1950s and ‘60s to great success.

Wilder described the 220-page screenplay he and Diamond spent over a year writing as “a symphony in four movements.” A modern day prologue featured Dr. Watson’s grandson (also played by Blakely) arriving in London to open a lockbox containing four Holmes cases unpublished by the doctor due to their personal nature. “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” concerned Watson concocting an odd crime scene to distract Holmes from his cocaine habit.


In “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” Watson investigates a murder abroad a cruise liner, while Holmes observes the disastrous results. “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” toyed with possibility of Holmes’ homosexuality. All three episodes were intended to be humorous, followed by an intermission and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” a mystery that leads to Loch Ness and Holmes’ feelings for Gabrielle Valladon, concluding the film on a more serious note.

With a budget of $10 million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Wilder’s most ambitious film to date. Shooting commenced in May 1969 in Pinewood Studios outside London and lasted through November. Wilder then screened his symphony to United Artists. It clocked in at three hours and twenty minutes. In the time since Wilder had conceived of his roadshow, one Hollywood extravaganza after another had flopped; Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Doolittle. Believing the roadshow was out of fashion with audiences, UA urged Wilder cut the film down to two hours.

The director was so discouraged by the reception that rather than insist on his contractual right of final cut, he departed for Paris to work on another project, entrusting editor Ernest Walter and producers at The Mirisch Company to make the necessary subtractions. The prologue, two of the first three episodes and a flashback to Holmes’ college days at Oxford – which illustrated his distrust of women – were all left on the cutting room floor. Wilder was left despondent. “When I saw the way they had cut it, I had tears in my eyes. It seemed longer when they had made it shorter.”


Released November 1970 in the wake of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was dismissed by critics at the time, many who felt neither the plot, nor the postmodern take measured up to Doyle’s literary mysteries. Wilder’s confidence that youth audiences would embrace a great story – regardless of the changing times – never panned out. The film was a box office failure. In ensuing years, some critics and scholars have rediscovered it and hailed the film as an overlooked masterpiece.

Tempting as it might be to ponder Peter O’Toole & Peter Sellers possibly playing Holmes and Watson, or at the very least, an hour and fifteen minutes restored to its running time, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes retains the magnificence of a jewel retrieved from a safety deposit box. The film comes from a time when event movies weren’t produced by a computer, but were rendered even more impressively with story, character and dialogue. It absolutely belongs in a discussion of Wilder’s best comedies, including Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.

While the plot requires a degree of patience and lacks a strong villain (Professor Moriarty is mentioned, but never appears to threaten London) what’s striking about the film is how Wilder & Diamond refresh a 19th century literary icon by infusing that world with contemporary attitudes about men, women, society and friendship. The cast is terrific, particularly Colin Blakely as Watson. Miklós Rózsa – whose violin concertos Wilder had listened to while writing the script – composed one of the most beautiful film scores of all time.


Bill Chambers at Film Freak Central writes, “That alliance of comedy and drama which proved so pivotal to the success of Wilder’s The Apartment keeps The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes afloat through the sinking realization that we are watching the I’ll Do Anything of its generation (and I would argue that I’ll Do Anything‘s director James L. Brooks, much more than Brooks’ protégé Crowe, is the modern Wilder), a feature-length retraction of romantic ambition too poignant in its own right to discount.”

“Sherlock Holmes comes just behind Dracula as the most portrayed fictional character on the movie screen, but few films about the great sleuth hold claim to greatness. One of the few is Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was a dismal flop on release even after being shortened drastically from its original three hours plus, which is a true pity, as it stands as probably Wilder’s best post-The Apartment work in his unique genre of films, so ruthless in observing human nature but so deeply sympathetic to it,” writes Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films, etc.

Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes, “Viewers who haven’t seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes are in for a big surprise, for it is a loving valentine to old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography of the lush Scottish landscape is beautiful, and the scenes backstage at the ballet are a riot of soft colors and balalaika music. The script is a witty delight, with Wilder and Diamond decorating their mystery plot with a constant stream of arcane clues and character-driven jokes … Even in this shortened form, it’s a movie gem hiding in plain sight.”

© Joe Valdez

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // Jul 31, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I included this in my recent post on cut films I’d die to see as I think this is one of my favorite Wilder films. Tho Stephens is good, but looks sickly. And if you squint hard at Blakely, you’ll see Jack Lemmon. But it’s terrific and Roza’s score is one of the greats.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 31, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Christian: I find it ironic that today, even trash like Disturbing Behavior gets released on DVD with all the scenes that were cut from the theatrical release restored, while a director of Billy Wilder’s stature was not afforded that same opportunity on a great film.

  • 3 Dmitry // Jan 2, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I love this movie! Unfortunately it seems as if the footage that was cut from the film was not saved by United Artists. Only fragments exist. One of the segments exists in audio only, the other in video only, and others can’t be found at all. There’s always the possibility that they’re in a box somewhere in the MGM vaults and that somebody will one day stumble on them.

  • 4 Kamimura // Aug 6, 2014 at 5:31 am

    This is an excellent film. I would love if they had not cut scenes );

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