Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Case of the Disregarded Detectives

When you think of actors who have played the world's most famous detective chances are three names come to mind at once - Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing. However, once you look beyond those three are many actors whose turn as the great detective have impacted media greatly. John Neville, Christopher Plummer and others spring to mind - however I want to focus on the actors who are overlooked in the long list of actors to put on the deerstalker hat - the most disregarded detectives.

Robert Stephens - "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970)

Robert Stephens (right) and Colin Blakely (left)
as Holmes and Watson in Billy Wilder's "The Private
Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970)
In 1970, famed director Billy Wilder (best known for "Sunset Boulevard", "Some like it Hot" and others) was contemplating making a Sherlock Holmes film. Wilder had wanted to make a Holmes movie since the mid-1950'sand finally constructed a script. Originally slated for the roles of Holmes and Watson were Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers, but Wilder settled on the relative unknowns Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. The original concept for the film was to feature four vignettes - all cases from Dr. Watson's previously unreleased casebook. The final film only featured two, and the movie comes off as an unusual combination of humour and drama. ""The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is neither funny and neither serious" Wilder said, but all the same the movie is quite clearly a loving tribute to the world's most famous detective. And it all starts with Robert Stephens' stellar performance as Holmes.

Despite the fact that Stephens does not exhibit a profile which complies with the original Holmes description, Stephens looks quite distinguished in the deerstalker and Inverness. Stephens' Holmes suffers both from some unspecified melancholia and displays an overt cockiness unrivaled in any other Sherlockian interpretation. While confronting his brother Mycroft (played by the always-welcome Christopher Lee), who has received a secret message, only to attempt to hide it from the preying eyes of his brother, Sherlock counters: "Why don't you just crumple it up and eat it?"

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is a spectacular film, made with an enormous budget. The set of 221b Baker Street is beautifully decorated. Doyle's son, Adrian, said that Sherlock Holmes would be right at home on the set. All of the acting is first rate. Colin Blakely is a comic expert as Watson, Christopher Lee is a wonderfully pompous Mycroft and Genevieve Page as Holmes' weary client. And for the most ardent Sherlock Holmes fan, there are plenty of welcome surprises. There are references to the untold case concerning the Abbernetty Family (from "The Six Napoleons"), Watson's stethoscope which he keeps in his bowler hat makes an appearance and much more.

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" performed badly in the box office upon its release in 1970, and star Robert Stephens suffered a nervous breakdown during filming. However today, the movie is regarded as one of the very best Sherlock Holmes films ever to have been - and features one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes interpretations ever committed to screen.

On the next installment of "The Case of the Disregarded Detectives," I will examine one of the most overlooked Sherlock Holmes actors - whose career as the great detective was overshadowed by the conception of the Granada series with Jeremy Brett. An actor by the name of Ian Richardson.

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