Sunday, August 11, 2013

APOP - "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes"

To kick off this series, A Portrait of Perfection, I begin with one of my very favourite Sherlock Holmes films, perhaps my favourite ever. I know that's saying a lot, but when it comes to "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" it seems apt. It is a brilliant film, made all the more stunning when one examines its rich back-story. If you are a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast like myself and you have not yet seen this movie, make it a priority. Okay, onto the analysis proper.

Filmed in 1970, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" was the product of the wild imagination of Billy Wilder. Wilder, an expert director had directed some excellent pictures during the '50's, most notably "Sunset Boulevard," "Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution" and "Some Like it Hot." Wilder brought his skill to the movie and it shows, being one of the most beautiful Sherlock Holmes films ever made. Wilder's goal was to show a different side of Holmes - the more humane side, hardly glimpsed in Arthur Conan Doyle's canon. To do this, Wilder and his longtime friend and scriptwriter, I.A.L Diamond, would create a script which is both very funny and extraordinarily moving. As Wilder said, "'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' is not serious nor is funny." To bring this very creative script to life would took a very innovative cast of characters. Headlining the show is Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes, giving one of the finest performances of the detective I have ever seen. Colin Blakely is his Dr. Watson, wonderfully spoofing the Britishness of his character. Genevieve Page is Holmes' distressed client, who may not be all she seems and Christopher Lee plays Mycroft Holmes at his manipulative best.

Wilder and Diamond's original concept for the film was to be a three-hour series of vignettes all detailing the cases which Dr. Watson held back from the public. These segments were shot, including an adventure called "The Upside Down Room" and a comedic interlude called "The Adventure of the Naked Honeymooners." Along with a lengthy flashback sequence and an alternative opening, these scenes where eventually edited out of the film and seem lost to the pages of history today. What remains however, is still arguably one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes films ever made.

Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes
It is hard to characterize "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" into one genre. If I had to choose one, I'd say it is a character-driven melodrama. Much of the movie is a character study of Sherlock Holmes, examining how he is not quite the man he was portrayed as in the past. In the film's opening, Stephens' Holmes berates Watson for having changed so many details about him - including his physical appearance, height, violin abilities and wardrobe. Now this may sound like it would be at odds for a Doylean purist such as myself, but it is handled so well and Stephens' performance is lovely. Seldom as Sherlock Holmes been portrayed as a morose individual labouring under some unspecified melancholy. In retrospect, some of the finest Sherlock Holmes films ever made were filmed in the '70's ("The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and "Murder by Decree") and each feature an interpretation of the detective at odds with Doyle's original. However, it is probably done the best here.

To play off of Stephens' morose detective is Colin Blakely who is a wonderful Dr. Watson, playing the part for all its worth. Blakely is a master of screwball comedy throughout the film, his finest scenes occurring in the film's uproarious first act. When an aging Russian ballerina calls upon Holmes, saying that if he fathered her child, their baby would have both brains and beauty, Holmes declines the offer, claiming "women aren't his cup of tea" and that his romantic side is reserved only for Dr. Watson. When the news spreads, Watson is infuriated by the news.It's a brilliant piece of comedy from both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. My other favourite line of the movie comes from this portion of the film, when Blakely's Watson is describing how twelve men have died for her. "Six committed suicide, four were killed in duels and one fell out of the gallery of the Vienna Opera House." When Holmes informs Watson that's only eleven, the doctor counters: "The man who fell from the gallery landed on top of another man in the orchestra." Holmes replies: "That makes an even a messy sort of way."

The principle players
While the first half of the movie is wildly funny, the second is far more serious and dark in tone as Holmes, Watson and Madame Gabrielle Valladon (played by Genevieve Page) search for her missing husband. This leads the group from the Diogenes Club to Inverness in Scotland to Loch Ness and they encounter what may be the Loch Ness Monster. When Mycroft informs Holmes that Madame Valladon has been playing him for a fool and she's in fact a German spy, the film takes a very different turn and Stepehens' performance is excellent, obviously hurt by this. While the script leaves it ambiguous whether Sherlock Holmes was actually falling love with Madame Valladon, the implication is strong. The concluding moments of the movie are extraordinarily depressing, but there is a note of "life will go on" in that Dr. Watson sits down to chronicle the adventure. It's an incredibly poignant ending.

I am not the only one who views "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" highly. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss both have voiced their love of the film, and claimed that parts of it inspired "A Scandal in Belgravia," which can be seen if one is well versed in both films. As I said at the top of this article, if you have not yet seen this movie, you really should. It's one of the finest Sherlock Holmes movies I've ever seen, and one of the few which I will award 5 out of 5 stars. Okay, so I've finished...out go out and watch this movie!

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