*. Billy Wilder does Sherlock Holmes. Get ready for a letdown.
*. A very long prologue, the first 30 minutes, introduces us to Holmes, a man you’d figure would need no introduction. But this isn’t the way things were planned. Instead, the film was written, and indeed shot, as having a serial structure, composed of four separate episodes. It ran “not much short of 4 hours” according to editor Ernest Walter (I’ve also heard the rough cut was three hours and twenty minutes). A couple of the episodes, and a present-day prologue, were cut. Whatever else this did to the movie, it’s the sort of thing that plays havoc with a film’s sense of structure.
*. I said Holmes is a character in need of no introduction, but this is a Holmes that perhaps does. He is both repressed and depressed. Wilder saw the two as linked. He wanted to present Holmes as gay but closeted. Unable to declare his love for Watson he becomes an addict, something that Watson, not entirely admirably, enables.
*. This is fine, but because the love that dare not speak its name doesn’t speak its name we’re left in a kind of gray area. The whole gay idea is a labored gag in the first part of the movie, but then nothing much is done with it. Personally, I think it’s still pretty clear what Wilder intended, but it’s another example of something that feels like it’s missing from the film.
*. In any event, the problem with Holmes here isn’t his sexuality or emotional state but the disappointing fact that he’s not very bright. It’s essential for a good mystery to stay a step or two ahead of the audience. That’s not how things work here. Is there anybody who doesn’t figure Geneviève Page isn’t on the level from her first appearance? What makes her deception of Holmes even worse is the fact that, perhaps due to the matter of sexual orientation just discussed, he’s clearly not that into her. Then, upon our first hearing a mention of the Loch Ness monster doesn’t everyone immediately think of a submarine?
*. This is the thing that bothered Roger Ebert the most about the movie. In addition to finding it “disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication,” he thought it too obvious. “It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on.”
*. Wilder himself judged the film “not a success,” and I wouldn’t disagree with that. None of the parts add up. Part of that may be due to the way the original concept of a series of linked episodes was cut. Another contributing factor may have been the reluctance to do more with the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This latter point leads to a confusion in tone. At times The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes seems a very melancholy film, and at others it plays as almost slapstick.
*. Perhaps it would have been more successful if it had been less ambitious. It had a large budget, some huge production elements, and the massive running time of the rough cut suggests the desire to really do something big. Also there was some original thought given to casting Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson (with Christopher Lee being a late replacement for George Sanders). Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are both capable actors, but neither was a star. This in itself needn’t have been a problem (and was apparently what Wilder wanted), but when Pauline Kael found Stephens lacking in “the star presence that Holmes requires” I think she really meant the star presence that a big movie required.
*. In all these ways The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feels like a big movie cut down into a small movie, in more ways than one. I think it would have been better if it had started out small.
*. The elements were all here. A story involving spies, amnesiacs, midgets, canaries, and a mechanical Loch Ness monster should have been a lot of fun, especially with Wilder helming it. And I know a lot of people who rate it very highly. I don’t deny some occasional charm, and I find the end moving in an understated way, but overall I still think it’s a mess. Wilder gives us an interesting Sherlock Holmes, but his adventures are silly and second-rate stuff. You can’t blame the editing job for that either. I just don’t think this was ever going to be great.