The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Queen Victoria: “When can we expect to read Dr Watson's account of the case?”
Holmes: “I hope never, ma'am. It has not been one of my more successful endeavours.”
From Cushing to Cumberbatch, Rathbone to Robert Downey Jnr, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective is one, if not the most portrayed fictional character on both the big and small screen. In amongst the seemingly endless list of esteemed actors to take have taken on the mantle, Robert Stephens’ 1970 interpretation is often, like the film it so admirably services, undeservedly overlooked. Co-written and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, this irreverent yet affectionate film playfully reinterprets long-held canon about the Baker Street detective and his partner in crime-solving, Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely), and grafts a romantic back-story layered with melancholy which lingers like loch fog throughout the film.
Originally running in at some 200 minutes in its first cut, the eventually released version was by all accounts butchered by studio insistence resulting in the culling of roughly a third of Wilder’s intended material. Two of the four cases scripted were axed, along with some additional flashback material. As a result, the surviving 125 minutes inevitably feel off-kilter and uneven, although there’s still heaps of enjoyment to be had. For starters there’s the pleasingly amusing diversion whereby Holmes is invited to impregnate a famous Russian ballerina in exchange for a priceless Stradivarius violin, before the suitably convoluted and frankly barmy main case involving (but by no means limited to) the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, Trappist monks, canary smuggling and Queen Victoria!
Wilder, together with his long-time collaborating co-writer A. L. Diamond gift Robert Stephen’s Holmes with pithy witticisms, for example, upon being requested to help recover six missing midgets, he pronounces thusly: “The circus owner offers me five pounds for my services. That's not even a pound a midget!” Alongside Holmes, the excellent Colin Blakely more than holds his own as the long-suffering Dr. Watson, whether it’s excitedly spotting the supposed Loch Ness Monster, or single-handedly (and somewhat over ambitiously) trying to get off with an entire company of Russian ballerinas. To be fair he appears to be making reasonable progress - that is until Holmes impishly suggests he and Watson are lovers!
Geneviève Page’ delivers a mesmerising performance as the multi-layered Victorian femme-fatale ‘Gabrielle’ who manages to best even the great Holmes, and ‘Mycroft’ - who is also always several steps ahead of his sleuthing brother - is memorably portrayed by the ever-reliable Christopher Lee (the only actor to have played the roles of both Mycroft and Holmes in his career).
Rich period production detail and some lovely location work in Scotland provide plenty of diverting pleasures, all whisked along to the accompaniment of Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score.
It’s a shame therefore to report that the print used for this HD presentation (Eureka Entertainment) is of such a poor state. A high degree of damage, flicker and distractingly noticeable reel changes are prevalent throughout. To be charitable you could say it provides an authentically aged celluloid viewing experience, but that’s not what most people would buy a Blu-ray for is it?
Extras are however copious, which compensates for the below par PQ, and compliment the film generously.