The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970) is one of Billy Wilder‘s least known works. It is one of the ‘revealed’ Holmes stories, and is not part of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon. The film takes a satirical look at the Holmes-Watson equation, and, as the name suggests, touches upon the private life of the genius sleuth – who was decidedly misogynist. But the name is also misleading in one respect – it does not mention even once, the reason of Holmes’ contempt of women – that femme fatale named Irene Adler.
In his almost 50 year long career, Billy Wilder had made acclaimed Film Noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard), Rom Coms (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot), War films (Five Graves to Cairo, Stalag 17), Satire (The Apartment, One, Two, Three), even a Courtroom Drama (Witness for The Prosecution). A prolific and extremely versatile film maker, Wilder is perhaps best known for his Noirs and Romantic Comedies (talk about versatility!) Even in such a diverse career, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes somehow stands out – not that it’s one of his masterpieces – far from it. As a matter of fact, as Wikipedia mentions, it was originally intended to be a roadshow attraction, with limited release in bigger cities. Why it stands out is that the film takes a well established myth, breaks it down to the basics, laughs at it, yet somehow retains the aura and dignity of the original work.
The film opens with the shot of a box in a bank vault with John H. Watson, M.D. engraved on it. It is intended to be opened only half-a-century after Watson’s death. They supposedly contain stories which he, ‘for reasons of discretion’, has withhold from the public. With that, Watson’s voice-over takes us to the beginning of one such ‘untold’ adventure. The very first conversation of the duo is one of the high points of the film, where Holmes accuses Watson of fabricating and romanticizing his exploits, and exaggerated his skills and abilities. After a hilarious encounter at a Russian Ballet, where the Ballerina propositions Holmes and he refuses suggesting (get this) that he and Watson are romantically involved (!), we meet a mysterious woman who’s suffering from amnesia, and is looking for her missing husband. Thus begins another Sherlock Holmes adventure, only this time gift-wrapped by Wilder, with his customary wit and dry humour thrown in.Mycroft makes an appearance too. Lestrade is sorely missed though.