23 March 2009

Movielog, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970
Written by I.A.L Diamond and Billy Wilder
Based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Biller Wilder
125 minutes

It's probably the most damning thing I can say about this movie that I saw it about two weeks ago and yet haven't yet summoned the energy to write up the review. I can't even remember a lot of the details of the construction of the film, to be quite honest. Not exactly what I'd like to be saying about a film about one of the most enduring creations of the written word ever translated to cinema, made by one of the all-time greatest film directors.

But yes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, directed by none other than Billy Wilder, just isn't a very good movie. Oh, it's a nice little piece to sit down and watch, entertaining at times and giving hints of something much better, but it doesn't stick in the memory very well and it's quite frankly a bit dull. Partly this is studio interference -- Wilder wrote and shot a three-hour film composed of four vignettes, but in search of a greater audience the suits cut the film nearly in half, dropping two of the vignettes and cutting the running time to about two hours.

The first vignette shows the home life of Holmes and Watson. It runs for about thirty minutes, and details the way that Holmes falls into a depressive funk whenever he's not involved with a case, abusing cocaine to get him through the hours of boredom. Watson discovers that he and Holmes have been invited to the opera to see a famous Russian production, and cajoles Holmes until he agrees to go. Holmes is invited backstage after the performance to receive a very personalized and intimate request, which he declines by telling the lovely young woman that he and Watson are homosexual lovers, a turn of events that enrages the womanizing Watson.

And yeah, it's pretty much all as sitcomy and silly as it seems from that description. It's an attempt to show the shades of Holmes' misogyny, but the character study falls flat because of the silly jokes, and the silly jokes just aren't that funny. Wilder was the king of genre-bending comedies like The Apartment, but this material shows that he was way off his game here.

The second vignette is a much more standard Holmes adventure, following the case of a young woman with amnesia dropped at the door of 221 Baker Street. What at first seems to be a straightforward bit of missing-persons research turns out to involve the destinies of nations when Holmes' brother Mycroft (a Christopher Lee so young as to be unrecognizable to me, in a performance that is probably one of the only reasons non-Holmes-obsessives should care about seeing this film) warns them to stay out of the affair. Holmes doesn't stay away, of course, and the trail eventually uncovers the Loch Ness monster, a troupe of midget acrobats, and and order of Trappist monks who aren't exactly what they seem. The mystery is twisty enough to be interesting, but today's viewers will probably be dissatisfied by the ending and the fairly predictable way many of the clues are uncovered.

So. Certainly not a great movie, but not really a bad one. I know that many Wilder fans consider this one of his best works, but I'm not one of them.

Rating: C+

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