In the Shadow of Rathbone: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

holmes-basil-rathboneThe doorbell sounds.

WATSON: Were you expecting someone?
HOLMES: Not at this hour.
WATSON: Maybe Mrs. Hudson is entertaining.
HOLMES: I never found her so.

Much of the humor in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) feels as if it might have been punctuated with rim-shots. This movie reminds me of when the creators of The X-Files threw in the occasional comedic episodes. They were really funny. If thought of in these terms — as a lighter, funnier “episode” in the series of Holmes films — Private Life, unlike Mrs. Hudson, is indeed entertaining.

stephens-as-holmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Robert Stephens plays the great detective. He’s well cast for this particular spin on the role, which asks him to be the Sherlock we’ve known ever since the Basil Rathbone movies but with a more Wildean wit. My only quibble here is Stephens’ overreliance on delivering comic lines with a pubescent crack in his voice, bumping a syllable or two up an octave. However, he excels at shifting quickly between the genius jester, the dedicated detective, and a darker, more tragic character.

Physically, Stephens is interesting for the role. Though appropriately tall and slender, his face has a cherubic quality that works against the traditional Holmes image but in favor of this more comedic variant. The actor’s eye makeup, which seems better suited for the stage than for cinema, is a bit off-putting. And I’m fairly certain Moriarty could hide in either one of his eyebrows. Given his talent for convincingly playing this multifarious Holmes, though, Stephens makes a wonderful title character.

blakey-as-watsonWatching Watson

Perhaps, Colin Blakely had the tougher acting challenge in terms of revealing an interesting if not compelling Dr. Watson. The challenge comes from the fact that the script limits the actor to playing an emotional, often-flustered, sometimes-horny sidekick. In other words, Watson here is a broadly comic character, requiring Blakely to give a performance that verges on Lou Costello- or even Jerry Lewis-style clownishness. Fortunately, screenwriters Billy Wilder, who also directed, and I.A.I. Diamond avoided making their Watson a bumbling buffoon in the Nigel Bruce tradition. Despite a few serious moments, which give a bit of depth to Watson, he’s probably the character most compromised to make a funnier-than-average Sherlock Holmes film.

Dedication to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s clear that Wilder and Diamond knew a few things about Doyle’s canon. For instance, they make a very clever joke about Holmes’ seven-percent cocaine solution. In fact, Private Life is rare among the several Holmes-as-drug-addict films in that it remains at least a bit true to the canon by having the detective turn to cocaine only when he’s not involved in a case.

However, along with suggesting Holmes did dope more frequently than readers glean from reading the canon, this film joins others by fixating on the detective’s sexuality and his relationship with women more than Doyle ever did. That’s really the ultimate mystery here and the reason this movie is about the private life of the character. It handles this issue fairly well, not entirely solving the puzzle but gently suggesting that Holmes’ distrust of and detachment from women is because the only smart ones he ever meets turn out to be criminals. There’s a bit of logic there. Sure, Watson can fall for the bland damsels in distress who come to 221B, as he does in The Sign of the Four. But it would be as weird for Holmes to do so as it would for him to, say, flirt with Mrs. Hudson.

But there are other ways to interpret what the film is saying about these issues, too. Imagine that. A Holmes film that can spark thoughtful discussion afterward.

scenic-scotland-in-private-life
One of the pleasures of this leisurely film is its leisurely jaunt through scenic Scotland.

Much to the film’s benefit, this murkier mystery does not detract from the main one, which is not nearly as ambiguous. This puzzle involves, yes, a damsel in distress — but also a covert plot involving Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and the Loch Ness Monster! Genevieve Page is very good in the former role, and Christopher Lee plays Mycroft in a way that shows he could easily transcend the deep-voiced, menacing characters that seem to dominate his résumé. Now, one could argue that Mycroft would have saved everyone a lot of trouble by letting Sherlock know certain secrets a lot earlier. Let’s chalk that up to the sibling rivalry that Stephens and Lee play very nicely.

Be warned that the movie has a very leisurely pace to it, a bit slow even for a film from 1970. The “prologue” about Holmes being offered a Stradivarius in exchange for services having little to do with detection seems especially in need of some trimming.

Nonetheless, the acting, the humor, the locations, and both mysteries are fun to watch. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes deservingly persists at the top of many lists of the best Holmes films.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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