Saturday, May 4, 2013

In-Class Movie: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

“Was there any feature of interest?”
“I fancy not…”
--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Reigate Puzzle”

Austin: I adore Billy Wilder. When I was first getting into film, I kept stumbling upon some of his amazing films and only until later did I realize he directed so many of my favorites. His range was extraordinary to the point where it's hard to distinguish what is the "Billy Wilder touch." I always took it as precision to each genre he went after much like Danny Boyle does in his films. He's made so many incredible classics from Some Like It Hot, Witness of the Prosecution, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity and my personal favorite Sunset Blvd.

So what did he and his long time screenwriting collaborator bring to the Sherlock Holmes film genre? 

James Bond, homophobia, and the Loch Ness Monster.

"I'm sorry, what was that second one?"

Looking at his last films, it's sad to say that Wilder didn't close out with some remarkable hits. All of the ones I've seen are very unfocused like his political farce One, Two, Three and this hodgepodge movie without any point to it. There is very little detective work. Sherlock Holmes basically stumbles into a couple of locations and once he arrives other people tell him what's going on. Especially with the fake dragon and geo-political mechanics, this seemed just like the first James Bond movie Dr. No. Instead of the villain monologuing, it was Mycroft. 


Since this is a story without Watson's stylistic enhancements, this could have been an opportunity to see the men behind the Strand. Yet they immediately fall back into the expected positions, right down to the deerstalker. Only major difference is that Watson is a complete goof--as another half-rate Jack Lemmon stand-in. (Much like The Seven Year Itch.) Holmes claims he's not misogynist as the stories and then he acts in just the same way as he does in the stories; then the movie backs him up in his mistrust.

I feel I'm all over the place with this introduction because I'm still bewildered by this movie after my second viewing. Here's the big ultimate question for this movie.........What was Billy Wilder's objective with this tale?

Leigh: You know what? That is a fantastic question...I have no idea.

After watching this movie, I'm just as confused as you are. I absolutely love Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity was great. But this movie? You can't really tell that they are directed by the same person. Both of those were driven by story. There was something in each scene that you had to see to keep up. Sure some of Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon's scenes were just for funsies but it still told an overarching story. After watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I couldn't really tell you what the story was. At first I thought that if you changed the character's names, like we've suggested with Elementary, that it might be a better movie because there isn't the mythos surrounding these well-known characters but you still wouldn't have a story. I think that this might be better as a mini series...Maybe? Or cut the first half hour and beef up the mystery in the second part of the movie. 

I'm just still baffled by the whole ballerina scene myself. Holmes is a cool character and while he might not be a fan of trusting women, I don't think he would've completely bungled a situation like that as the movie says he would. The whole movie just left me confused. You are completely correct. The introduction of the movie gives us these characters who are saying they are nothing like what we think they are and then they go and act exactly how we think they would. Aside from Watson who again is relegated to comic relief. And I don't care who you are in the Victorian Era, homosexuality was punishable with prison. You didn't talk about it or even suggest that you were, no matter how funny it would be. (A little writer called Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency and the judge presiding said that the case was "the worst case I have ever tried.")

"Can a tucan can-can if it really could?!" "Watson wait in the car."

So there isn't really a story and the characters are written...wrong? And there are glaring mistakes in the historical facts. So what good is there in this movie?

Austin: Fine, let's get some of the good stuff out of the way. The conceit of a mystery too controversial/personal to publish in The Strand is a good idea. I actually think Christopher Lee who played Mycroft was pretty good; really felt the government employee element of him. I'm also very intrigued by the performance of Sherlock Holmes, even though I'm not sure how much it paid off. He never played it like the smartest man in the room; very much an average Joe going in to do a job. That plays especially well to the idea that Watson is enhancing the image.

Now back to the bewildering. That first half hour is a complete tonal mess. Everything with the opera (and trying to compare a fake Loch Ness monster to Swan Lake) and Watson trying to be a playboy to what seemed like literally brainless women. Then Sherlock is propositioned rather forcefully to be with this woman which is why he was mysteriously sent to the opera. So he decides to say he's gay to get out of it which infuriates Watson.

Yes I know this is supposed to be the 1890s and it's beyond taboo but the movie doesn't play that angle. They focus more on "Oh, that's awkward." If Watson was really worried about imprisonment, move out of Baker Street. (Shouldn't he be married by now?) Since there are no plot ramifications and it barely connects to Sherlock's view on women and how that will end up with the main woman in the plot, it must just be there for comedy. That failed on such a large level. Some of that is on the script, but a lot of that is on Colin Blakely, who played Watson. This was clearly written for a Jack Lemmon type but why Lemmon is so successful is because he can play the exasperated jerk is because he has inherent charm that means he can push that character trait farther. Blakely never had that. In fact, when he wasn't an annoying idiot he was just being a dick to everyone. He served no purpose in this story so he was just being dead weight in a movie already struggling to float.

"Why can't I quit you?"

This brings up a similarity we had to Without a Clue where the first half of the movie tried to be a Sherlock Holmes parody but then tried to have a non-ironic mystery to wrap it all up. Is it possible to playfully poke fun of the structure and then take it seriously?

Leigh: I think one of the scariest things about adaptations or remakes or sequels is not knowing how the director is going to take these characters that you love, in a world that you know, and give them the respect that you think they deserve. I think that's everyone's biggest fear about the next Star Wars movies. And parody or even just poking fun at the format is very similar. Shaun of the Dead is one of the most loved zombie movies to come out in the past 20 years because it was written and directed by people who love the genre and knew how to poke fun at it without insulting it and still give it the respect it deserved. Hot Fuzz is the same way. (If you can get a copy of the DVD with the Pop Up Video type bonus feature, watch it. There are references to things that you wouldn't think were references right down to the name of the brand of spray paint that Nick Angel picks up at the gas station.)  For someone to make a movie about Sherlock Holmes in a similar light, that pokes fun at the characters and genre without insulting it and still being a great movie and having a great story, they have to love it and respect it. I don't know if there is someone out there right now who would want to make that type of movie who could do this successfully. This movie certainly was not it. 

"We're not doing the bloody time warp!"

And with that I'm at a loss of what else to say about this one. I'm just as confused as when I first started watching it. 

Next time we deal with one of the most conniving bad guys ever and we get to travel again to India! Such fun!

And now Austin with the final words…

Austin: Loch Ness Bloody Monster

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