Receiving heavy cuts to its original longer, episodic format, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (TPLoSH) as we see it today may not be just what its creators intended. But as it is, its premise is still ill-conceived. Sherlock Holmes as a semi-comedy? Why? The film doesn't communicate a reason for this approach, or that there could be a reason. By contrast, Without a Clue, which I saw many years ago, subverts the Holmes formula for its premise, i.e. Holmes is just an act, an actor following the cues of puppet-master and brilliant detective Dr. Watson. (I haven't seen the Holmes comedy by the other Wilder, Gene.) At any rate, TPLoSH's tone is too mild to be comic, but not serious enough to be exciting and dramatic.
The opening scene in 221B is good, nicely summarizing Holmes and Watson and their traditional traits. I also enjoyed the nod to the Strand magazine, acknowledging where many of the stories debuted and continuing the illusion that the characters are real. Plus the "blame the illustrator" bit.
The story is divided into two parts. The first is little more than one joke with a very drawn-out setup, almost extraneous to the mystery. While Watson takes command at a backstage cast party, Holmes thinks to escape an awkward situation by fibbing that he and Watson are lovers. Word spreads, the ballet girls flee from Watson (in disgust?) while the ballet boys silently do otherwise, and Watson spazzes out about people thinking he's gay. This may have been daring and (to some folks) funny in 1970, but I doubt today's viewers will find it a laugh riot or sympathize with Watson acting like the world is ending, even if Watson is an 1800s man.
While TPLoSH spends too much time on this fluffy vignette, the second part, the bulk of the plot, is rooted in illogic, weak mystery, and general silliness. The mystery is handled in great anti-climactic fashion. Little by way of clues and detective work here. Then it all ends when Magic Mycroft simply pulls aside the curtain himself and reveals it all an abrupt finish unfit for Holmes the detective.
Mycroft's all-knowingness raises the questions: Why didn't he warn Sherlock about Gabrielle's identity when he first lectured him way back at the Diogenes Club? Wouldn't this have been in the government's interest, and prevented a lot of trouble? The film makes no effort to suggest that Mycroft learned the truth about her only after the Club meeting.
In fact, lots of stuff doesn't hold up to reason. Even if we go with the idea that Ilsa, the superspy who already knows the submarine exists, would recruit a naive Holmes just to help her follow the lead from a return address, we wonder
If Ilsa wants to string Holmes along, why would she go to all the trouble of playing amnesiac and forcing Holmes to read obscure clues on her palm merely to determine her apparent identity, so the hunt may begin?
Mycroft's secret service must've suffered budget cuts if it has to employ an invalid, elderly peasant to raise canaries for its project. And would a German undercover agent investigating England's naval project "Jonah" have any reason to hold a bible open to the Book of Jonah for Watson to see while riding the train?
Would Holmes really fail to understand a widow's desire to cry after her husband's death, and casually, cruelly order her to stop? Would a trespassing sign in the United Kingdom spell "unauthorized" with a Z? Would Holmes, investigating a secret base crawling with people, loudly announce his findings to Watson and Gabrielle right there? Why *does* Watson walk around with his stethoscope hidden in his hat? Why not hide it in his luggage? Or is equipment that doctors use during appointments regularly kept on their person? Does Watson take it to plays? Museums? Could Queen Victoria really be such a political idiot that a military submarine project (somehow finished without her knowing about it) would offend her sense of sportsmanship and lead her to cancel the project? Would Mycroft and the navy really scuttle the whole submarine as a result?
Some amusing silliness comes from all the "Loch Ness monster" stuff, especially the sight of it going after boats. Holmes was an adventure hero, but not of the Saturday morning TV variety. Likewise, Holmes unsubtly spies on two suspicious porters revealing a crate in their possession with the words "Sulfuric Acid Corrosive" in blaring print. One wonders where the missing exclamation point was.
Even the supposed drama about Holmes' titular "private life" is underwhelming. Holmes, staunchly single and distant from women, gains a special attachment to Gabrielle. There was a deleted flashback to "explain" how a college-age Holmes formed his distant attitude, presumably serving to make his feelings for Gabrielle all the more moving. But Conan Doyle already explored this ground in A Scandal in Bohemia, one of the most famous Holmes stories, in which another formidable woman wins Holmes' approval and admiration.
I suppose Robert Stephens' acting fits the bill for the tone TPLoSH is attempting; his rather casual air would be out-of-place for Holmes elsewhere. However, that complexion and especially the wavy hair, together with his soft demeanor, purring accent, and tendency to joke, suggest someone more like Oscar Wilde than Sherlock Holmes. His pasty make-up is also distracting.
TPLoSH's Watson mainly serves as a frazzled, poor old dear, which gets old. I don't detect much of the intelligence some have seen in him.
Like some other works, this film presents the Diogenes Club as a front for a covert British intelligence agency, which is less interesting than Doyle's creation I think, and misses the point of the club. TPLoSH likewise ignores the club's peculiar rules for silence, showing us the heroes talking aloud in the main chamber. A no-no!
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