By Mike Dub
Billy Wilder did not age as quickly or gently into irrelevance as many of his contemporaries. Fueled by an inherent dissidence that attacked traditional institutions and morality, his sardonic admonishment of social hypocrisies and penchant for sour endings seemed as well-suited to the 1970s New Hollywood aesthetic as they were to the 1930s screwball comedies through which he developed as a filmmaker. Unlike Howard Hawks’ conception of ideal masculinity, Wilder’s steadfast cynicism never felt passed over by the changing times of the 1960s. More like Hitchcock, Wilder’s work during the ‘60s and ‘70s may not have remained as consistent as his work in previous decades, but rather than being overwhelmed by the stylistic changes taking place during the ‘60s, Wilder embraced the loosening restrictions of the Production Code and the shift in public preference toward darker material and more complex characters.
Wilder’s Holmes carries the same sense of brooding melancholia that exists in so many of his characters, from Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to C.C. Baxter in The Apartment, and even Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot. His treatment of the world’s most famous fictional detective is, ambitiously, both loving and impious. Played with extravagant range by stage star Robert Stephens, the Sherlock Holmes of 1970 is not simply a super genius who solves crimes with robotic precision. He is also bumbling, irrational, and self-pitying, a man far too observant to avoid seeing his shortcomings (“Watson only writes about the cases I solve.”).
The mystery he must solve here involves a giddy array of suspects and clues: dead canaries, circus acrobats, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, the Queen of England, and of course, Sherlock’s equally brilliant brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee). However, the heart of the film is its elucidation of the Holmes/Watson relationship. The screwball-ish script, by Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, bristles with the sharp dialogue you would expect, and the kind of sexual complexity that usually infiltrated their characters. During the best sequence in the film, after Holmes’ sexuality has come under suspicion, Watson asks him, “Am I being presumptuous? There have been women, haven’t there?” Holmes replies, “The answer is yes – you are being presumptuous.”
The era of New Hollywood may have allowed Wilder greater freedom to openly discuss sexuality, but he and Diamond employ a throwback, screwball approach to examine the dynamic between Holmes and Watson. Relying on classical subtlety in dialogue and narrative construction, the film examines what could only be considered a marriage between Watson and Holmes. They don’t just live together, but Watson takes care of Holmes like a nagging housewife, even clandestinely diluting Holmes’ famous “seven percent solution” of cocaine. They bicker endlessly, and early on Watson must beg Holmes to take him to see the Imperial Russian Ballet (“It’s not just ballet,” he cries. “It’s Swan Lake!”).
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder’s opus. Originally conceived as a roadshow movie (with a running length anywhere between 3 and 4 hours, depending on who you believe), Wilder wrote the film to be a long series of adventures, with Gabrielle’s storyline to serve as the main mystery of the film. Given an opening misadventure that deals with a Russian ballerina, we can still get a sense of the literary, episodic conception Wilder had in mind. Wilder reportedly had tears in his eyes upon seeing the trimmed down version, but even he may have missed the forest for the trees. Of course it would be great to view the sprawling, ambitious epic he envisioned, but what remains is a charming, irreverent, entertaining homage that is undeniably the work of a great director.