“…but I can’t be Sherlock Holmes”

Spend the night with Sherlock Holmes
Hold me tight like Sherlock Holmes
Just pretend I’m Sherlock Holmes …

I can dance like Sherlock Holmes
I can sing like Sherlock Holmes
But I can’t be Sherlock Holmes.

It’s no fresh insight to declare the 1960s the most schizophrenic and unsatisfying decade in Hollywood history. It’s certainly the decade where any responsible account of American cinema cannot focus wholly, or even mostly, on Hollywood product. If a historian wants to spend all his time studying Doctor Doolittle and The Sound of Music while ignoring or ghettoizing the avant-garde work of Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Barbara Rubin, Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Shirley Clarke, Pat O’Neill, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, and a host of others, I suppose that’s his right.

Still, the studio features of that era do compel a certain fascination, more as half-aware artifacts than as artistic wholes. Hollywood could feel its own irrelevance acutely. The time-shifting aesthetic of Alain Resnais found its way into American art efforts like Petulia and, on the other end of the production scale, cheap thrillers like Mister Buddwing. Even with increasing freedom to show skin and revel in violence, a film like The Collector feels wholly uncomfortable with carrying its sexual content to its unambiguous conclusion. The anger of Seconds is ravishing, but incoherent—not just in its targets, but in its very subject.

To appreciate films from this period, it’s best to disabuse yourself of any straightforward relation between intent, effect, and achievement. Surely the experience of something like Wild in the Streets is more complicated than the film’s ultimate conclusion that hippies are just disheveled brown shirts. (And even if they are brown shirts with old-age concentration camps in the offing, Wild in the Streets still notably presents this fascist posse’s multi-ethnic, pansexual make-up as something basically unremarkable.)

It’s a whole different game, though, with something like Paint Your Wagon, one of the saddest spectacles of the sixties. Adapted from a Lerner and Loewe musical nearly twenty years old by 1969, this bawdy show helmed by Joshua Logan is an epic production that cannot recognize the crudity of its material. The craftwork is tops throughout, as if no expense could be spared when presenting such exciting sequences as the miners’ daring nighttime raid on the prostitutes from the next town over. A large part of the film is devoted to celebrating the least progressive version of plural marriage imaginable. It still plays like a family-friendly road show special, as if Paramount executives had genuinely lost sight of who their audience was and just threw up their hands. This is a terminal work that leaves you disgusted and anxious to expunge the whole Lerner and Loewe repertoire from the history of American musical theater.

You might go into Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes expecting something similar. The trailer and the poster prepared audience for something shocking and perverted, as if the secret of Sherlock Holmes’s love life was something you had to see at the drive-in before hearing your mother rehash it ad nauseum from the pages of the Enquirer. This story was going to blow the top off a Holmes racket that most Americans were scarcely invested in. At least the revisionist westerns like The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man assumed that there was something intrinsically and lastingly relevant about who controlled frontier mythos. Since when did Sherlock Holmes (fictional, after all) have a private life to begin with? To the youth market of 1970, you may as well have proposed an éxposé of the venereal secrets of Beetle Bailey to similar effect.

Out of touch? The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was also conceived as a lavish road show, though when it finally made it to theaters in 1970 after a lengthy shoot, the box-office failure of costly hard-ticket shows like Paint Your Wagon and Star! had changed the equation. It would be trimmed from an episodic, nearly four-hour rough cut to a more conventional two hours and five minutes. The excised material—two additional stories, plus an extended prologue and late-picture flashback—has never been recovered in full, though unsatisfying recreations have surfaced on Laserdisc and DVD.

Wilder later described the release version as an “absolute disaster,” “murdered” by his producers and editor in his absence. (Important to note: Wilder had final cut approval on Private Life and left the job to these associates while he began another picture, with further revisions apparently ruled out by time constraints.) But the finished film is no butcher job and editor Ernest Walter bridges the cuts with professional elegance. (Walter, incidentally, also wrote an outstanding manual, The Technique of the Film Cutting Room, and Private Life is, among other things, a master class on his craft.) But unlike something like Greed, Private Life is not a film we watch with constant awareness of what might have been. It works moment to moment and retains a considerable share of its poetry.

Defining what makes The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes special is difficult at first because it feels like an aberration in Wilder’s career. We’re used to satires of American vulgarity through a jaundiced émigré’s eyes, uniquely impervious to the compensating excuses and pieties. When Wilder ventures abroad, it’s usually to poke fun at the stubbornness of the Germans, not the perfidy of the English. But his devotion to this material is total and rare.

Despite the marketing, Private Life underplays its salacious material. Holmes’s dope predilection is treated matter-of-factly and largely off-screen, though the moment when he reaches for a vial in the final scene registers as a lingering tragedy. The sexual aspect is muted, but honest. Homosexuality had long been a central, but submerged, topic in Wilder’s work. In Some Like It Hot, it’s treated as a perfectly silly subject for a farce. (“Why would a man want to marry a man?” “Security!”) One gets the impression that the same juvenile impulse arose here—a gang of smart writers sitting around a lunch counter throwing out wise acres. “Say, what do you think Holmes and Watson were doing in that apartment of theirs? Those smoking robes. What a bunch of fairies, right?”

And yet the finished film is sensitive, if not quite enlightened. Ladies’ man Watson, afraid of a rumor of his alleged gayness spreading to St. Petersburg, is nevertheless palpably jealous upon seeing the attention Holmes lavishes on the mysterious Belgian woman dropped at their door. More to the point, Holmes is entirely at ease with whatever identity and orientation anyone assigns him. He enjoys reminding Watson of his own insecurity, teasing him about it, painting that sexuality rigidity as a weakness. None of this is presented as a with-it anachronism either: Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond offer a plausible account of what cocaine and homosexuality could have meant in London in 1887 and how these characters would have dealt with them.

Generally, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is notable for its economy. Alexander Trauner’s sets are elaborate, but the emotional effects emerge through very plain details. The largely unconsummated love affair between Holmes and Gabrielle Valladon is treated in a few gestures, and ultimately the sound of a flapping parasol achieves a resonance that lesser writers would have underlined with pages of dialogue. The emotional weight of the finale rests on a carefully deployed surname.

If Private Life wasn’t particularly attuned to the expectations of 1970 audiences, this had little to do with Wilder and Diamond being out-of-touch. All the characters in the film live in terror of what the twentieth century holds, with its intimations of dirigibles and submersibles and a permanent era of thoroughly boring crimes. Universal may have sicced Basil Rathbone’s Holmes on the Nazis, but Robert Stephens’s rendition betrays no interest in fighting industrial-scale crime; his methods and milieu are thoroughly artisanal, deliberately old-fashioned in any year. Significantly, this Holmes possesses awareness of his own legend and the degree to which the Watson-mediated Holmes presented in the Strand is a media fabrication. The idea that Holmes claims his own dream life, his own unknowable desires, is a major part of the movie’s unique achievement. He wants to be Sherlock Holmes, too.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in a 35mm print from Park Circus at the Portage Theater on February 8 as part of its Classic Film Series. Special thanks to Chris Chouinard. Please see our current calendar for additional information.