Billy Wilder’s Hollywood career spans from 1938 to 1981. As both a director and a screenwriter, his films include The Major and The Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, The Bishop’s Wife, and Some Like it Hot.
Wilder made an enormous contribution to American Cinema, receiving six Academy Awards, and other awards and nominations. He was a vital part of Hollywood’s Golden Age but received little regard in academic circles for many years. Most notably, famed film critic and essayist, Andrew Sarris in his 1962 article Notes on the Auteur Theory criticized Wilder’s films as “lacking technique.” This unfortunate comment hurt Wilder’s reputation amongst the critics. Auteur theory prevailed as one of the dominant theoretical lenses for examining cinema for most of the later half of the twentieth century. Auteur theory focuses on a film as the work of one creative individual, the director, rather than as a collaborative process. Wilder’s films are highly collaborative. Sarris later recanted his negative opinion toward Wilder, admitting François Truffaut influenced his cinematic taste. He saw Sunset Boulevard 25 times in the theater. Sarris describes The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a “masterpiece.”
Throughout his career, Wilder moves seamlessly through many cinematic styles. Billy Wilder in Hollywood, author Maurice Zolotow offers a through-line, all the major female characters play a “necessary charade.” This duplicity does not equal a dislike for women. Wilder’s films represent a male perspective, who seeks understand the true nature of women. Readers often describe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes as a misogynist. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes explores Holmes’s relationships with Watson and with women. According to Zolotow, Wilder identifies with Holmes. Wilder’s film highlights Holmes’s famed aversion toward all women, other than Irene Adler, a.k.a “The Woman”:
HOLMES. You have given the reader the distinct impression that I am a misogynist. Actually, I don’t dislike women — I merely distrust them. The twinkle in the eye and the arsenic in the soup.
The film begins with a box. A box belonging to Dr. John Watson opened 50 years after his death. The box contains mementos and case histories:
WATSON. Adventures which, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date. They involve matters of a delicate and sometimes scandalous nature.
The first story is a funny story about a famous Russian prima ballerina Madame Petrova. Watson enraptured by her beauty, Holmes barely notices the woman:
WATSON. Fabulous woman, don’t you think so, Holmes?
WATSON. The great Petrova.
HOLMES. Very strong arches, I must admit.
Petrova wants Holmes to father her child. She persists and Holmes tries a series of tactics, he’s a terrible lover, he’s a hemophiliac, he’s involved… Nothing works, in desperation he explains he is involved, with Watson!
HOLMES. A bachelor — living with another bachelor — for the last five years. Five very happy years.
Meanwhile, Watson dances with the ladies at the party, but the rumor about Holmes and Watson quickly spreads around the room! Watson hears the rumor and is furious.
Quick aside: Wilder gave Blakely (Watson) the note, “Act like Laughton, but dance like Nureyev.” They shot the scene and Blakely asks the director for feedback, Wilder says, “You acted like Nureyev, but you danced like Laughton.”
Back to the film, Watson confronts Holmes, but Holmes does not share Watson’s outrage. Watson further questions Holmes:
WATSON. I can get women from three continents to testify for me. And you can get women to vouch for you, too –can’t you, Holmes?
WATSON. Can you, Holmes?
HOLMES. Good night, Watson.
WATSON. Holmes, let me ask you a question – I hope I’m not being presumptuous — but there have been women in your life?
HOLMES. The answer is yes. You’re being presumptuous.
Watson wonders about Holmes’s sexuality or lack thereof:
WATSON. What, indeed, was his attitude toward women? Was there some secret he was holding back — or was he just a thinking machine, incapable of any emotion?
The second story follows a mysterious woman washed up in the Thames. Enter Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page), Holmes treats her with his usual disdain:
HOLMES. The sooner we solve the case, the sooner we can get rid of her.
Despite his animosity, it is immediately clear that Holmes is attracted to Gabrielle. As the mystery unfolds, Holmes is not in top form in her presence. For example, Gabrielle sends messages via morse code with her umbrella, Holmes is oblivious.
The film is sentimental and charming. Unfortunately, the film was a commercial failure. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes closed after a few weeks. Large budget “old Hollywood” filmmakers could not compete with younger, smaller budget filmmakers.
In comparison with Wilder’s earlier films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is slower, and the mood is very sentimental. Nevertheless, the film is hysterical. In an interview with Mark Shivas, Wilder says, “It isn’t camp. It’s a valentine to Sherlock” (Wilder & Horton, xi). Romantic emotion affects his reason (gasp!), he is very human. Perhaps that is what best signifies a Billy Wilder film, to quote Shirley Maclaine it’s, “reality- underlined with the best punchlines in the business.”
Kakutani, Michiko. “Billy Wilder Honored at Lincoln Center Gala.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 May 1982. Web. 15 June 2015.
Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory.” Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (2004): 561-564.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Screenplay By Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Geneviève Page. Metro Goldwyn Mayer Home Entertainment, 2003. DVD.
Wilder, Billy, and Robert Horton. Billy Wilder: Interviews. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2001. Print.
Zolotow, Maurice. Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Third Ed. New York: Putnam, 1977. Print.
Rent the film online through Google Play here for $2.99.
I highly recommend visiting ClassicBecky’s Brain Food to read her The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes post in the 2014 Billy Wilder Blogathon. ClassicBecky covers Wilder’s relationship with long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, Miklos Rozsa’s excellent score, United Artist’s detrimental cuts to the film, Robert Stephens (Holmes), and cameos featuring Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger) and a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Lee (Mycroft).