REVIEW: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes at the BFI

Introduced by Mark Gatiss

BFI Southbank, London, 9 April, 2014

Review by Cameron K McEwan

Showing as part of the exclusive BFI members-only "Screen Epiphany" season*, where a prominent figure from the arts and culture community talks about the film that inspired their passion for cinema, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes comes bounding into the Southbank cinema full of Sixties fun and colour.

Introducing the film was Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss (The Unquiet Dead, Night Terrors) who, as you will no doubt know, showruns the television series Sherlock with Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue. How apt that Mark should recommend the 1970 Billy Wilder film as he and Moffat have often cited The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as an inspiration for their own take on the Arthur Conan Doyle detective.

Gatiss was effusive in his praise, recalling his own journey with the film from seeing it on television and tracking it down years later to enjoy once more. It's always a pleasure to hear him chat and the audience seemed quite happy to sit back and enjoy his conversation all evening. But the main event, of course, was the film itself.

In in an age when every movie one sees has been remastered every which way from Sunday, it was most refreshing to see that the print of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes looked like it had no attention whatsoever since initially screened. I was immediately taken back to my younger days when it seemed every film was full of scratches, jittery frames and pregnant with sound pops. Well, that's how I remember them anyway.

Quality aside, the content of the film is quite remarkable. No, incredibly remarkable. As a fan of director's Billy Wilder's work (Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch and Buddy Buddy, for example), I was curious to see how he would handle Holmes. And straight from the off we can see clearly just how much the interplay between the Holmes and Watson here informed the choices of Moffat and Gatiss when it came to writing the roles now inhabited by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

There's a lightness and self referential quality to the parts that feels extremely modern, especially when addressing Watson's writings, Sherlock's outfit and the couple's "imposed" homosexuality (a ruse by the sleuth). Portraying the couple are Robert Stephens, who many may know better as evil Abner Brown in The Box of Delights (which starred Patrick Troughton, fact fans) and Colin Blakely (who I adored in the 1980s UK series, The Beiderbecke Affair) and what a fine, fine job they do too.

In comparison with previous onscreen pairings, theirs must have been somewhat of a shock to to regular viewers, perhaps why the film didn't do nearly as well as expected. But, watching now, it's a joy to see them interacting and, in general, having a lot of fun (especially with the ladies). Complementing the cast is screen legend Christopher Lee, playing Sherlock's brother Mycroft (pictured below). In his introduction, Gatiss paid wonderful tribute to the performance, citing it as the inspiration for his own take on the role.

The plot is a meandering affair, to be honest (possibly another trait Moffat and Gatiss picked up on), with lots of extraneous, though hugely enjoyable nonetheless, action towards the start. By the time they've reached the fascinating denouement featuring the Loch Ness Monster and Queen Victoria (no, really), it's a kaleidoscopic technicolour whirlwind. Wilder, despite the film being made when classic Hollywood was really getting the boot, produces a piece of work out of time. Thankfully, tastes change and it has come round again for reevaluation and appraisal.

I do heartily recommend you seek out The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes whether it be on DVD or television. You won't be disappointed. It's a glorious insight into the past, but also a wonderful piece of filmmaking and a terrific addition to the many interpretations of the Baker Street duo. Despite my delight at the antique nature of the print shown, I do hope it gets a bluray release sometime soon, it's just too delicious not to be celebrated properly.

Thanks to the BFI

Review by Cameron K McEwan

*BFI Membership gets you to the front of the queue for the hottest tickets in town including the BFI London Film Festival where you can experience the glamour of the red carpet first hand as well as exclusive access to special Members' events like the Screen Epiphany series. Previous guests in the last year have included James Franco, Yoko Ono, Cillian Murphy, Paul Greengrass and Grayson Perry.

Visit the BFI for more details HERE

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