Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sherlock Meets Sherlock: Musings on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock

As I have mentioned elsewhere I have been watching films since the early 1960's. For over fifty years I have been watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean Renoir, and Billy Wilder.

I have long been fond of the films of Billy Wilder. I even took a class on him with Harry Geduld when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington. I have long thought that Double Indemnity (1944) was one of the best if not the best film noir ever made. I love The Apartment (1960) with its very European and deeply cynical take on American puritanism and American hypocrisy. I love Sabrina (1954) and I love Love in the Afternoon (1957), two films, starring the wonderful Audrey Hepburn, which show the more romantic and sweat cream side of Wilder.

One Wilder film I have long wanted to see is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I had read and heard that The Private Life was one of Wilder's most interesting films and best films. I finally got around to watching the film yesterday (13 June 2012) thanks to the magic of DVD and I have to say that I am glad I finally did..

In many ways Private Life synthesises Wilder's humourous and playful side, Wilder with the cream on top, with his more sour cynical and satirical side. The film, which was originally going to be a three hour plus symphony in four movements--"The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room", "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners", "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina", "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective"--was eventually cut down to two hours and two movements, "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina" and "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective". You can see stills and deleted footage of the other two movements and a prologue which was also cut on the MGM DVD release of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

There were several things I liked about The Private Life, the mystery at the heart of "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective" not among them since I figured that out relatively quickly (though the tie-in of the mystery to the Loch Ness monster is kind of fun) and realised very quickly that Gabrielle Valladon, the Belgian woman searching for her engineer husband, was not who she seemed to be. Still I loved the playful reflexiveness of The Private Life, including a playfulness about Holmes himself and his relationship to Watson. The film plays with the was Holmes gay and the are they, Holmes and Watson, involved or aren't they theme, something that has been floating around in Sherlock Holmes scholar fan culture for years. I enjoyed Robert Stephens interpretation of Holmes. I enjoyed how The Private Life interwove threads from the canonical Arthur Conan Doyle novels and short stories into the film. I enjoyed The Private Life's blending and bending of genre.

Some commentators have noted the similarity between the Conan Doyle short story "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But I also saw a lot of "A Scandal in Bohemia" in it. In many ways Gabrielle Valladon, who unbeknownst to Holmes turns out to be a German spy looking for Valladon's husband who is helping the British navy build a submersible in order to provide information about it to the German government, has a lot of the Irene Adler, "the woman", in her. In many ways Ilse von Hofmannstahl, who like Adler puts one over on the great Sherlock, is yet another of the very few "the woman", women who Holmes comes to admire and perhaps love, as the picture of her in Sherlock's fob watch suggests. What is different is that von Hofmannstahl, masquerading as Valladon, forces Holmes, in the longer original version of the film, to reflect on and reveal to us how he, Sherlock, was cured of his romanticism by other women and became the "misogynist" of Sherlock legend. The Private Life as reflexive.

As I was watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes I found myself reflecting not only on the ties between The Private Life and "A Scandal in Bohemia" but also on how much of The Private Life the BBC's Sherlock (2010-) had in it. Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the co-creators of the BBC Sherlock, have spoken on several occasions about their admiration for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, calling it one of their favourite Sherlock Holmes movies of all time and even participated in a q&a on the film at the Lexi Cinema in London recently. I think one can see the influence of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on Sherlock in particular in the first episode of Sherlock's second series, the Moffat penned "A Scandal in Belgrava".

"A Scandal in Belgravia", of course, is Sherlock's take on "A Scandal in Bohemia" and Irene Adler. When "A Scandal in Belgravia" was first broadcast on the BBC on New Year's Day 2012 a firestorm of criticism erupted, much of it in the conservative Daily Mail, about nudity in a show that was transmitted before the 9 pm hour, never mind that the usual suspects of British TV nudity were absent in the episode. Others like Jane Clare Jones mused in the leftist Guardian two days after "A Scandal in Belgravia" premiered, about whether, on the evidence of "A Scandal in Belgravia" and other shows with which Moffat has been involved either as creator or as show runner such as Doctor Who, Moffat was and is a misogynist. Jones took particular exception to Moffat's transformation of Irene Adler from the woman who had bested the great detective to a woman who had to be saved by the great detective in the denouement of "A Scandal in Belgravia".

I think what a lot of people have missed in "A Scandal in Belgravia", including journalist critic Jones, is Sherlock's indebtedness not only to "A Scandal in Bohemia" but also to the Holmes/Valladon/von Hofmannstahl tale in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Like Ilse, Irene is a spy, Ilse for the German government, Irene for Jim Moriarty. Like Ilse Irene manages to fool and best the great detective for most of "A Scandal in Belgravia".

There are differences between the two as well. These differences, however, I would argue, show how much Sherlock has been influenced by The Private Life. At the end of Private Life Ilse is, thanks to the intervention of Sherlock, returned to Germany in exchange for a gaoled/jailed British spy being held in prison there. Irene is refused protection by both Mycroft and Sherlock and is sent by the British government Mycroft works for or perhaps better runs, to Pakistan to an almost certain death. At the end of The Private Life Sherlock learns that Ilse has been executed by the Japanese government for spying under the name Ashdown, the name she and Sherlock used while traveling incognito to Scotland, sending the great detective into a fit of melancholy only the violin and cocaine can cure. Irene, on the other hand, is saved by the great detective just before she is about to be beheaded. Unhappy ending, happy ending. Despite the differences in the denouement of The Private Life and "A Scandal in Belgravia" Moffat, it seems to me, is playing off of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock happens to be one of my favourite television shows at the moment. Forbrydelsen is my favourite. And now that I have seen Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes I think I understand Sherlock better. If for no other reason I have to thank The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes for that.

Jane Clare Jones, Is Sherlock Sexist: Stephen Moffat's Wanton Women, 3 January 2012, the Guardian,

For those of you who haven't seen Sherlock here is a fun and incisive review with lots of clips from the first episode "A Study in Pink"

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