Closed Doors and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”

A couple of health issues and general post-holiday fatigue ended up landing me and my friends in St. Louis for an extra day. I took advantage of my extra time by reading, cross stitching, playing with cats, and catching up on the Netflix titles that were about to expire, including the film that changed Mark Gatiss’ life.

The film is directed by Billy Wilder, director of more than twenty films criss-crossing numerous genres, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment; all co-written with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. The pair were famous for poaching dialogue and plot points from conversations overheard between their cast and crew off-set during filming.

The film was originally set to star Peter O’ Toole and Peter Sellers as Holmes and Watson, but those plans were scrapped when Wilder elected to cast the lesser known Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. Irene Handl, actress, novelist, and prolific scene-stealer, is in it. Her matronly portrayal was considered the definitive onscreen Mrs. Hudson for decades.

Christopher Lee is also in it. He plays Mycroft Holmes, a cool and subtly ruthless role originally intended for George Sanders (whose suicide note two years later included a litany about his “boredom” with the world that Holmes himself might have sympathized with). It’s his third onscreen role in the Holmes universe — he played Henry Baskerville in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the great detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (a role he would revisit twice in the 1990s).

The Holmes of Wilder’s text is a man secluded comfortably beyond the reach of others. The film doesn’t shy away from Holmes’ recreational use of cocaine or the queer subtext of Holmes and Watson’s homosocial bond or of Holmes himself, but the detective’s most volatile emotions are kept close to the chest, even from those who share his household. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are privileged enough to have freedom of mobility within Holmes’ space (even when he is in the bath), but his attachments, affections, losses and triumphs are (barely) alluded to in the same flat affect he uses in the deduction and reveal of his cases.

A common theme of Holmes pastiches and adaptations is decoding the inner workings of the clinical detective — the man prone to black moods, who spends his life analyzing the worst impulses of human beings all with a deeply ingrained mistrust of women, law enforcement, and, to a point, western culture (his knowledge of the arts is minimal, his acumen in the scientific fields outside of forensic analysis practically anemic). The genius of Private Life is in how, rather than delving in further, the narrative keeps viewers at a distance the entire time. We see a Holmes who fleetingly skims the surface of human emotion with his friend, his client, his brother, and his queen, reacting in only tidy, sparse flourishes. The rest of the man (the “heart’ of the man) is kept behind closed doors and we, the grasping audience with Watson as our proxy, are “presumptuous” to assume the privilege of greater access.

~ by blackmoodcraft on December 29, 2013.

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