The ever-subversive Billy Wilder first imagined doing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a stage play because Hollywood wouldn’t permit exploration of Holmes’ drug abuse or diffidence toward women. But then, the production code was repealed, and Wilder wrote up the seamier side of Sherlock in four adventures for his 1970 anthology film. Unfortunately, Wilder had to leave to shoot his next film before post-production was finished, leaving the three-hour rough-cut with his producers, who cut two of the stories altogether.
Still, in what’s left, Wilder gives Robert Stephens enough space to become the first screen Holmes to explore the sleuth’s frailties and quirks. In the shorter vignette, Holmes turns down a Russian ballerina’s proposition to father a child that would presumably have his intellect and her physique; he demurs by hinting that he and Watson are gay lovers. (Watson, played by Colin Blakely, is not amused.) The longer vignette explores Sherlock’s complicated relationship with his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), whose work on a secret submarine project for Queen Victoria leads to betrayal and heartbreak for poor Sherlock. No wonder he seeks solace in cocaine and violin-playing.
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