Imagining the Detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Sherlock (2010- )
by Mark Wallace
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, dir. Billy Wilder) went relatively unnoticed on its first release, but has gone on to become one of the most admired screen narratives featuring Doyle’s great detective. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, co-writers and -producers of Sherlock, have been vocal in their admiration for the film, and in acknowledging its influence on their series.
The title of the film announces the specific project it takes on: the depiction of the private life of Doyle’s character. This is a character who, in earlier versions, doesn’t have a private life, who is defined by his lack of private life. He lives only to detect:
I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”)
His dedication to his work is absolute. It is not just in action that he is devoted to his work, but in thought, too. It possesses his mind to the full. Only in the absence of work does he develop a sort of humanity, a human-all-too-human dependence on cocaine.
But Private Life overturns this character, and interrogates the standard depiction of Holmes. It is the Freudian conception of character, as I have discussed before. What is Holmes really like? What urges underlie his desperate compulsion for work? This question of Holmes’ private self is fundamental to Sherlock and Elementary, but it is in this film that it gets its first substantial treatment. Holmes’ drug use is alluded to several times from the beginning of the film, as well as his standard rationale for it:
[HOLMES] My dear friend — as well as my dear doctor — I only resort to narcotics when I am suffering from acute boredom — when there are no interesting cases to engage my mind.
[WATSON (VOICEOVER)] Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that my friend was always on cocaine — sometimes it was opium, sometimes it was hashish. And once he went one of these dreadful binges, there was no telling how long it would last.
As well as introducing Holmes’ drug use, the opening conversation between Holmes and Watson sets up several threads that would later be woven into Sherlock. These include:
- Holmes’ complaints about Watson’s “tendency to over-romanticize” his cases when writing them down. This is also found in Doyle, but Private Life takes it further, and also extends it to complaints about the illustrations in the stories, which depict Holmes wearing a “ridiculous costume” which the public now expects Holmes to wear. This latter idea is lifted wholesale into Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride”.
- Mrs. Hudson’s more outspoken character. In Doyle, she meekly accepts Holmes’ eccentricities, but in Private Life, she has a somewhat sharper tongue. For example, in the opening scene, Holmes’ famous paper on 140 types of ash is mentioned, prompting Mrs H. to sarcastically interject, “I’m sure there’s a crying need for that.” Sherlock really runs with that in their Mrs Hudson character. The day of the meekly loyal serving class in narratives of pop culture is gone, alas.
There is also an amusing suggestion by Watson that Holmes has only moved in with him to get access to drugs. This is one suggestion that Sherlock has not used. In fact, Sherlock is merely a former cigarette smoker now using nicotine patches in the series.
A plot begins to form in the next sequence of Private Life, when Holmes and Watson go to the Russian Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake. After the performance, Holmes is invited for an audience with its star, a lady known as The Great Petrova. She has a proposition for him: she wants to have a child, and she has chosen him as a suitable partner because he is a genius. How does Holmes respond to this? How would Holmes respond? This is a question that Private Life tries to answer, and that in different formulations would go on to be central to Sherlock.
But, on the whole, Private Life does not live up to its title. Roger Ebert’s review of the film concludes:
Before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure.
I think Ebert’s line is basically accurate. Wilder in a sense plays on the word “private”. The early part of the film promises an exploration of a putative hidden side of Holmes’ psyche. The latter part locates the private nature of the story in the standard Doylean device of invoking secrets of great national importance, involves royalty and top government officials, etc. Wilder didn’t quite have the tropes available to tell the story he apparently wanted to tell. In many ways, it is this story, the one Wilder didn’t quite get a handle on, that is told over and over again in Sherlock.
Private Life found itself trapped by the Doylean tropes of the top secret diplomatic affair, and couldn’t keep its focus on Holmes as a private individual; Sherlock is trapped by the notion of individual becoming, the personal journey, the fundamental importance of one’s personal relationship and their contribution to personal growth. According to current dominant tropes visible in Sherlock, the detective can never really be a detective. He can only be a complex human(-all-too-human) who does detective work. That, in the early 21st-century western world, is what people are.
[Y]ou have to find new ways of progressing Sherlock himself. He’s a bit like Pinocchio: he is creeping towards becoming more human. He’ll never make it, but he has to change, otherwise you just set the whole thing in aspic, and there’s no point doing that. – Steven Moffat, quoted in Steve Tribe, Sherlock Chronicles, p. 248.