Fifty years after the death of Dr John Watson (Colin Blakely) the contents of a box kept all that time in a bank vault could be made public. His great friend and colleague Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) could be relied upon to get to the heart of a mystery and uncover the solution, but what Watson was reluctant to reveal was his occasional fallibility. Thus these two cases provided fresh insight into the famed detective's personality, and were assuredly not something that would have been printed in The Strand magazine with the others...
Of course, if writer (with I.A.L. Diamond) and director Billy Wilder had had his way there would have been four cases revealed in that box, but the story of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was a sad one through and through. It was intended as a three hour long epic, offering audiences a selection of Holmes pastiches each of which would highlight one of his failings as perceived by Wilder, three of them around half an hour long or shorter, and the main tale concerning the Loch Ness Monster. Unfortunately for him, the studio got cold feet as they did not think they would get their money back, and a drastic re-edit was ordered.
Wilder didn't have much to do with the recutting of his epic, and the fact remained that by this time whatever the studio were doing to it was more a damage limitation exercise than a boost to the quality of the movie. Once released in a couple of hours format, very few were interested in shelling out to see it, and it was one of the biggest flops of its day: well into the next century it still hadn't entirely made its costs back. Add to that a production dogged with mishaps such as the monster submersible sinking to the bottom of the actual Loch Ness and Wilder's badgering of Stephens to the point of a nervous breakdown and it was a film many would rather forget.
But such is the way with these things, Holmes was such an enduring character that anything featuring him, especially a grand folly carrying as much baggage as this did, would generate intrigue among the many aficionados of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most celebrated creation. Therefore a cult following was amassed over the years among those who responded to Wilder's tentative reinventions, but just as many, if not more, who tried this were left disappointed that it was all so muted, in spite of a plot which stirred in various craziness. The first, shorter story is not so much a mystery as an accusation that Holmes was homosexual, but rather than treat it as a lighthearted dig, it's presented with an eventually crushing moral weight.
Things picked up somewhat in the second yarn as Wilder showed the sleuth's drive to uncover the truth could be misplaced, but again feels as if the character was being needlessly undercut without sufficient humour to keep the whole thing afloat. Here Holmes and Watson assist a woman (Geneviève Page) who showed up bedraggled at their door, leading them on a journey to Northern Scotland and medium-jinks with the monster, a collection of midgets, canaries, castles, spies and the reappearance of Holmes' brother Mycroft (a bald Christopher Lee, one of the highlights). All very well as far as that went, but if it amused it never inspired or revealed what it was Wilder saw in the originals that made it so imperative he should have devoted so much time to it. For a long while this was going to be a musical, which would have been genuinely audacious, but as it stood it was elaborate enough but curiously downbeat and dejected, as if the production's troubles were dragging down the events on screen. Music by Miklos Rosza.