With the death of Christopher Lee, I highlighted his performance in, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Last night I watched the film again. It made me reflect on why I so like the film. At one time, I was down right obsessive about it. It’s a fine film, but that was not the reason I watched it over and over. I think I like it so much because it deals with Holmes’ inner life — the emotions that exist underneath that seemingly impenetrable exterior of rationality.
Basically, Private Life is a love story. Holmes falls in love — and hard. But you would never know it from his reactions. There are two ways to see Holmes’ reaction to Gabrielle. It could be that he simply sees in her his equal. And indeed, in her way, she is that. But this strikes me as the least interesting way to look at it. Also: it isn’t justified by the rest of the film. From the moment Gabrielle shows up, Holmes wants to get rid of her. He seems afraid of the feelings that she arouses in him. What’s more, he is clearly attracted to her long before he realizes that she is his equal.
The other way to see Holmes’ reaction to Gabrielle — or indeed Madame Petrova — is that he falls easily in love. He clings desperately to his rationality as a defense against his emotions, which he has no control over. It is not surprising, however, that I would see the character in this way because this is rather like myself. I think there are a lot of people like that who try to be rational and in control because they know that they are actually old softies who want nothing more than to browse Cute Overload and lie in bed with a special someone watching It Happened One Night.
The film also strongly implies that Holmes is a man who really wants to escape the harsh realities of this world. Early on in the film, Watson badgers him about his drug use, “I strongly disapprove of this insidious habit of yours.” Holmes responds, “I only resort to narcotics when I’m suffering from acute boredom.” But we learn at the end of the film that this is at best a partial truth. When he learns of a great tragedy — one that wounds him emotionally — he goes right for “the needle.” And in that case, Watson — perhaps for the first time — does not protest — perhaps finally understanding that we all have weaknesses that we manage as best we can.
In general, I don’t like the character of Sherlock Holmes. He’s quite arrogant and judgmental. In the books and stories, he is presented almost as a demigod. We don’t get much insight into him as a man. And the films — which have done as much to flesh out the character as the original material (especially regarding Mycroft and Moriarty) — have gone right along with that. This is why I’ve always liked the comedic reversal in Without a Clue; since Holmes is so thoroughly disagreeable a character, why not make him a buffoon? But The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes humanizes the character without destroying the legend. And that is why it is probably the best rending of Sherlock Holmes, and certainly my favorite.