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Film / The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

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"We all have occasional failures. Fortunately, Dr. Watson never writes about mine."

A 1970 film by Billy Wilder, which asks the question: We all know about how successful Sherlock Holmes is at solving mysteries, but what about his failures? His secrets? Those things he wouldn't want Dr. Watson to reveal to the world?

The film is essentially split into two stories, one longer than the other: in the first, Holmes (Robert Stephens) is approached by a beautiful Russian dancer with an unorthodox offer to make to him; in the second, he and Watson (Colin Blakely) are drawn into a conspiracy at the highest levels of government after a woman who was fished naked out of the Thames finds herself on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. In both cases, the outcome is something that Holmes would rather not be reminded of...

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Mycroft is fat in the books and most other portrayals. Here, he's played by... Christopher Lee.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Mycroft, natch.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The film notoriously possits the possibility that Holmes and Watson are lovers, with emphasis on "posibility". Holmes manages to extricate himself out of the Russian ballerina's plan to have a child with him by claiming that Watson is his lover, and when Watson learns of this, he confronts Holmes about the reality of the ensuing rumours, with Holmes only stating that Watson is "being presumptuous" by asking Holmes whether he has had relationships with women. It's been called a campy one-sided romance (by Mark Gatiss, notably) but each suggestive scene has some plausible deniability.
  • Chekhov's Gag: Holmes makes a dismissive joke about a missing persons case he's been offered; later, it turns out to be part of the conspiracy. The missing persons, a troupe of circus midgets, were hired in secret to crew the Diogenes Club's mini-submarine.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: "The Diogenes Club".
    Mycroft: It's come to my attention that you are interested in the whereabouts of a certain engineer.
    Sherlock: Yes, I am.
    Mycroft: Well, I can save you a lot of trouble. My suggestion is that you pursue it no further. It involves the national security. We are handling the matter.
    Watson: We? Who are we?
    Sherlock: The Diogenes Club.
    Mycroft: I didn't say that.
    Sherlock: I've long suspected some underground connection between this stodgy and seemingly calcified establishment and the foreign offices in Whitehall.
    Mycroft: That is neither here nor there.
    Sherlock: Your club is here, there and everywhere! When there are rumblings of revolt in the Sudan an expedition funded by your club conveniently shows up to study the source of the Nile. If there's trouble along the Indian frontier, members pop up in the Himalayas, allegedly looking for the abominable snowman.
    Mycroft: [chuckles] What a vivid imagination my brother has.
  • Darwinist Desire: Madame Petrova tries to get Holmes to contribute his DNA to her children, hoping their offspring with have her physical advantages and his mental advantages.
  • Deconstruction: A mild example, of Sherlock Holmes himself; it's mostly affectionate, but points out that he was more than a bit weird and that he had to have screwed up every so often.
  • Downer Ending: Ilsa winds up dead, shot after being exposed as a spy in Japan. This drives Holmes back to the cocaine bottle.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: Gabrielle uses this to communicate with her German handlers, and Holmes inevitably knows how to decode it. Justified because, well, of course Sherlock Holmes would make sure he knew something like that.
  • Faux Yay: Holmes tries this with Madame Petrova, much to Watson's fury.
  • Foreshadowing: The old lady in the wheelchair uses a contraption to pull up her birdcage cover that closely resembles a drawbridge - this foreshadows later in the film when a drawbridge becomes part of the story.
  • Iconic Outfit: In universe example; Holmes bemoans the ridiculous get up he's now forced to wear everywhere he goes because it's expected of him.
  • My Greatest Failure: This ends up being Watson's recounting of Holmes'.
  • Not the Nessie: This is what the Diogenes' invention was disguised as.
  • The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The Diogenes Club is a non-evil example.
  • Performance Artist: Apparently the Russian Ballet attracts these like flies. Gay, gay flies.
  • The Scrooge: Discussed; one of the letters begging for Holmes's help comes from a circus owner asking Holmes' help to find six midgets who have disappeared from his circus. After spinning Watson a yarn about how the midgets are actually anarchist assassins planning to blow up the Tsar of Russia when he's on a state visit, Holmes reveals that it's actually more likely that the circus owner is a massive skinflint and the midgets have ran away to seek more profitable employment elsewhere, acerbically pointing out that the circus owner offers to pay Holmes a mere five pounds for his services — he's not even offering a pound a midget. Funnily enough, the midgets turn out to be working for Mycroft.
  • Sherlock Scan: Oddly enough, averted with Holmes himself. The closest we get in the film is Watson doing this after Gabrielle is brought up to their flat.
  • Sorry, I'm Gay: Holmes escapes the amorous advances of Madame Petrova by insinuating that he and Watson are a couple. Watson, when he finds out, is not pleased.
  • Stalker with a Test Tube: Madame Petrova tries to get Holmes to contribute his DNA to her children, hoping their offspring with have her physical advantages and his mental advantages.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not an example itself, but it suggests that Watson was this for the original Holmes stories; Holmes acidly notes that he has a tendency to 'over-romanticize', and gives him a telling off for all the ways he or his publishers have exaggerated what he's like. The accusation that Watson romanticizes their adventures is taken directly from the original stories.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: Lots of drinking going on at the Russian Ballet's after party.
  • What If the Baby Is Like Me: Madame Petrova approaches Holmes with a similar offer, prompting Holmes to make a similar reply. Unfortunately for him, she's made of stronger stuff than Shaw's actress, meaning he eventually has to feign being closer to Dr. Watson than anyone suspects in order to get out of it.