Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970)

The “little” pictures of the cinema giants can be some of the most surprising pleasures. In this case, we have a throw-away piece that Wilder made out of a love for the subject. It is one that he reportedly didn’t even like due to the fact that it was edited by someone else in a way that destroyed his vision. For the rest of us, not privy to his ideal, it is a delightful entertainment. Most call it small because it is a simple story without much to say and in no great way contributing to the Holmes fable.

However true that may be, it still has a message. In this case we are invited to think about the nature of the stories that we tell each other. The very nature of a detective story is the discovery of truth; the idea that there is truth and it can be known. Another side of that, especially in a certain vein of detective stories of which Doyle was a master, is the idea that stories are told in ways that hide the truth. Doyle would tell simple plots in such a way as to make the reader believe that Holmes was brilliant, but if we had seen the story from his perspective—as he would often explain things to Watson—they became rather simple.

In the opening of this film Holmes concocts a story—a lie—to tactfully refuse an “assignment” that he does not want to perform. It causes Watson great embarrassment, but Holmes doesn’t care. He maintains a clear distinction between reality and rumor.

At the heart of the main case is a similar arrangement. A woman in great peril and need is presented to Holmes and he agrees to help her. As time goes on he even begins to enjoy her company despite his mistrust of women, but is she all she claims to be? When the full truth is revealed Holmes’ respect has been fully earned. It is as though he is most impressed, not by reality, but by the fact that he had been so skillfully fooled.

Why is it that we are so enamored with presenting a disguise to the world? Why do we all too often prefer elaborate stories to the simple truth?

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