In most of these essays, I try to keep a pretense of critical distance. That is, I point out whatever loose sally of thought the movie in question inspires and then proceed from there, without venturing much comment on the quality of the movie itself. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, however, must stand as an exception to this rule, for the simple reason that I love it too much. I’ve often said that it’s neck-and-neck between this movie and Murder by Decree as to which film is the better Sherlock Holmes story. Truth be told, my opinion varies based on which movie I saw most recently. But after this, my fourth or so viewing of the Wilder film, I think the answer’s pretty clear-cut.

There’s several reasons I give pride of place to Private Life. The most obvious is Robert Stephens’ interpretation of Holmes. I’m a die-hard Jeremy Brett fan, but Stephens runs a close second—with reason. The two men both capture a mercurial quality in Holmes, a tendency to bouts of manic energy followed by long periods of depression, which rarely comes out in more traditional interpretations (witness Peter Cushing’s collected, professional Holmes, or Basil Rathbone’s icy detective). And they both convey a tremendous sense of loneliness. For me, the defining scene for Stephens’ Holmes comes about twenty minutes into the film, after a burlesque scene involving a Russian ballerina. Holmes, to get out of a tight spot, alleges that he and Watson are lovers, sending Watson into a roaring fury. It’s a seriously funny (and humorously serious) scene, and Stephens and Blakely play the heck out of it. And then—with a sudden change of tone that is characteristic of the movie—things take a more serious, poignant tone:

Watson: Holmes, let me ask you a question. I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but… there have been women in your life, haven’t there?
Holmes: The answer is yes…
Watson: [Watson breathes a sigh of relief]
Holmes: …You’re being presumptuous. Good night.

Holmes turns—Holmes leaves. Watson tries to follow, to apologize, but it is too late. The door to Holmes’ bedroom (and to Holmes’ private life) is closed.

In a sense, the entire movie is about that one scene. Though we are promised a glimpse into The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, we never get that glimpse. Originally, Wilder had a scene showing Holmes’ one romance during his university days, but it was cut for budgetary reasons; later, Wilder expressed the wish that he had gone further and made Holmes unambiguously gay—but that’s an idle wish of a filmmaker long past the point where he could change anything in the film. As it stands, Holmes’ sexuality remains in limbo. It is true that he recounts past experiences with women at a later point in the film, but the scene is an odd one: he and his client, Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page) are travelling to Scotland disguised as man and wife. Holmes is in the top bunk, and tells of an affair with the most winning woman he has ever known—a poisoner—and of the untimely death of his fiancé.

Watch Stephens’ face during the scene. Watch his line delivery. He is smug—he is gloating—he is anything but the heartbroken lover. Indeed, the scene most resembles the earlier encounter with the Russian ballerina—except that here he is not trying to get out of a sticky situation; instead, he is demonstrating his own superiority. It’s not an insight into Holmes’ soul we see here; it’s a power-play.

This dynamic is how most of the scenes between Holmes and Gabrielle Valladon play out. He is alternately insulting and condescending; he ignores her tears at the death of her husband—nay, he shouts at her to shut up. He does not show the slightest interest in her beyond what she can provide in the way of intellectual stimulation. And then [here be spoilers] he discovers that she is an agent for Germany, trying to steal the plans to a new weapon. That catches his attention. He still maintains his ironic façade, but it is clear that he respects her now—she has led him on, she has almost beaten him. He even seems a bit sentimental about her—so sentimental, when he learns of her death later, he resorts once again to the cocaine and Watson (who has up to now protested his use of the drug) lets him.

At first viewing, one might be tempted to think that Holmes has fallen in love. That certainly seems to be what Watson thinks (no doubt to his own relief). And it’s certainly what some reviewers think (though see Mark Gatiss for an alternate viewpoint). But a second viewing—or a third—or a fourth—will very quickly show that such a supposition is ill-founded. As I have said, there’s no indication before the last few scenes that Holmes even likes Gabrielle Valladon. Further reflection shows that we cannot be certain precisely what Holmes feels about her. Does he regret her death because he respected her? Does he mourn her because he was fond of her? The movie gives us very little to go on.

Which is, of course, as it should be. The film is called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but the title is an ironic joke. We know less about Holmes’ private life when the movie ends than we think we do when it begins. Indeed, we know less about Holmes by end–the man or the myth. We first see Holmes in the “traditional” Holmesian gear, and we think we know him—but he is quickly railing against it, and gradually discards pieces of the iconography as the movie develops. He seldom, if ever, smokes his pipe. He never meets, let alone beats, Moriarty (indeed, this movie is unique among the ones we’ve seen here because he never even gets the moral upper hand on his adversaries). Even the glimpse at his family life tells us nothing; he and his brother seem less like siblings and more like strangers.

What are we to make of this? In some sense, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not about Holmes at all—like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, it is about our idea of Holmes. It is about the way in which we think we know someone who is, after all, a fictional character. But is Wilder only suggesting something about the nature of Holmes-as-character or is there something more afoot? If, as I have maintained, the detective story is essentially a story of religious enlightenment, what sort of revelation is there to be had here?

To tell the truth, I’m not absolutely certain myself. I could spout more stuff about speaking-truth-to-power, but Holmes does little truth-speaking here. I could talk about the dangers of attempting to probe too deeply into the mysteries around us, but that would also be false to the movie. I think, if anything, the movie is about investigating the self. The fact that Sherlock Holmes is the main character is irrelevant; this Holmes is a mystery to the viewer, and as such we project our own fears and desires on to him. Or perhaps it is about the mystery of Others—about the fact that, no matter how hard we try, no matter how deeply we probe, there will always be something terrifying about encountering a person who is not us. We are all, in this sense, Watsons—always in danger of being presumptuous. And we are all, in this sense, Sherlock Holmes—iconic figures, people known by our clothes and our affectations, with a dark mist shrouding our core and a broad sign warning “Keep Out.”

That could be taking it too far, though. Let’s simply suggest, instead, that Wilder wanted to pinpoint the essential flatness of the Holmes character, wanted to demonstrate that any roundness we give him is in fact part of ourselves. His Holmes is not noble, nor is he a champion of rationality, nor is he even human in any sort of comforting way. He is an enigma—like the Holmes of the books—and watching the movie ultimately reveals more about what we think of the character than it does about the character himself.