Ruthlessly butchered in the editing process, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), along with Fedora (1978), remains Billy Wilder’s most cruelly underrated and overlooked masterpiece; Wilder and collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay, an exquisite extension of the super-sleuth’s durable mythology; evergreen in its adherence to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmesian traditions and intrigues. This is, perhaps, the truest evocation ever put on celluloid of Doyle’s iconic denizen of deduction; so embodied in The Strand Magazine; undeniably, the director’s least disaffected movie and, by far, his most tender and affecting. For all these many virtues, it was not the film Billy Wilder wanted to make; his originally envisioned three hour roadshow salute to this enduring and endearing duo from 221B Baker Street, removed from his creative genius in post-production and distilled into a traditionalist’s approach to the material by distributors, United Artists, who felt Wilder’s overriding vision, much too grand and narratively complex. They ought to have known better and, indeed, did attempt to recall Wilder in the eleventh hour to salvage his final cut. At 125 minutes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is but an appetizing hors d'oeuvre to the movie Wilder ought to have been allowed to make; still fascinating and teeming with the sort of infectiously sublime and glib subtleties for which Wilder’s best movies are most fondly remembered, but ultimately lacking the uber-sophistication of his best storytelling. Wilder was to discover, in fact much too late to make a difference, that his excised footage – nearly an hour – had been destroyed by the studio in his absence. Left on the cutting room floor were a series of mini-mysteries, each building upon Wilder and Diamond’s adroit concept for a Sherlock Holmes masterpiece, exploring the back story of this increasingly isolated man whose personal investment in the penultimate case of his career – involving a female German spy – leaves Holmes depleted of more than his cerebral pursuits.
Wilder did his best to resuscitate his dying masterwork, but reviews of the time were harsh to downright nasty; condemning Wilder and Diamond’s lithe approach to Conan Doyle’s enterprising titan of deductive reasoning; herein recast (and given a multifarious, wounded psyche by Robert Stephens) as a somewhat effete, erudite, self-deprecating academic, who increasingly relies on a mild cocaine addiction to anesthetize his melancholia. More than any other movie in the Sherlock Holmes canon, Wilder’s ‘private life’ remains an earnest investment in the man behind the façade, occasionally at the expense of his clichéd public persona; an absorbing deconstruction of Holmes' iconography and an inquisitor’s guide behind the mask of his tortured inner self. In short, Wilder is making a genuine attempt to understand Sherlock Holmes as a figure of flesh and blood, rather than one corralled from mere platitudes celebrating his scholastic braininess. Fair enough, Colin Blakley’s Dr. Watson is no Nigel Bruce; the lovably befuddled cinematic incarnation that shared the screen with Basil Rathbone’s towering incarnation of Holmes throughout the late 1930’s to 1949. But Stephens gives us the second most intelligent reading of Holmes as a creature of habitual self-destructiveness, refreshingly void of even a whiff of pomposity or perfection. And Wilder and Diamond immerse us in a richly satisfying milieu of intrigues Arthur Conan Doyle could most definitely admire: a mystery rife with oversexed ballerinas, spurious midgets and Trappist monks, bleached canaries, a mechanical Loch Ness monster and the likes of Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) no less – all neatly wrapped in a plot of international espionage. Better still is Wilder/Diamond’s venturing into the emotional core of this iconic figure, superbly evoked by Miklós Rozsa’s heart-rending central theme. Alexandre Trauner’s mind-bogglingly intricate sets resurrect the grace, charm and clutter of Holmes’ Victorian bric-a-brac; the perfect complement to Wilder and Stephens’ interpretation of Sherlock Holmes as a fallen, fallible and disenchanted misanthropist.
Like Billy Wilder’s best works, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is deceptively breezy on the surface, Dr. Watson’s voice-over narration, as Holmes’ champion, devoted lifetime companion and chronicler, promising to delve more profoundly into cases too shocking and bizarre for the average heart and mind to comprehend. Alas, the heavy edits that immediately follow the main titles betray this pledge, the story slipping into one joyous and comical vignette, involving Russian prima ballerina, Madame Petrova’s (Tamara Toumanova) vehement desire to have Holmes sire her child, before getting underway with the real mystery at hand; Holmes narrowly averting illegitimate fatherhood – and inheriting a priceless Stradivarius for his efforts – by hinting of a homosexual predilection for Dr. Watson. From this inauspicious and farcical debut, Wilder delves into a distinctly more intimate story, Watson forgiving Holmes his injudiciousness with their international reputations as ‘manly men’, but increasingly becoming gravely concerned for his friend as Holmes falls back on an all too familiar addiction to his seven percent solution of injectable cocaine. Holmes also debunks his own stature as depicted in Watson’s accounts in The Strand, correcting a few mis-perceptions for the audience along the way. He isn’t 6ft 4 inches tall; rather, barely six feet. And he can’t play the violin like a virtuoso. Does it really matter? The film briefly settles into a sort of familiarity with the old serialized Holmes’ adventures made at 2oth Century-Fox and Universal in the 40’s; even giving us a Cole’s Notes introduction to Irene Handl as the ever-devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes chastises this portly Scot for having dusted off his case files, insisting the density of the layers is all important to his cataloging methods.
Wilder gives us Holmes as a man of several incurable and idiosyncratic vices and very few outside interests apart from detecting the criminal element. In the middle of it all, arrives the mysterious Belgian, Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page); bedraggled and barely conscious after being pulled from the Thames. Valladon insists she has come to London to search for her husband, Emile – a brilliant engineer working for her Majesty’s government, who has since mysteriously vanished without a trace. Unbeknownst to Holmes, Valladon is, in fact, a spy working for the Germans; her handler, Von Tirpitz (Peter Madden) masquerading as a Trappist monk and tailing Holmes and Watson. In the meantime, Holmes deduces Valladon must have arrived by the boat train, tracing an imprint of a number on the palm of her hand to a luggage rack at Victoria Station, later discovering a series of letters, presumably written by Emile from a nearby London address. Holmes now encourages Valladon to address an envelope to the same; Valledon, Holmes and Watson quietly sneaking into the abandoned storefront as their letter gets delivered by the postmaster. The shop is empty, except for a cage of lively canaries, tended by a woman in a wheelchair (Catherine Lacey). Presently, the trio observes as two burly movers arrive to collect twenty-four cages of canaries; Holmes afterward assessing they are still no closer to the truth. Alas, he is given a precious clue in his discovery the letter delivered is from his own estranged brother, urging to attend him at his downtown gentleman’s club.
Descending on the Diogenes Club in search of clues, Holmes is encouraged by his brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee, utterly magnificent as Holmes’ cryptic and estranged counterpart) to abandon the case. Mycroft alludes to knowing more than he is willing to reveal. But Holmes stubbornly disregards his brother’s forewarning; pressing on with their journey by train across the Scottish highlands to Inverness. Holmes becomes intrigued by Valladon’s chronically malfunctioning parasol, gradually aware she is using it to send Morris Code signals to the Trappist monks, who seem to be shadowing their journey. Not long thereafter, Holmes is drawn by what the trio first misperceived as children standing over three newly dug graves. The gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) explains the coffins belong to a father and two sons, capsized and drowned at sea – an ominous precursor of things to come. Realizing the mourners are, in fact, midgets, Holmes elects to return to the cemetery later in the evening and exhume the bodies. When he unearths the remains of Emile Valledon, buried with three bleached white canaries lying dead atop his pant leg, his wedding ring turned green, Holmes begins to suspect foul play: asphyxiation by chloride gas. Together with Watson and Valladon, Holmes investigates a series of castles along the banks of Loch Ness, noting a considerable commotion taking place at an ancient ruins cornered off by a wooden fence and scaffolding, and a ‘no trespassing’ sign; observing workmen carrying huge crates of sulfuric acid onto the premises. Holmes’ notes that when combined with sea water sulfuric acid can produce a highly toxic gas. Attempting to explore the ruins by going around back, Holmes and company are turned away by a stern guide (James Copeland) who informs them the buildings are being restored by the Society for the Preservation of Scottish Monuments. Testing the guide’s knowledge, Holmes fakes a history for the ruins the guide backs up; Holmes realizing the man is lying to them about the work being done on the property. Holmes also observes the same men from the abandoned pet shop in London unloading a cage full of canaries on site.
Traversing Loch Ness in a rowboat, Holmes, Watson and Valladon come in contact with what appears to be the infamous amphibious monster; their tiny vessel capsized. Later, Holmes goes the journey alone on foot, discovering Mycroft in a glowing white tent pitched along the moors. Mycroft clarifies for Holmes he is being used as a pawn. Valladon is not the wife of Emile, who died from a chloride gas leak along with his feathered friends, but a German spy named Fraulein Ilsa von Hoffmanstal, who intends to steal the blueprints for England’s latest weapon – a steel-constructed, cocoon-shaped submersible ship, camouflaged to look like the Loch Ness monster. Before the brothers can debate Holmes’ next course of action, Queen Victoria arrives to inspect the top secret project. But she is utterly horrified to learn it has already cost British lives and has been designed expressly as a vessel of war. Instead, Victoria orders the already built submersible immediately dismantled and the project scrapped in its’ entirely; much to Mycroft’s chagrin. A short while later, Holmes reunites with Valladon in their suite of rented rooms, exposing von Hoffmanstal for her treachery. The great detective then uses her parasol to send a Morris Code message to the waiting Trappist monks – actually, Von Tirpitz and a small troop of German seaman anxiously awaiting her contact. Holmes then explains to von Hoffmanstal how Britain intends to let the Germans have the submersible, albeit booby-trapped to sink them into an eternal resting place at the bottom of the sea. On the surface, Holmes is glib and immensely pleased with himself, hinting to von Hoffmanstal that everyone is inclined to suffer a failure now and then. “Fortunately, Dr. Watson never writes about mine!”
Alas, Holmes is holding out; unable to quantify his unsettling affections for this femme fatale, but confirmed when Mycroft explains to von Hoffmanstal she is not bound for a British prison as anticipated; rather, to be traded for the release of a British spy captured in Prussia. She will return to Germany at once. In the film’s epilogue, we receive the ultimate confirmation to torpedo Holmes’ wounded heart: his unspoken sorrow after reading a letter from Mycroft, informing him von Hoffmanstal was captured by the Japanese while on another spy mission for Germany and summarily executed by a firing squad for treason; Holmes reaching for Dr. Watson’s medical bag and his seven percent solution of cocaine to numb his roiling melancholia. A defeated Watson, unable to reach, or even remotely comfort, his best friend, tearfully looks on. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most perfect movie ever made about this iconic friendship; Wilder’s re-conceptualizing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth predating Guy Ritchie’s mangling of Holmes as a bumbling ragamuffin by nearly 40 years. In eschewing Conan Doyle’s original stories for his own original concept, Billy Wilder assumes a monumental task; to capture the essential flavor of, not only the period, but also Conan Doyle’s artful sleuth; similarly, to remain faithful to the Sherlock Holmes’ already ensconced and fondly recalled in movies co-starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. For the greater part of this endeavor, Wilder miraculously succeeds. He gives us Sherlock Holmes, quirks and all – a delicate balancing act that never stoops to debase the character; merely, to illustrate his humanizing imperfections.
No one could ever confuse Robert Stephens with Basil Rathbone; Stephens, interspersing his character’s trademarked deductive logic with inspired tinges of Oscar Wilde – also Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. And yet, Stephens manages a truthful, brooding and splendidly debonair Holmes; one fallible and unreservedly vulnerable in spots, although still able to validate his air of smug superiority where the legend is concerned. To his dying day, Billy Wilder chose never to reminisce about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – one of his outright critical and financial failures. Although cut by more than 30 minutes the film remains brightly satirical and imbued with a delicate sense of decaying intimacy. Here is a portrait of Conan Doyle’s peerless investigator, equally intriguing as he is amusing. Before The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, too few cinematic incarnations managed to rival this beloved character of late 19th and early 20th century literature. Without a doubt, there have been no contenders in the half a century since half as witty or worthy of the mantle of quality Wilder has wrought with this classy bittersweet tale. Alexander Trauner’s elephantine and sumptuous Victorian recreations of Baker Street would make even the likes of John DeCuir blush; Pinewood’s massive back lot converted to façades, marking the epitome of London chic. The wholesale lopping off of Wilder’s tertiary story lines – short mystery sketches and a framing device, meant to augment the central narrative – remains lamentable. The movie still works. But what was left on the cutting room floor likely would have transformed this compelling minor classic into a rarefied and much celebrated Wilder plat du jour.
At 125-minutes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a coming attraction for a feature yet to be released. The original prologue – the examination of the contents of Dr. Watson’s shelved personal effects, exhumed from a dusty storage locker some fifty years after the passing of both men, was meant as Billy Wilder’s sour social commentary on the modern age. Now, this has been distilled into a Maurice Binder montage of moments featured under the main titles, set to Miklos Rosza’s eloquent underscore. It works…sort of. Wilder’s approach would have been much more grand and grandly amusing; and this from a man who considered himself the purveyor of delicious shocks to the system, breaking taboos during the stringent era of Hollywood’s production code. Without the code to rail against, Wilder’s film forgoes shock value for charm – mostly of the old-fashioned ilk. Arguably, the most daring moments come with Wilder’s inference that perhaps Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes shared more than an address; Wilder’s tongue-in-cheek homoeroticism, believable, deliberate, and, quite funny, as the ballet master attempts to ‘fix up’ Watson with various male dancers from the Ballet Russe. When Holmes refuses to take Watson’s indignation seriously, suggesting they can always meet “clandestinely on a bench in Hyde Park”, Watson’s probing query “I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but there have been women in your life?” is met with an even more naughty inference; Wilder’s Holmes replying, “the answer is yes…you’re being presumptuous!”
In years since, the general reputation of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been that it brilliantly succeeds in its first act, becoming unhinged in its mid-section, then, utterly falls apart in its last act. Rubbish! Wilder consistently maintains his verve for the central mystery. Moreover, he commands our attention with a fascinating sect of circumstances; the finale, a thoroughly thought-provoking flourish of Holmesian principles, imbued with an overwhelming sense of loss and personal tragedy. Unfettered by the usual Americanized tripe about uppity British stoicism, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes translates, not only into good solid second-tier Billy Wilder – but magnificent first-tier Arthur Conan Doyle as well; neither to be lightly disregarded. Wilder’s shifting affinity for the character gives us Sherlock Holmes, warts and all; a conflicted pragmatist, whose supreme adherence to deductive logic becomes a considerable liability and Holmes’ blind spot in the last act. Wilder’s Sherlock is the Holmes of our youth – deerstalker and magnifying glass (first made famous in Sidney Paget’s Strand illustrations); Robert Stephens borrowing heavily from William Gillette’s (the first to immortalize Sherlock Holmes on the stage) dandyisms and menacing charisma. Yet, far from a deliberately condescending evaluation of Conan Doyle’s ensconced superman, Wilder’s reevaluation of Sherlock Holmes emerges as perhaps the most unvarnished and frankly clear-eyed critique of this enterprising specimen, brought down a peg or two to a level of humanity and compassion we can regularly admire, appreciate and genuinely feel akin to without reprisals. And Wilder’s affinity for Holmes - as a man after his own heart - is poignantly illustrated in his astute assessments of Holmes’ intelligence contributing to his own isolationism. This Sherlock Holmes can no more discover happiness than ignore his private failings or turn a blind eye to the duplicity of the world; forced into accepting his finely honed ego while simultaneously chagrined for possessing it. In the final analysis, the character’s ambivalence is what sells The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a meticulous character study; the movie increasingly disinterested with its ‘whodunit’ and becoming a superior deconstruction of Holmes’ own emotional fragility and genius.
Were that we could champion Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release as ‘brilliant’. Alas, we get the same exceedingly tired old elements used to mint MGM’s DVD from 2002; at times, severely flawed, badly faded and suffering from imploding color balance, hints of vinegar syndrome, very weak contrast levels and a barrage of age-related artifacts scattered throughout: in short, a colossally disappointing visual presentation of a movie deserving so much better. This 2.34:1 presentation is riddled with digital anomalies, harsh reel changes and a lot of built-in flicker. Christopher Challis’s soft-focused cinematography ought to have looked velvety smooth and dreamy. Instead, colors are muted, flesh tones adopting that unflattering piggy pink patina; the vividness in Julie Harris’ costumes and Alexandre Trauner’s period sets getting lost in the exaggerated film grain looking coarse with pockets of video noise. Frankly, I am getting sick and tired of third-party distributors getting their hands on other studio’s vintage catalogs, only to slap together shoddy third-rate 1080p transfers and then think they have done everyone an immense favor, simply by making these discs – ANY discs – available to the consumer. Hello, fellas! Olive, Kino, Image, et al. Are you listening?!? Guess what? You haven’t done yourselves any favors. The public?…well, judging by this transfer, quality control and consumer satisfaction were never pressing issues or top priority.
The 2.0 DTS audio is adequate – barely, with semi-crisp exchanges of dialogue. Miklos Rozsa’s score sounds just okay rather than exceptional. Extras are all ported over from MGM’s DVD and include a featurette/interview with Christopher Lee that is badly out of sync, plus script pages to recreate the lost/deleted scenes and a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: we’ll still recommend this one for content. But you are not getting anything close to Blu-ray’s promise of perfection – or a reasonable facsimile of the way this movie looked in theaters back in 1970. Yuck – and who really needs it? I’m still asking myself that same question!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)