Screened December 25, 2008 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ
A mellow apotheosis from Hollywood’s most celebrated cynic. This gently naughty poke at Sherlock Holmes’ emotional life and sexual proclivities reveals an inner desolation in its title character (Robert Stephens) that amounts to the most touchingly humanistic portrait of a human being in all of Billy Wilder’s work. The trademark acerbic comic banter of Wilder and longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is evident, but toned to a quaint Victorian repartee between Holmes and Watson as leisurely as a picnic game of badminton. Shot in warm, soft-focus with a loving attention to 19th-century detail, individual frames pop vibrantly like panels from a graphic novel, a visual splendor unmatched by anything in Wilder’s career. This unprecdented meticulousness to mise-en-scene mirrors Holmes’ fastidious attention to his environs, which the film posits as a byproduct to a yearning for love displaced by an abiding love-hate mistrust in fellow humans, whether his bumbing sidekick Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, excellent) or in the beguiling charms of a woman in distress (Genevieve Page).
This feast for the eyes and ears was intended to be a 165 minute roadshow presentation consisting of four stories with an intermission, but was cut in half by MGM. The missing episodes, partly reconstructed from existing materials on the MGM DVD, touch pointedly on Holmes’ relationship with Watson, his cocaine addiction, and his pained romantic past, adding significant layers to the release version. In all likelihood, this director’s version was as destined for commercial failure as the original release, hopelessly out of sync with the openly liberal culture of the 1970s. Today its encapsulation of its own time, space and values speaks vividly for itself.
Wanna go deeper? (and watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes online for free?)
Watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes online for free, courtesy of Hulu.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Adrian Turner, Time Out (1995)
Bodo Frundt, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007)
Ulrich von Berg, Steadycam (2007)
David Thomson, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Molly Haskell, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Time Out, 100 to Watch (2006)
Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006)
Download the script in .pdf format (courtesy of DailyScript.com)
Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” is disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication, the first two qualities we’d expect from the director of “The Apartment” and “The Fortune Cookie.” It begins promisingly enough with Sherlock being offered five pounds to trace six missing midget acrobats and complaining: “That’s less than a pound a midget.” There are also some sly innuendoes about his relationship with Dr. Watson, introduced solely to be disproved (Sherlock, you’ll be glad to learn, is satisfactorily hetero in the Wilder version). But before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure…
…The Holmes character, creeping around with his magnifying glass and (Watson tells us at the film’s beginning) identifying a murderer by measuring the extent to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a warm summer day, is a promising subject for the kind of satirical examination we expect from Wilder and his frequent co-author, I. A. L. Diamond. But they pass up the chance and bore us while Holmes laboriously unravels a case involving the midget acrobats, a missing husband, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, dead canaries and a copper ring that has turned green. It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on…
The fun of a good detective story isn’t in the solution, anyway, but in the complications. My favorite Raymond Chandler novel is “The Big Sleep,” which is so complicated that Chandler never does pull the case together. Same thing happens in Howard Hawks’ movie version, with Humphrey Bogart. Watch carefully, and you’ll discover that the loose ends are never tied up, and the case ends without being solved (and with no one, apparently, noticing). So what?
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times, February 23, 1971
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s excellent extension of Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of popular detective novels, is a risky attempt to transform one of pop culture’s key figures into something a bit more human. On its surface a forgotten entry into the series of the detective’s great cases, the film in many respects plays much like any other adventure that the world’s most filmed character has partaken. It revisits a familiar setting and characters that fans have grown to love, and inserts particularly Holmes-ian touches into its mystery such as the inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, and an amnesiac. Still, Wilder is after something more profound than a simple mystery tale here, and to a large extent he succeeds in his quest to cast Sherlock Holmes, the man, in relief when held up against Sherlock Holmes, The Legend. As played by the brilliant Robert Stephens, this film’s Holmes is a mess of contradictions and compromises so convincing that it is likely to make one question the unfettering stoicism that other Holmes films feature.
This Sherlock’s ingrained distrust of the opposite sex and his unwillingness to indulge in anything as reckless as emotional passion make him a great detective (and make the excitable Watson a perfect comic foil), but they also make him eerily similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the way that he puts his logic before his heart. What’s interesting about this attitude toward the detective are the ways that the mystery that he investigates during the course of the film comment directly on that questionable mindset. Through a series of plot twists, we see how Wilder’s attitude toward Holmes grows increasingly complex. In the very first scenes of the film, Wilder begins what would almost feel like an attack on the character’s character, were it not for later compassion the film shows him. Holmes is not only presented as an inferior version of the figure we know from the familiar stories (he can’t play the violin nearly as well as one might think, for example), but also as a dope fiend who makes excuses for his addiction and, for a moment or two, as Watson’s gay lover. As the story proceeds, he’s blessed with his usual, uncanny deductive skills, but he’s also revealed as man who’s pragmatic to a fault, and his unwavering faith in his logic becomes problematic when he, inevitably, begins to become emotionally involved in an assignment. By the film’s end, his great intellect has become a huge liability, his reputation has turned into an outright burden, his greatest liability becomes a refuge, and his figure can only be looked at with much uncertainty. Yet for all of that doubt, the film doesn’t feel like a nasty look at the beloved character. If anything, its poignancy begs why Arthur Conan Doyle himself hadn’t seen the same dangerous compulsions in his creation and examined them.
…Much like the film that surrounds him, this Holmes is too self-aware to be content with easy answers or simple opinions of people, and that makes him rather fascinating. That the solution to the mystery confirms the director’s cynical worldview, despite any affection toward the central characters or comic bits that were scattered throughout, suggests that the self-reflection should be viewed more as awareness of Wilder’s own predilections and less as an attempt to reform them. Whatever the case, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes offers a compelling what-if that seems much at home in Wilder’s cinema of the ambivalent.
- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr
This 1970 Billy Wilder comedy-drama about a major defeat in the career of Sherlock Holmes may have little to do with the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in its uncut form it happens to be one of the finest films of the decade. Robert Stephens makes a perfectly splendid Holmes, brilliant, sophisticated, and deeply flawed, while Colin Blakely plays Dr. Watson as a drinker and ladies’ man with more personality and intelligence than is often granted him by filmmakers. The case (which has some echoes of Doyle’s story “The Bruce-Partington Plans”) begins with Holmes aiding the distressed Madame Valladon (Geneviève Page), who is searching for her missing husband. The inquiry shifts to Scotland, and despite a stern warning from the hero’s brother, Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee), Sherlock pursues events that reveal a top-secret government plan. Lush, energetic, funny, gorgeous to look at, and ultimately tragic, the film is layered with Wilder’s familiar collision of cynicism and yearning, hope and betrayal, grace and isolation.
-Tom Keogh, Amazon.com
Billy Wilder, in an exceedingly mellow mood, portrays Holmes as a tortured man, trapped by his own legend and paying the price for his reputation of invincibility (1970). Robert Stephens is superb as a very real Holmes, and Colin Blakely is equally good as Watson. The cutting of more than 40 minutes from the original film hurts its initial continuity, but once the action begins, this takes on a magical quality that makes it one of Wilder’s best efforts. Affectionately conceived, chock-full of marvelous subtleties, this meticulously constructed adventure-romance shouldn’t be missed.
- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader
Billy Wilder’s distinctive, irreverent slant on the world’s greatest “consulting detective” holds up reasonably well 32 years on; you wouldn’t expect anything directed by Wilder and scripted by his long-time associate IAL Diamond to be anything less than funny and watchable, and this is both.
Yet it doesn’t feel like the work of a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlock buff. The heavy-handed opening gag about Holmes and Watson looking like a couple of gays seems grounded in a simple belief in the essential comic effeminacy of all limeys and Wilder’s initial inspiration is clearly not so much Conan Doyle as My Fair Lady with Holmes and Watson as Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering splutteringly enduring a mysterious, amnesiac woman in their bachelor establishment. There’s a disapproving housekeeper, played by the inimitable Irene Handl, saying “yays” for yes, and Stanley Holloway appears as a gravedigger. There’s plenty of fun though, and hints of Buchan and Childers, as the trio pursue their quarry to Inverness, shadowed by some dodgy German-speaking monks. Christopher Lee is a crisply disapproving Mycroft and Robert Stephens, as Holmes, is splendidly debonair.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
This is possibly the most gossamer tragedy ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.
- Roderick Heath, Ferdy on Films, etc.
Billy Wilder. Sherlock Holmes. A mismatch of flavours the thought of which doesn’t so much turn your stomach as lead to speculation, and the taste of which is soured only by a foreknowledge of missed opportunities. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder’s roadshow movie, his intermission film–a “symphony in four parts,” as he called it, that would run longer than three hours excluding the break in the middle. The script, written by Wilder and mainstay collaborator I.A.L. Diamond over a period of twelve years as a blend of homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and adaptation of the same, was shot in its entirety, but at some point during post-production, Wilder took off to prep another project, and two of the four “movements” plus a present-day prologue and subheadings (each story passage had its own introductory title card) were lifted out of the film in answer to the common test-screening complaint that it was “too episodic” (well, duh), with only one of the movements preserved (somewhat perfunctorily, because it had nice imagery of an ocean liner) for possible inclusion in a TV version that never materialized. It’s important to note that editor Ernest Walter and producer Walter Mirisch liquidated parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Wilder’s blessing, though Wilder seems to have regretted the decision in his late-life conversations with Cameron Crowe.
What remains is a perfectly-cast film that doesn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain made by an opening voiceover that states we’re about to see a potentially unflattering portrait of Holmes (Robert Stephens) courtesy anecdotes Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) hadn’t the wherewithal to publish in Strand Magazine when his super-sleuth partner was alive. Though the picture is ultimately too prosaic to be confidential, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been the first Holmes interpretation for the screen since 1939′s The Hound of the Baskervilles to acknowledge the detective’s taste for a seven-percent solution of cocaine. The film feels like a work in progress, even if its bittersweet bookends give off a convincing illusion of completeness and Watson challenges Holmes’ claims to heterosexuality often enough to add a sardonic humour typical of Wilder that consolidates the title character’s dalliance–which wasn’t built to support the picture, as became expected of it–with Madame Valladon (Genevieve Page), the aristocratic femme fatale whose husband has vanished, with the rest of the proceedings. That alliance of comedy and drama which proved so pivotal to the success of Wilder’s The Apartment keeps The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes afloat through the sinking realization that we are watching the I’ll Do Anything of its generation (and I would argue that I’ll Do Anything‘s director James L. Brooks, much more than Brooks’ protégé Crowe, is the modern Wilder), a feature-length retraction of romantic ambition too poignant in its own right to discount.
Map showing locations used in the production, on Famous Locations.com
Deception painstakingly unmasked, and casual decadence as a way of life: these have been Billy Wilder’s twin obsessions as a filmmaker from his days as screenwriter among the lavender excesses and delights of Weimar Berlin. In THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his last great film, Wilder found a way to combine these two themes in a film that seems sweet and perverse at the same moment, a valentine with a syringe in its hand.
Wilder had been fascinated with Conan Doyle’s urbane, obsessive sleuth since childhood. Several of his first films as a screenwriter, such as THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF (1931) and EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES (1931), were films of crime and detection. But Wilder’s affections for Holmes went much deeper than a respect for the famously relentless Holmesian logic. Wilder saw Holmes as at least as complex a personality as himself, a singular creature of many more moods than Basil Rathbone had dreamed of.
As with almost all of Wilder’s films, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES underwent a complete makeover. He began tinkering with a Holmes project as far back as 1957. The first intriguing idea was to mount a Holmes musical on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison. Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe were briefly enlisted as collaborators, but Wilder’s great run of film successes — SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE — intervened. Next, in 1963, there was the idea of a film musical, now with the remarkable cast of Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. But what really stymied Wilder was the matter of plot. For virtually the only time in his career, Wilder had a shelf full of engaging characters — the brooding genius Holmes, the genial, loyal Watson, and the marvelously arch stock Holmes villains — and no plot that he felt could adequately service them. Wilder went through several collaborators, including his long-time alter ego I.A.L. Diamond, Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and British playwright John Mortimer, before he resettled on Diamond, and work on the screenplay began in earnest. Still lacking a plot, they went ahead anyway. Wilder and Diamond didn’t feel the whodunit nature of most of the Doyle stories did justice to the subtleties of Holmes’ character. (Wilder was most fascinated by those rare cases Holmes was not able to solve, such as “A Scandal in Bohemia.”) He determined to write new capers for the Baker Street shamus which would show off the dark pools at the core of his personality, rather than rehash the parlor tricks of Holmes’ ratiocination that previous Holmes movies had doted on. The conceit they chose was the discovery of several “unpublished” Holmes tales: “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room,” “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina,” “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” all stitched together in omnibus format. Wilder purposely chose as the film’s stars the sterling theatrical actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely because he did not wish to associate his Holmes and Watson with the characters of well-known Hollywood leading men.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University, from the New York State Writers Institute
Wilder & Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 165-minute epic that would include an intermission and tour the country as a roadshow. This meant that the film would be screened at only one of the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging a higher admission price, but offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady were among the many films presented in this format during the 1950s and ‘60s to great success.
Wilder described the 220-page screenplay he and Diamond spent over a year writing as “a symphony in four movements.” A modern day prologue featured Dr. Watson’s grandson (also played by Blakely) arriving in London to open a lockbox containing four Holmes cases unpublished by the doctor due to their personal nature. “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” concerned Watson concocting an odd crime scene to distract Holmes from his cocaine habit.
In “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” Watson investigates a murder abroad a cruise liner, while Holmes observes the disastrous results. “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” toyed with possibility of Holmes’ homosexuality. All three episodes were intended to be humorous, followed by an intermission and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” a mystery that leads to Loch Ness and Holmes’ feelings for Gabrielle Valladon, concluding the film on a more serious note.
With a budget of $10 million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Wilder’s most ambitious film to date. Shooting commenced in May 1969 in Pinewood Studios outside London and lasted through November. Wilder then screened his symphony to United Artists. It clocked in at three hours and twenty minutes. In the time since Wilder had conceived of his roadshow, one Hollywood extravaganza after another had flopped; Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Doolittle. Believing the roadshow was out of fashion with audiences, UA urged Wilder cut the film down to two hours.
The director was so discouraged by the reception that rather than insist on his contractual right of final cut, he departed for Paris to work on another project, entrusting editor Ernest Walter and producers at The Mirisch Company to make the necessary subtractions. The prologue, two of the first three episodes and a flashback to Holmes’ college days at Oxford – which illustrated his distrust of women – were all left on the cutting room floor. Wilder was left despondent. “When I saw the way they had cut it, I had tears in my eyes. It seemed longer when they had made it shorter.”
Released November 1970 in the wake of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was dismissed by critics at the time, many who felt neither the plot, nor the postmodern take measured up to Doyle’s literary mysteries. Wilder’s confidence that youth audiences would embrace a great story – regardless of the changing times – never panned out. The film was a box office failure. In ensuing years, some critics and scholars have rediscovered it and hailed the film as an overlooked masterpiece.
- Joe Valdez, The Distracted Globe
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes cost more than $10 million to make. A film for which Wilder had such great hopes, it’s failure was a blow to his career and to his pride. Usually he avoided indulging in regrets or self-recrimination, but he felt that only he was responsible for Sherlock’s failure, though even with hindsight, he wasn’t certain exactly what he had done wrong. He did regret being timid about going father into the exploration of Holmes’ homosexuality and he wished that he had been able to stay and cut the film himself, but as he told me, “Even hindsight isn’t 20/20.”
- Charlotte Chandler, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder : a Personal Biography. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 2004. Page 273
The lack of success of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes certainly meant something far more serious for Wilder than “the occasional failure” which according to Holmes we all experience now and then. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the only commercial failure Wilder was never able to leave behind, the only film about which he regretted having been forced into making changes. Yet in the long run, the film has recovered in cultural capital what it failed to secure at the box office at the time of its release. For many of Wilder’s critics, the film counts today among his most accomplished achievements, combining an elegiac and romantic tone never seen before. Andrew Sarris has called it a “mellow masterpiece,” while Stephen Farber similarly praised its “mellow, autumnal mood, unusual for Wilder.” Kevin Lally has claimed that the film may visually be “the most handsome film of Wilder’s career,” and Leland Poague has written that it “has grace and style beyond all power of description.” Sinyard and Turner, who can still claim to be the most astute critics of this particular film, conclude their insightful analysis by calling it, “the very essence of a mature masterpiece. Breathing a serenity without sloppiness, a melanchoy without rancor, a mellowness without sentimentality, its very defiance of modishness makes it one of the most beautiful of modern films.”
Several of Wilder’s films are famous for scenes that were shot but not included (most notably Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard), but in these cases the cuts were the director’s choice, who felt the film would be stronger in the shorter version. Indeed no other Wilder film has been as seriously mutilated by the studio as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (clearly also a sign of his diminishing authority), and there is no film about which Wilder has felt greater disappointment for not having been able to show it the way he had planned. In his conversation with Cameron Crowe, Wilder who is usually not one to dwell on commercial failures, was uncharacteristically candid about the film’s lack of success, reminiscing that it was “a very, very well-done picture. It was the most elegant picture I’ve ever shot” – only immediately to fall back into character by adding, “I don’t shoot elegant pictures, Mr. Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures.” What a pity indeed, then, that the one film Wilder considered worth of that praise did not survive in the form the director had planed.
- Gerd Gemunden. A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films. Published by Berghahn Books, 2008. P. 163-164
About the Score by Miklos Rosza
Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa was a giant talent in Hollywood for decades and penned some of the biggest scores to burst out of the silver screen. His robust orchestrations and refined melodic ability, coupled with a tenacious romantic sensibility, brought to life a string of biblical ‘epics’, thrilling noirs and much more besides, earning himself many admirers and three academy awards along the way. With April 18th 2007 marking the centenary of his birth, much focus will be on his biggest and most celebrated achievements, particularly the likes of Double Indemnity, El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spellbound and Soddom and Gomorrah, many of which will be re-issued or re-recorded for a new generation of fans to embrace. One score from the latter period in the composer’s career deserves as much attention and Tadlow Music have made that happen with their world premiere recording of Rózsa’s complete score for Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s not a title that would immediately spring to mind when thinking of Rózsa, the aforementioned works so famous in comparison; however, this score is an important entry in the Rózsa canon and a must-have for fans as it represents an interesting convergence of the composer’s musical identities, that of his film and concert music. Billy Wilder had always wanted to use Rózsa’s 1956 ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ on film as the work was one of his favourites. With the appearance of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the director could think of no better opportunity to use it, what with the fictional detective’s own love of the violin. Rather than simply use a recording of the concert work, Wilder approached Rózsa, with whom he had already worked numerously, with the idea of writing a score with the violin concerto at its heart… and so he did.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has too long been an unreleased jewel; it has all the dramatic fire and flair of Miklós Rózsa’s Golden Age works but with a distinctive and legitimately classical heart at its centre, and what a beautiful heart it is.
- Michael Beek, Music from the Movies
The music itself is simply wonderful. While Rozsa’s scores are admittedly all cut from a very similar cloth, he still managed to apply them very well to a wide range of films, and there is a slightly lighthearted sense of adventure here which is pitched perfectly. Several themes are introduced in the wonderful main title piece, including a stately theme for Holmes himself and an exquisite love theme. That love theme is one of the composer’s most expressive and rewarding, working beautifully when played by solo violin (“Gabrielle” could bring a tear to the eye), but equally when taken up by the full orchestra. It is truly one of Rozsa’s greatest creations.
With a world class film score such as this, accompanied by informative, interesting liner notes (a short note from the composer’s daughter Juliet, a biography of Rozsa by Steve Vertlieb and lengthy analysis and information from Fitzpatrick himself), given such a fine performance – it’s already hard to imagine that too many film music releases in 2007 could be in the same league. The disc is dedicated to David Wishart, the pioneering film music album producer who tragically died earlier this year. The album is available from the usual online retailers, and also from Tadlow direct.
- James Southall, Movie-Wave.net
The album kicks of with the “Main Titles” which very much has a traditional overture structure introducing some of the main themes. After a brief fanfare opening, it launches into the Main Theme which seems to capture perfectly the outward character of this great detective and the times in which he lived. A secondary adventure theme takes over for a while and then leads into the Love Theme with its sumptuous solo violin, before returning to the main detective theme in the “221B Baker Street” section. The “Smoke Machine / Concerto / Cocaine” track is darker and more mysterious though flowing into a middle section of unaccompanied violin solo for “Concerto”. The next track is a good workout for the whole orchestra written for scenes removed in the final cut of the film, and “Moving Out” continues the violin concerto in a sequence also cut from the movie. “Watson’s Rage” is moody and more reflective in nature and then “Von Tirpitz” introduces another important theme which we’ve here labelled the Monastic Theme. The “Gabrielle” track is the heart of the whole soundtrack, a slow movement based on the violin concerto’s love theme but clearly slightly troubled. This describes Holmes infatuation for a mysterious lady and must surely represent an important aspect of his “Private Life”.
The adventure continues over a series of tracks which takes us to a number of London-based locations including “The Diogenes Club” with its Elgarian Pomp & Circumstance Theme before heading off to Scotland. In “To Glenahurich” Rozsa treats us to an arrangement of the well-known melody for the Scottish song “Loch Lomond”. Other tracks make reference to other Scottish folk material and carry the adventure to other other Scottish locations, through a number of action oriented scenes like the rhythmic train ride of “Castles of Scotland”, and even an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, before thematically tying up a number of lose ends and final mysteries in the story. In the final “Auf Wiedersehen / The End” track the violin leads us one last time through the key themes in a grand symphonic coda, but the album doesn’t end there. A total of four bonus tracks illustrate the evolution of the finished music with alternative versions which were recorded but ultimately not used in the final film.
The comprehensive sleeves notes tell us how this re-recording came about as a filler recording session because the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra had originally been booked for another project which had fallen through. However in one of those rare fortuitous sequence of events, they managed to secure not just the music from the film itself but also a number of cues written for the film but not used in the final cut, and all this in the centenary year of the composer’s birth. The CD has a total running time of 78 minutes including 20 minutes not used in the film. This album, a Limited Collector’s Edition, is only available online or through mail order – see www.tadlowmusic.com for more details.
As in Some Like It Hot, Wilder is certainly more interested in suggesting the possibility of a homosexual relationship rather than presenting irrevocable facts; ambiguity is clearly more titillating than certainty. It is furthermore safe to assume that the heirs of Conan Doyle, from whom the right to use his characters were purchased, kept a close watch over the kind of image Wilder and Diamond portrayed of the famous detective and his companion. As it stands, the ambiguity surrounding Holmes’ possible homosexuality provides a most fitting subtext for a film about two males involved in an obsessive yet futile search for clues and certainties, in the course of which they repeatedly misread evidence, both conclusions, and face sudden, unexpected revelations. Thus, the desire for detecting evidence becomes an allegory for indecipherability itself, which is part of a larger critique of instrumental reason and rationality that has tragic consequences for all characters in involved. Even though The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is Wilder’s only film that uses as protagonists famous characters created by another author, it can be seen to be one of his most personal films, providing a captivating and emotional reflection on his own career at a moment in his life when he is ready to draw the sum of his existence.
- Gerd Gemunden, A Foreign Affair: The American Films of Billy Wilder. P. 150
“I wanted to show Holmes as vulnerable, as human. He falls into an emotional dither over a woman and so his mind does not function as well; and actually, you see, in my picture, he does not solve the mystery. No, he is deceived. Sherlock Holmes has failed to be Sherlock Holmes precisely because he has fallen in love, and yet he is a better human being than he was ever before.”
- Billy Wilder, quoted in Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 1987. p. 328
When Billy Wilder saw Sherlock Holmes in his mind’s eye he saw a character who was almost a mirror reflection.. Wilder himself. His intention was to probe the detective’s psychology and motivations. He intended to delineate a Holmes who was at once cerebral and passionate; a man with a compulsion to work; a man with a cynical view of the world and human nature, aware of the depravity of the soul and the dark side of life, of murder and deception; a man increasingly prone to boredom and mental fatigue, seeking escape in music and drugs; a man with an ambivalent attitude toward women – attracted to them yet careful to detach himself from them – his most powerful desire having been for that clever and egotistic career lady, Irene Adler, “the most wicked woman in Europe.” If we were to substitute an addiction to athletic sports for cocaine, and a predilection for compulsive shopping for violin playing, we would have almost a portrait of Billy Wilder in Sherlock Holmes. In the original planning, Wilder wanted, as he once told me, to show a lonely and troubled side in Holmes. There certainly was one in Wilder. But the fictional hero and the real one disguised their loneliness.
- Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Page 324.
The Holmes here is ultimately a failure at the hands of technology, bested by his brother Mycroft, who, in turn, suffers a major miscalculation of his own. So is it the dissolving of myths that Wilder is interested in? Is this his Liberty Valance? Yeah, I sort of think so. Though he was only 64 at the film’s release, and would churn out four more pictures afterwards, Wilder created his definitive “old man” movie here. The call-backs to a more classic style even than in his previous few efforts and the patience of experience he displays are both important elements to bridging the old with the new. Even when Wilder was younger, he didn’t normally employ the classical and calculated sense of purpose seen here. The structure is considered and nearly perfect. This is part of why it’s so incredible to think that the film was initially envisioned as much longer. The existing version feels appropriate as it is, only marred, in my opinion, a little by the first part of the Loch Ness Monster bit.
When Sherlock Holmes fails to really do much of anything right, despite his predictably shortsighted detective work, it’s at the expense of volumes of lionizing literature. The film thus works as a warning against the perils of smug overconfidence. For Holmes, the sticky truth isn’t that he’s a failure (something he seems to be fighting against throughout), but that a promising opportunity for romance has been squandered. It’s a slow realization, but by the end it’s obvious that he’s in movie love with the not-really Belgian Gabrielle/Ilse. The sexuality aspect here is interesting because Wilder and Diamond put it at the forefront for the viewer. Holmes’ reluctance to declare his heterosexuality to Watson early on seems to be due to one of three reasons: 1.) He’s being coy; 2.) He’s unsure himself as to his current feelings; or 3.) He’s so desexualized as to make it seemingly irrelevant. I think any of these three explanations work perfectly fine. With any of them, Holmes makes it obvious that he’s not actively searching for female companionship, making the presence of Gabrielle/Ilse a difficult situation.
The forced push at the end, when Holmes seems to realize his feelings for her just when she’s no longer attainable, serves as another reminder of how empty his life is. Watson and his silly stories are just about all the character has going for him. Then when it looks like the audience will be treated to the usual ending wrapped in sentimentality, Wilder continues the film and, in so doing, removes any trace of happiness. Watson is little more than a hyper-intelligent canine with a medical bag and Holmes the junkie can only shoot up and pass out (off-screen, of course). In essence, this is Wilder’s most daring film since Ace in the Hole, and it appeals to generally no one outside the director’s most devoted followers. He was able to completely demystify a legendary character with a huge following, using a fully sincere approach, while also putting together a deceptive genre story that proves quite entertaining. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is destined to remain largely unappreciated because it has few of the attributes Wilder is most known for, but it’s nevertheless an atypical slice of brilliance from the director.
- Clydefro, FilmJournal.net
About the MGM DVD
MGM offers The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on DVD individually or as part of the 8-disc (not 9, as announced–Witness for the Prosecution was mysteriously dropped) “Billy Wilder Collection”, and granted the studio’s stabs at reconstruction and their decision to at long last present the film for home viewing in its original aspect ratio therein, this is an essential platter. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer bears a seventies mien in its low-contrast mistiness, and the source print, though fresh-looking, is not pristine, but the restored compositions contribute a sense of scale and improve the film’s humour, particularly a sight gag involving Watson dancing in a chorus line that was overreliant on our imagination in pan-and-scan. While the 2.0 mono soundtrack is inoffensive, nothing more or less, the extra features provoke unbridled enthusiasm. For starters, there is “Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder”, a 15-minute featurette that doesn’t get around to the Wilder portion of the conversation until the 9-minute mark, but nonetheless imparts an impressive amount of Holmes arcana in a short period. (Lee has thrice played Holmes on-screen and appears as Sherlock’s “smarter” brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) His posture occasionally defensive, Lee barks, “People who say that I’m typecast shouldn’t be in the business,” referring to having logged so much time outside the gothic horror genre.
Meanwhile, the “Interview with Ernest Walter” (29 mins.) is bound to be a difficult watch for some film fans, as Walter effortlessly–with the Diamond/Wilder screenplay on his lap–itemizes his alterations to the The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes‘ intended structure, and the nature of the piece (Walter addressing an ancient video camera impersonally mounted on a tripod) lends it a strangely confessional quality not unlike the recent Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable historical document (especially given Wilder’s notorious stinginess with the details of the film’s bowdlerization) that pre-emptively answers questions raised by the section of “deleted scenes” regarding their context and how they may have impacted the material in the final film. MGM’s search for the lost footage turned up only the aforementioned sequence set aside for television (“The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” (12 mins.)), albeit without a dialogue track (necessitating subtitles) and with nudity blurred out. The other omissions–the prologue (9 mins.), “The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room” (25 mins.), and “The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective” (4 mins.)–are patchworks of script pages and production photos that push Holmes closer still towards the archetypally paper-tigerish Wilder hero. A backstage gallery 47 slides strong (a few of which are inexplicably cartoons) and the film’s theatrical trailer round out The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes DVD.*** (out of four) | Image: B+, Sound: B, Extras: A | English Mono | CC | English, French, Spanish Subtitles | DVD-9 | 125 minutes
MGM’s hotly-awaited DVD of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes isn’t as dazzling as it should be. It’s perfectly acceptable in general terms – the jokes certainly aren’t any less funny – but it can’t touch the memory of the beautiful theatrical prints. The transfer is from an element with colors that are always slightly ‘off’. The opening reels tend to be reddish. The biggest casualty is the ballet scene, which was stylized with beautiful hazy pastels, that now seem ordinary. Finally, many darker scenes have film-sourced halation effects in the blacks, a problem more often found in bad prints of much older films. It’s very distracting.
The extras on this disc center on the famous unreleased roadshow version. In the early 90s, Image and MGM released a laserdisc that had the two major missing scenes, but only parts of them: The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room, a comic attempt by Watson to cheer up his bored friend, was audio-only; and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, where Watson takes a turn at playing detective, was picture-only. The laser played an interview over the audio track of one, while subtitling the other.
There were other alterations for which no film survived. The lost opening had Watson’s grandson claiming the box of precious artifacts left in charge of bank manager John Williams. A key flashback on the train to Inverness told the story of the collegiate Sherlock’s encounter with a dream-girl sweetheart – who turned out to be a prostitute and warped his perception of women forever. These were barely covered on the laser, but the DVD uses script excerpts and some newly-found stills from the AMPAS … although photos for the prostitute scene are still very thin. Robert Stephens at age 19 has the same problem his wife Maggie Smith had two years later in the flashbacks in Travels With My Aunt – he can’t possibly look young enough.
Some of the text accompanying and explaining the lost version seem to be ‘borrowed’ from the Sergio Leeman liner notes from the old laser. There’s an interview with the editor of the film, Ernest Walter, taken from the laserdisc. Holders of the laser might want to hang onto it, because there’s some incidental nudity in one of the recovered scenes that MGM has this time chosen to digitally blur. The DVD department has a rule not to show any nudity in added value material unless a waiver is obtained from the actor involved.
Christopher Lee is interviewed for this disc, and he covers his brief participation in the film very quickly, giving thanks again to Wilder. Then he drones on forever about the Doyle character and his personal appearances in Sherlock Holmes films. Lee can be a charming interview subject (see Anchor Bay’s The Three Musketeers), but fan-oriented interviewers repeatedly allow him to wear out his welcome.
The old laser also has a discrete music track for Miklos Rosza’s score. I received a letter claiming that the new DVD should have had the laser disc’s stereo track. My copy of the laser has the mono mix on the left linear and digital channels, and the stand-alone mono music on the right linear and digital channels. I’m also informed that there is at present no stereo music master for the film, which explains the non-appearance of a soundtrack album. It certainly is one beautiful score.
The package illustration is not only tacky (Stephens’ head is pasted onto a weirdly-angled silhouetted figure) but totally misleading. Colin Blakely glares soberly from an inset photo. Anyone buying this disc based on the cover art, won’t be expecting a comedy.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk
About Billy Wilder
From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Billy Wilder dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. His films range from stark melodrama, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), to antic farce, such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), to satiric comedy, like A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.
- Biography at PBS American Masters
Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors, and still active in the ‘New Hollywood’ era, Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the postwar period. A ’30s screenwriter who became a contract director in the ’40s, by 1950 Wilder had come to be regarded as a consummate studio auteur. Producing from the mid-1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were renowned in front office and fan magazine for making money, teasing audience sensibilities, and pleasing the critics. If the early-1960s saw a critical downturn, by the mid-1970s Wilder’s reputation led to accolades and awards.
- Richard Armstrong, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
[Director of Photography] Christopher Challis felt that Wilder was more interested in what he was shooting rather than in how he was shooting it:
“He had a different approach. I don’t think he was a great visual director. By that, I mean he knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how he wanted it to look, but he wasn’t sure whether he’d got what he wanted until he saw the dailies.
“He had certain things that he liked. I mean, he liked rather long takes, and I was amazed. He once said to me quite early on, ‘You know, I hate this modern method of filmmaking. I don’t like all these hundreds of huge close-ups,” and of course now, it’s got very much worse. He said, ‘The close-up is a jewel. It should just be set in the right place in the overall picture, and it shouldn’t be used indiscriminately, or it loses all its impact.’ Well, now, that’s typical of Billy, and I think he was absolutely right.
“Another thing that I found very interesting with him was that he was primarily a writer. I think the written or the spoken word was all-important to him, and the actors had to do it his way. I mean, he didn’t let them have a lot of freedom. He insisted on them playing lines the way he wanted them played. He would play quite important dialogue on people’s backs, with them walking away from you, because he knew exactly what the impact would be, whereas most directors would go around the other side and cover it the other way in case it wasn’t right. Well, Billy didn’t do that. He didn’t cover things. It had to be right, the way he did it, and that was it. He was quite unique like that.”
- Charlotte Chandler. Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder : a Personal Biography. Page 267
As one considers the entire body of Wilder’s work, as a whole, as an expression of his ruling obsessions, one sees him carefully threading his way through the labyrinthine maze of the Eternal Woman. His films are studies in the varieties of women. A man’s yearning for a woman after whom he lusts or whom he loves is counterpointed against his equal and powerful compulsion to do his work, the masculine hunter in the primitive jungles bringing food for the mate. Freud had said, towards the end of his life, that he still did not know what women wanted. And this is one of the riddles of every man’s existence, being confounded by a woman’s soul and body and mystery from the hour of his birth and his first taste of mother’s milk. The Wilder complication was the dilemma of the whore. The presence of woman in one or another variety of independent, self-sufficient role was a dilemma. In a Foreign Affair, the “good woman was posed against the “bad.” In Lost Weekend the “good” woman was posed against a compulsion. In Double Indemnity, the woman is venal, she is evil, she is the corrupted, playing her classical role as the devil’s assistant, the temptress, as she does in Ace in the Hole – though in both these films the hero is either the willing partner or the leader in the evil. Sunset Boulevard was the turning point in Wilder’s evolution: the force of the woman, a real woman, is defeated by the “bad” woman, but she is not really “bad”; she symbolizes, as I believe, Wilder’s own idea of the movies and how they almost kill him. Audrey Hepburn twice played innocent girls who studied to be sophisticated independent women so they could manifest their true beings to the men they loved. And Shirley MacLaine on two occasions, and Marilyn Monroe on two occasions, also impersonated women who were beyond any simple labels marked “good” and “bad.” They were individual persons. Sometimes they were forced to play a charade which a man compelled them to play and sometimes they won their freedom to be who they were. The answer Wilder learned to the riddle of women was that it did not consist in attempting to decipher her inscrutable mysteries, since these varied from one woman to another, but in looking into oneself.
In asking himself, “What do I want from a woman? What do I want from this woman? How can I be of service to this woman? What can I give to this particular woman whom I love?” When a man once looked into himself and dedicated himself to pleasing a woman he loved, as Billy had come to do with his Audrey, suddenly the old mystery of Woman with the capital W, woman as unscrewable and inscrutable, vanished, and you were face to face with your own mystery as a man, which was even more frustrating because you discovered how little you knew about yourself, and that was the resolution of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. You were given the choice of being a worse detective – and a better person – or a splendid detective and a crippled human being. In the end, Holmes gets Ilse von Hoffmanstal her freedom. He gets his brother to release her and he receives a final and beautiful letter from her as she is about to be executed as a spy in Japan.
- Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Pages 330-331