The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Review
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the famous detective (Robert Stephens, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, A Man For All Seasons), are tasked with locating the missing husband of a mysterious woman (Geneviève Page, Belle de Jour) who has been fished out of the River Thames...
When Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) started working on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes he had just suffered the successive failures of Kiss Me Stupid in 1964 and The Fortune Cookie in 1966 in the United States. The general disinterest of the public for his latest movies and his dwindling status as one of the last representatives of the Hollywood classic comedy, in a constantly evolving film industry, led him to reconnect with his European roots. As a result, three of his last five films were shot and produced in Europe (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti! and Fedora). This latter period of his career saw the director creating farewell films, mixing his themes one last time in works where melancholy prevailed over his customary irony.
It was one of the few times that Wilder directed a historical film, setting it in late nineteenth century Europe. The director usually preferred more contemporary settings and looking at the past at this point in his career maybe showed a desire to escape from American contemporary society - his depiction of Victorian England in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes evokes an idealised past in which Wilder is even faithful to the clichés surrounding this time and place (from Baker Street to the hazy sceneries of Scotland).
The scenario of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was written, once again, by Wilder in collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond with whom he had worked, among others, on masterpieces like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment but also on Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie. Wilder and Diamond completely invented a new adventure of Sherlock Holmes made of four substories. Indeed the final film as it was released in 1970 is a truncated version of the film imagined by Wilder and Diamond. Despite his position as producer and his final cut the distributors of the film forced the director to cut it, reducing the length of the film from nearly 200 minutes to the final version of 125 minutes.
More specifically a deleted prologue introduced Watson’s grandson discovering, in a trunk, unpublished memoirs of his grandfather relating to cases which were completely removed from the final film. One of these stories was a strange case brought by Inspector Lestrade, a recurring character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, in which a Chinese man's corpse was found in a room with furniture all over the ceiling. Holmes obviously discovered the solution to this mystery, which had a clear resonance with his friendship with Watson. Another story was taking place on a boat on which Holmes and Watson were travelling back from Istanbul; a murder was committed there and Holmes then confided the investigation to Watson, symbolically exchanging the deerstalker with him. Other deleted scenes formed part of sequences which have survived in the final film, for instance a flashback that took place during the train journey to Scotland in which the audience learned the reasons of Holmes’ behaviour with women.
It appears than in Wilder's original film, the themes of manipulation, gambling, failure, romantic relationships, but also the description of Holmes' and Watson’s relationship, were explored in a more playful and profound manner using interrelated stories. Worst still, this shameful reassembly did not prevent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from being a financial disaster for United Artists. One can only dream that one day the original version could be released uncut yet regardless, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes remains an excellent film. Maybe one of Sherlock Holmes best cinematic adventure, and proof of Wilder's absolute mastery as a filmmaker and the quality of a scenario which, even reduced to its simplest expression, remains admirable.
One of the great strengths of the film is the fact that Wilder and Diamond never make it a parody. They reinvent the detective's sentimental life, but never betray the spirit of Conan Doyle's novels. At first sight, the character of Holmes presents all the worst possible attributes: misogynist, drug addict, pretentious, maniac. But Wilder has never been cynical with his characters. Throughout his filmography, he strived to describe men as they really are, including their weaknesses, but always in a humanistic manner, and with indulgence. Holmes is no exception to this rule, and the writers remove his pedestal and therefore make him immediately endearing.
There is a clear willingness, at the heart of the film, to deconstruct the legend and give these fictional characters their humanity hence why, in the film, Holmes reflects on the image that Watson has created of him. This search for truth finds its extension in Wilder’s direction; simple, classic, it rejects any useless effect that would harm the realism of the film. This refusal of "style" has always been important for the director who never uses the camera as a distraction for the audience. This might have had an impact, or rather lack thereof, on critics and audiences at the time but this simplicity in the direction releases the film from the aesthetic constraints of an era and gives it a timeless feel which contributes in making The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes one of the highlights of Wilder's body of work.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is released in the UK by Eureka on 22nd January.
The film is presented in a rather disappointing 1080p transfer which thankfully respects the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image hasn’t benefited from a proper restoration and this is quite obvious throughout the viewing. Even if the quality of the image is of generally of good quality throughout, it clearly betrays the age of the film and there is a significant amount of dirt visible. Additionally, despite some very colourful set ups, the colours don’t appear very vibrant and the level of detail has not been pushed. Weirdly enough for a film this age the grain is not visible.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features the original English mono uncompressed LPCM audio. It is of pretty good quality and I haven’t noticed any defects or distortions. The disc also features optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
The disc created by Eureka contains the following extras:
A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard (21 mins, no subtitles) - In this new interview Sinyard discusses the reception of the film at the time, the misunderstanding about what the movie was expected to be by critics and audience, Wilder’s vision of the film and the origins of the project, Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity)’s score, as well as the cast and novelisation of the film. Sinyard also reflects on Holmes’ character traits in Wilder and Diamond’s treatment, in particular the relationship between Holmes’ habit of playing the violin and his personal life, and he also puts the character in parallel with Wilder himself. Sinyard is clearly very knowledgeable about Wilder and this makes the interview a very interesting analysis of the film.
The Missing Cases (50 mins, no subs) - As described, this is a presentation of the films deleted sequences, using script excerpts, production stills (in black & white and in colour), surviving audio extracts and film footage. It includes the following sequences: Original Prologue; The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room; The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective - Holmes recounts an affair of the past; The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners. Overall this is quite a fascinating extra which has been carefully crafted to make the deleted scenes appear as complete as possible.
Deleted Epilogue Scene (6 mins, audio only) - As described, this is the audio track for the deleted epilogue of the film illustrated by a picture of Holmes and Watson. The first part of the track is the ending of the film as it is known today; the actual deleted part starts at around 3 minutes 30 seconds. This is quite an anecdotic extra, especially without the image, but it still contains worthwhile elements.
Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder (15 mins, no subs) - This is an archival interview with Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man) about his experience working with Wilder. In it Lee discusses the character of Holmes and his relationship with his brother Mycroft, his meeting with Conan Doyle’ son, the films in which he played Holmes, and the endings of this film. Even if some of what Lee is saying is not extremely interesting, and not even really related to the film itself, as usual he is a great pleasure to listen to and this makes this extra. Although not insightful it makes, at least, a very pleasing viewing.
Interview with Editor Ernest Walter (29 mins, no subs) - This is also an archival interview, of rather poor quality, this time with the editor of the film - Ernest Walter (The Haunting). In it Walter explains how he became a cameraman and then an editor for MGM. He also discusses, and even shows, the original scenario, the way the film was shot, the four stories created for the film and some deleted scenes before the shoot as well,. He details how the film was cut, reduced to 125 minutes, the cast and the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and then finally discusses the reception of the film at the time. This is a very insightful extra even if its quality doesn’t make for an easy watch.
The Blu-ray disc also features the original theatrical trailer.