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Friday, 22 June 2018

On Blu-ray - Rod Bishop welcomes THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (Billy Wilder, USA, 1970)

Editor's Note: A challenge is issued in the final para. Send in any entries for the single film you would choose if you only had one film to accompany you on a Desert Island.

After nearly half a century, there is finally an acceptable version of Billy Wilder’s most cherished, if heavily emasculated film. 
Billy Wilder
All the previous VHS and DVDs have been terrible, including the 2014 Kino Lorber Blu-ray. But here we have something approximating the original. The chief beneficiaries are Christopher Challis’s beautifully nuanced cinematography and Alexander Trauner’s glorious and meticulous production design. This Masters of Cinema release also includes a superb 52-page booklet with two great essays, one from Philip Kemp and the other a revelatory, blow-by-blow account of the shoot by Trevor Willsmer.
Billy Wilder’s ill-fated Sherlock Holmes journey started in 1955 when the director purchased the rights to the character from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate. He planned a Broadway musical to be written with George Axelrod, but his option lapsed. In the 1960s, The Mirisch Company re-optioned the character for Wilder who planned a filmed musical with the My Fair Lady team of Lerner and Loewe. It never got up.
With long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder then began work on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and in 1963 announced Peter O’Toole would play Holmes and Peter Sellers would be Dr Watson. “What I plan is a serious study of Holmes. Here is a most riveting character. A dope addict. A misogynist. Yet in all the previous movies made about him, nobody has ever tried to explain why.” 
Written as four of Holmes’s “cases”, as told by Dr. Watson, and accompanied by Miklos Rozsa’s achingly beautiful Violin Concerto, the four stories would amplify Holmes’s cocaine addiction, his misogyny and his relationship with Watson.
Colin Blakely, Robert Stephens, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Shooting commenced in 1969 on a budget of $10 million ($100m today) with Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson. It was designed as a three-and-a-half hour “roadshow” film with an Interval and reserved seat screenings in some cities, followed by wide distribution. 
The 13-week shoot blew out to 29 weeks and the rough cut came in at four hours. Wilder then set about supervising a final cut. Philip Kemp writes: “The completed film ran well over 200 minutes [although Trevor Willsmer suggests it was 165 minutes] …United Artists put Sherlock Holmes into preview at the Lakeside Theatre in Long Beach. Audience response was disastrous, and UA insisted the film must be cut by at least a third. Wilder was devastated. He walked away from the film, leaving it ‘in the good hands of my editor [the Englishman Ernest Walter] and my pals the Mirisches and they murdered it.’” 
Two of the four cases (The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners and The Curious Case ofThe Upside-Down Room) were dropped entirely; a lengthy Prologue involving Dr Watson’s grandson and a brief Epilogue with Inspector Lestrade also disappeared; along with a lengthy flashback to a love affair at Oxford explaining why Holmes believes “woman are unreliable and not to be trusted”. Only two stories remained, “The Singular Case of the Russian Ballerina” and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective”. The final version runs 125 minutes. 
On release, it became Wilder’s greatest financial flop, recovering only $1.5m at the box office. Film reviewers were dismissive, but there were exceptions. Andrew Sarris called it a “mellow masterpiece” and “one of the greatest films of the Seventies”. Christopher Lee, who plays Holmes’s brother Moriarty, claimed: “Sam Spiegel saw the whole thing before the film came out and said it was one of the greatest films he’s ever seen…Fred Zinnemann also apparently thought it was one of the finest films he’d ever seen. Billy showed it to them complete.” 
However, its initial run lasted only a few weeks and the film all but disappeared.
A few years later, in 1975, Wilder commented: “Today we are dealing with an audience that is primarily under 25 and divorced from any literary tradition. They prefer mindless violence to solid plotting; four-letter words to intelligent dialogue; pectoral development to character development…they just sit there waiting to be assaulted by a series of shocks and sensations…Ernst Lubitsch, who could do more with a closed door than most of today’s directors can do with an open fly, would have had big problems in this market…
Slowly, as the decades passed, television screenings and the emergence of home video found new and appreciative audiences who remained perplexed by the cruel treatment meted out to the film and wondered what had happened to the lost footage.
The artefacts that remain of the missing footage are included as Extras on this Blu-ray and they remain inconclusive. Some footage has image and no sound; some has sound and no image; and some only exist as pages from the screenplay. As best as they can be assessed, the missing material does not match the quality of the final 125-minute release. When a film loses more than 30% of its running-time to the cutting room floor, what remains will almost certainly have structural issues.
The final film is also far removed from Wilder’s usual style. His fans may well have asked: where’s the acerbic wit and biting cynicism? All we have here is unabashed, heartfelt romanticism and elegiac images with a pervasive, melancholic tone.
Robert Stephens, Genevieve Page, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes fans probably had similar problems. Robert Stephens’s wonderful performance of Holmes is either played as gay (he escapes a breeding request from a famous Russian ballerina by intimating his ‘real’ relationship with Watson precludes such activity) or as an unapologetic misogynist (“This is a very small flat, Watson. We don’t want to clutter it up with women”) or as a man whose emotional attraction to an abandoned waif causes him to lose his lauded powers of detection. Moriarty has to explain to his brother that his “client” is a German spy. Fans probably found all this a mite confusing.
I’ve re-watched this film far more times than any other. I’ve even bored friends to death by stopping the film and having them read the script excerpts from the missing footage in chronological order. Thirty years ago, I asked a friend in Los Angeles with restoration and archival resources, and who knew Wilder professionally, to approach him about a director’s cut. My friend reported back that Wilder went very quiet, dropped his head and whispered that he had no intention of ever revisiting the most heartbreaking film of his career. 
Wilder’s response mirrors the way his ill-fated masterpiece ends. Holmes and Watson are having breakfast at Baker Street, both in their dressing gowns and a letter arrives from Moriarty. It turns their comfortable domesticity into the most heartbreaking scene I’ve ever encountered in a cinema.
Genevieve Page, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
The second most heartbreaking moment, however, is slyly buried in the opening credits. The contents of Watson’s box, “only to be opened 50 years after my death”, are revealed: photos, deerstalker, pipe, magnifying glass, handcuffs, a seven of diamonds, a plaque labelled “221b” and a handwritten sheet of music for violin. The dust is blown away from the sheet music. On the right hand-side is written “Sherlock Holmes, comp”. On the left, “for IIse von H”. Holmes’s watch then appears and is opened to show a portrait of a woman.
It’s a poignant moment, almost Lubitsch-like, and it only makes sense to viewers who have loved the film and are re-watching it. 
Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes - always my first choice as a desert island disc.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed this is one of Wilder's greatest and might well have been unambiguously if we could only see his original cut. I understand after the UA library reverted to MGM in the late 80s the Oneg was junked. The rough material left over, namely the stills and the audio track for the Upside Down Mystery first appeared on the two disc gatefold Laser from ca. 1995. Agree also this is a big improvement on the Kino Lorber BD, and of course you have the ex BFI team of Michael Brooke and John White working on QC and video mastering at MoC. I think Wilder has a few masterpieces under his belt and I would dare to suggest another not universally liked picture, A Foreign Affair, which I think is one of his very greatest. The balance of tone between raucous comedy, biting exposition of character (including Jean Arthur's Republican bitch congresswoman) and the sheer personal emotional baggage that he. Dietrich and Hollander carry into it is extremely powerful. BTW my own desert island single title is Billy's predecssor the mighty LUbe, and Trouble in Paradise.

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