The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) Blu Ray (Masters of Cinema)
Not so elementary, my dear Watson!
Billy Wilder’s offbeat adaptation of the legend of Sherlock Holmes starts off with a sealed box of Dr. John Watson’s memorabilia being opened in a London bank vault. One of the most valuable relics is a series of papers detailing a number of the great detective’s cases which he considered too scandalous to reveal to the general public.
The rest of the film flashes back to the 19th century when Holmes and Watson lived together at 221B Baker Street. The first case starts out with Holmes ignoring Watson’s concerns by resuming his cocaine habit out of boredom with a lack of cases. The latter attempts to provide a distraction by taking him to a production of Swan Lake with Russian ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova) playing the Princess Odette role. After the show, the ballet company director Nikolai Rogozhin (Clive Revill) invites them both to an after-party.
While he leaves Watson in the hands of the company’s pretty girls, Rogozhin invites Holmes to take part in a case on behalf of Madame Petrova. However, it soon becomes evident that this is no ordinary assignment. Moreover, it’s one that puts the long-suffering Watson in an embarrassing predicament.
The second case begins as a young Belgian woman named Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page) pops up at the front door of 221B Baker Street. She is rather dishevelled having clearly fallen into water and suffering from a case of amnesia so severe that she can’t even remember why she came to him in the first place. After Holmes manages to gradually extract the information out of her, they all end up heading to Scotland for an adventure involving dwarves, Trappist monks, international espionage, Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness Monster.
Watch a trailer:
An abbreviated version
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was originally intended to be a 165-minute film with four episodic stories which was to be screened as a special “Road Show” release with an interval. However, the film was cut down to 125 minutes at the behest of studio United Artists, who had suffered from a string of flops around this time and didn’t want to risk releasing a picture of such length that it would cut down viewing slots. The excised scenes included two of the stories in their entirety. Unfortunately, most of the removed footage has now been lost.
It was a rather sorry move on the part of the studio since the film flopped anyway. For one thing, it doesn’t make as much sense having just one shorter episode (which is more or less an extended comedic sketch) and a longer one (a full-blown investigatory adventure) in lieu of establishing the format properly with four episodes. The portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a rather flawed man - a self-centred, arrogant, misogynistic cocaine user who happens to have impressive deductive abilities - undoubtedly didn’t go down so well either.
However, what remains does display a considerable amount of Billy Wilder’s talent for witty and acerbic dialogue. There’s a classic example right from the start when Holmes chastises his ageing housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Irene Handl) for cleaning the dust off the files he has piled on the desk in his study:
“Dust, Mrs Hudson, is an essential part of my filing system. By the thickness of it I can date any document immediately.”
Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are both great here. The former sticks his nose in the air with a sense of entitled arrogance. He’s not a particularly likeable Sherlock but his sheer underlying intelligence and wit makes him a delight to watch. Blakely plays Watson as the prissy, sensible straight man of the two who, in many ways, fills the void left by Sherlock’s shortcomings rather than merely living in his intellectual shadow. Christopher Lee also pops up for a few scenes as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft who is a prominent member of a secret society working within the government. He is excellent as usual.
Twisty, theatrical Wilder
Billy Wilder’s direction is resolutely non-flashy with a heavy emphasis on static, middle-distance compositions to allow the actors, dialogue and Alexandre Trauner’s sumptuous period production design to carry the piece. The feel is, in many ways, more theatrical than cinematic as much of the film unfolds on indoor sets. However, the later sections - shot on location in and around Inverness - are somewhat more expansive. As you might have gathered by my synopsis, the plot is filled with rather strange elements. There’s a good deal of method to the madness, however, as the myriad twists and turns are cleverly worked out.
Until (or if) someone gets their hands on the footage removed by the studio, one can only speculate as to what Wilder’s original intended version would have been like. What remains is still a genuinely funny and intriguing take on the Holmes and Watson pairing, well worth a look for both the casual viewer and the hardcore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle buff.
Runtime: 125 mins
Dir: Billy Wilder
Script: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
While the colours are reasonable (if a little too heavy on the yellow tones) the picture looks somewhat soft with some noticeable dirt specks. However, the sound is a lot better; the Miklós Rózsa score sounds wonderfully rich and well-balanced.
Interview with Neil Sinyard
Neil Sinyard, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Hull discusses this misunderstood film. Despite the evident humour on display in the film he is adamant that it was not intended as a spoof as Wilder himself has expressed a deep affection for Sherlock Holmes and would never parody him. Early plans included creating a musical version and casting Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellars in the lead roles. He also discusses a number of scenes which were shot but never made the final cut.
The Missing Cases (deleted scenes)
Four sections which were deleted from the final release are reconstructed here. However, due to the fact that most of the original footage elements are now missing, only one of these - one of the two deleted cases called The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners - is presented as video footage, albeit minus the audio (we get subtitles instead). The remaining sections (a prologue featuring Watson’s grandson, a flashback to Holmes’ Oxford days and the other missing case called The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room) are presented with a mixture of audio, stills and script pages.
It’s a fascinating and slightly saddening document of what might have been. Both of the extra cases are revealing and hilarious even when presented in this partial form.
Deleted Epilogue (audio only)
A longer version of the epilogue referencing the Jack the Ripper case.
Christopher Lee interview: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder
Lee had appeared in a number of Sherlock Holmes films during his career - playing the great detective himself in three of them as well as his brother here.
He talks about working on a film made by a man whom he proclaims as being the greatest director he had ever worked for. He also gives us his own insights into both Sherlock Holmes (who, although fictional, was loosely based on the real-life Dr. Joseph Bell of Edinburgh) and his brother Mycroft. In that drily English manner he also describes his first film in which he appeared as Sherlock himself - Valley of Fear (1962) - as being “perfectly dreadful”.
Interview with editor Ernest Walter
It’s clearly an archive interview (with awful audiovisual quality) where Ernest talks about how he got into the film business and his experiences working on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He says that the film was shot exactly as it was scripted and reveals that the removed The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners episode used an expensive ocean liner miniature which, of course, was never seen by audiences.
A trailer rounds out the extras.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may have been rendered in a truncated state courtesy of United Artists - but is, nonetheless, well worthy of being rediscovered by the Blu Ray generation. Who knows - perhaps those missing sequences will resurface in their complete versions one day and allow us to experience the film in its full glory. Until then, there’s still plenty to enjoy here.