The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) was one of the projects closest to Billy Wilder’s heart – an organ that some commentators question even existed. It is also a notoriously vexed and incomplete work, comparable to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Lofty company I’m pointedly placing it alongside. Originally planned as a “roadshow” production that would play at very large cinemas at premium ticket prices, its fate was sealed by the abject failure of a number of bloated, large-scale, big star riddled productions like Star! (Robert Wise, 1968), Paint Your Wagon (Joshua Logan, 1969) and Hello, Dolly! (Gene Kelly, 1969) in the years that preceded it and the significant financial hit inevitably taken by the ailing Hollywood studios.
Cut from a length of close to three hours, and shorn of its four-part “symphonic” structure, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes limped into cinemas at a little over two hours to returns of just over one million dollars (at a cost close to ten million!). It was generally regarded as a dissipated work by a director working in a zone beyond his waning powers, but began to gain a cult reputation not long after its initial release. A film of an extraordinary attention to detail, it was, from most accounts, not a happy movie to work on, and production was even shut down for a number of weeks when the lead actor (Robert Stephens) attempted suicide. Most subsequent discussions of the film have been, understandably, preoccupied with what was lost, after a disastrous preview screening, in the process of “salvaging” and editing – material only ever recovered in part and incompletely in sound with no images or vice-versa – but others have seen great merit in what survives on screen. My view is that it is one of the great “late”, autumnal works in any major director’s career, the release version more than enough to support the film’s increasingly vaunted reputation. At the time, Wilder was in his mid-60s at the time and would go on to release only one further major work, the equally revealing but smaller-scale, Avanti! (1972).
Wilder had been planning to make a film about Sherlock Holmes since the 1950s. Initially conceived as a stage production in collaboration with Lerner and Loewe, the project went through various iterations including a version to star Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers as Holmes and Watson. By the time the project was greenlit by the Mirisch Company and United Artists, Wilder’s career as a bankable director was in serious decline, damaged by the relative failure of both Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). A new version of Sherlock Holmes playing on the melancholy humanity of the great detective, starring actors not widely known to the public beyond character roles, and made at great cost, would hardly seem ideal ingredients for the reignition of one’s career. But such was the level of success of films like The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1963), both also made for the Mirisch brothers, that Wilder was allowed to decamp to London (and Scotland for some extended shooting involving a castle, the British “secret service”, spies, Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness Monster) to indulge his fantasy of meticulously recreating Holmes’s London at Pinewood Studios.
With monumental sets designed by Alexander Trauner, characteristically life-like and -size but not very well-suited to the process of filmmaking, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes exudes an extraordinary level of textual detail. Various people who worked on the film have attested to the perceived need to “reproduce” this environment at scale and in minute detail, extending to many elements which don’t even appear on screen or didn’t survive editing. This emphasis was plainly detrimental to the film’s financial fate and Wilder’s reputation but creates an extraordinarily lived-in world, an environment integral to staging the mind and “process” of its obsessive, materialist, scientific and painfully observant central character. This is also reinforced by a commonly noted deficiency of Wilder as a director – in contradistinction to his greatness as a writer – his lack of a distinctive visual style. But the reliance on relatively long takes, group compositions and somewhat perfunctory editing, merely adds to film’s engulfing environment. But for a work made on such a scale, it is a remarkably interior film (particularly in its first half), and a work very much outside of its specific moment in time.
Wilder and frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond attempted to revisit the character of Holmes in a manner that stretched and questioned Arthur Conan Doyle’s original invention – as well as the steely, coolly observant, misogynistic, intellectual “superman” incarnated, most famously, by Basil Rathbone in the late 1930s and 1940s at Fox and Universal – while also expressing their great affection for the detective and his careful chronicler, Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Although it is often preoccupied with probing Holmes’s sexuality, as well as his surprising emotional vulnerability and fallibility, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes also examines the place of the “classical” detective within the changing world of the late 19th century (at some level it brings him “up-to-date” to show just how “out-of-date” he actually is). Whereas other adaptations have emphasised Holmes’s status as a symbol of scientific modernity, Wilder’s film stresses the superseding of his talents by the increasingly technocratic processes of modern warfare, geopolitics and human relationships themselves (as well as by his brother Mycroft, played imperiously by Christopher Lee). It sits alongside a film like Blake Edwards’s equally vexed Darling Lili (1970) as a melancholy paean to a lost time – though it is most definitely not a satire. This is reinforced by the way it pricks at particular misconceptions of Holmes’s character created by Watson and the stories’ illustrators. Holmes rails against the ridiculous outfit he is forced to wear, the inflation of his musical abilities, his perceived misogyny, his precise intake of cocaine (five percent, not seven), amongst other “inventions”, but these are all “characteristics” he indulges in anyway. The importance of such symbols and gestures is emphasised from the very first moments of the title sequence. As Watson’s trunk is exhumed 50 years after his death, and various objects are removed that point to the cases to come, the stereotypical props of the Holmes stories, as well as the lost, “private” tales themselves, we are asked to question all that we know about Holmes and Watson (the invitation to the “private”; the lingered on photograph of a woman on the inside of a fob watch; the music dedicated to “Ilse von H.” we hear playing simultaneously in Miklós Rózsa’s glorious score) while luxuriating in the cosily familiar. Even at its reduced length, this is a film that takes time to show us things, encouraging us to observe rather than just see. As Holmes states to Watson in the first story to be published in The Strand magazine in mid-1891, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”1 The brilliance of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is that it allows us to both “see” and “observe”, to be both subjective and objective, to be both analytical and emotionally engaged in the lives of the characters.
I have also brought “A Scandal in Bohemia” into the discussion here because it is a central point of reference for Wilder’s film, its focus on Holmes’s admiration for a female antagonist a clear inspiration for the softer and more romantic (though tragic) tale being told. Although it would be revelatory to see The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes at its full length, the severely edited version we are left with does create its own mood and tone. The excised prologue and epilogue would have added a somewhat troubling and inappropriately self-conscious frame, and the two “full” cases not included – one showing what happens when Watson takes over an investigation (“The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners”); the other Watson’s attempt to fabricate a murder scene to fool his colleague (“The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room”) – would have equally pushed the film towards comedy, satire and even frivolous farce. As it stands, the surviving shorter “case study” involving the Russian ballet that opens the film gives a tantalising set of suggestions about Holmes’s sexuality and private life, maintains a wonderful energy, and provides a neat counterweight to the longer, more involved investigation that fully dominates the released version. The various connections and motifs that join the two sections together also indicate their priority to any cut of the film. It is also this focus that allows the conclusion of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to be the most moving in Wilder’s cinema. As news of his “lover’s” (exquisitely incarnated by Geneviève Page) death arrives in the post, clinically detailed by Mycroft, and as snow cloaks the streets outside, Sherlock retreats to his room and the needle. Watson’s new-found complicity in his colleague’s addiction is a sign that this is also, as is true of many of Wilder’s films, a study of male friendship. It is the most beautiful in the great director’s career.
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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970 USA/UK 125 mins)
Prod Co: The Mirisch Production Company Prod, Dir: Billy Wilder Scr: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond, based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle Phot: Christopher Challis Ed: Ernest Walter Prod Des: Alexander Trauner Mus: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Christopher Lee, Irene Handl, Tamara Toumanova
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1979): 12. ↩