When looking at Billy Wilder’s films as director, there are four that especially stick out in terms of incompatibility with the rest. The Emperor Waltz is a Bing Crosby musical and generally regarded as unsuccessful on most every level. The Spirit of St. Louis, despite being a fine film, puts Wilder in studio-constricted biopic land. Witness for the Prosecution, another excellent movie, has few, if any, of Wilder’s signatures and seems like it could have been made by at least half a dozen other competent directors. Then there’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder’s 1970 needling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythic detective. The film exists only in a version that was drastically shortened from the original intentions of Wilder and his longtime screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond, but it still manages to feel like a cohesive, brilliantly executed whole.
There are certainly several of Wilder’s fingerprints in the picture, it’s just that the use of such a well-known character and the Scottish locations, among other things, feels like fresh dust. It’s a perfect marriage of classic Hollywood filmmaking with the newfound freedoms that resulted from an especially creative period in American movies. For some people, the problem may be that it’s not entirely either one of those. The pacing is deliberate and relaxed, yet the first half hour has little to do with the remainder of the film. Holmes and the trusty Dr. Watson may be familiar names ingrained in most of our memories, but the portrayals are hardly consistent with interpretations up to that point. Holmes, in particular, is much more ambiguous and complex, with noncommittal sexual preference, questionable decision making, and an unapologetic dependency on cocaine.
These are attributes parsed from the original stories, to be sure, but they still vary significantly from the consensus of Holmes as an infallible master of deduction. Robert Stephens, whose cocktail of whiskey and sleeping pills during the shoot delayed production for weeks, plays Holmes as prim, proper and arrogant, all attempts to mask the character’s sadness. Colin Blakely’s Watson is just the opposite, convivial and slightly bumbling. Both performances are perfectly used by Wilder, regardless of how they fit in with Conan Doyle’s mythology. As we see in the film, Holmes scolds Watson repeatedly about his extreme glamorization of the detective’s work. Considering these are two of the most famous fictional characters in literary history, it’s undeniable that Wilder and Diamond had a difficult task in bringing their skewed version of Holmes and Watson to the screen. The interesting thing is that the film seems destined to disappoint both those looking for a Sherlock Holmes movie and the ones interested in a typical Billy Wilder effort. And yet The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is an exceptional film. No wonder it was a commercial disappointment! Who’s supposed to embrace this thing again?
People who enjoy quality filmmaking, for starters. That initial half hour, when Holmes and Watson are mysteriously summoned to a Russian performance of Swan Lake so that the star can request the detective’s paternal seed, is so good that you wonder why other films don’t frequently employ episodic structures. Of course, that was Wilder’s intention, to present a series of four episodes, all of which were filmed and ready to go. A story about a Belgian woman dropped on the doorstep of Holmes and Watson, leading the trio to Scotland and an apparent encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, comprises the remaining hour and a half while the other two portions were cut. In terms of holy grails of lost footage, as much as I’d like to see Orson Welles’ more complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, I think I’d be equally anxious to see the full version of Wilder’s film. It’s a huge credit to Wilder’s ability as a director that even with the severe edits he was able to produce something as brilliant as the existing cut is here.
After Gabrielle Valladon (played by the lovely Genevieve Page) is deposited at Holmes’ Baker Street address, Wilder does well to produce a subversion of the famous character’s well-documented skills, veiled in a pretty good mystery. At some point, it seems natural to try and understand why Wilder and Diamond would bother in making a fairly difficult film with Holmes as the center. The best explanation I can come up with would be the desire to portray Holmes as a man wrongly described, whose actual attributes are far more humanlike than what’s shown in the stories. It’s the burden of brilliance, but also the inconvenience of not being as intelligent as your superhuman reputation. There are several chuckles, but the film certainly isn’t a comedy so I don’t think that was ever the aim, to place Holmes in a simple and slightly comic series of situations. It would seem more that the idea was for a repositioning of the Holmes character as a man unable to deal with his basic loneliness and alienation, soothed only by pompous one-upping of his sidekick Watson and frequent drug use.
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.
Wilder himself apparently disagreed. In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is characterized by its creator as basically a great film ruined by later editing after the director went off to another country (shades of Ambersons). Wilder retained final cut in his contract, but a terrible test screening and a supposedly misplaced negative resulted in the trimmed version, topping out at 125 minutes, being what hit theaters. Other reports seem to indicate Wilder was agreeable with the existing edit. Regardless, upon release it promptly sank, just like Ace in the Hole. Wilder had gone four years since the release of his last film, The Fortune Cookie, and it’s not surprising that audiences mostly stayed away from this one. The financially successful films of 1970 were either epic spectacles like Aiport and Patton or then-daring expressions of a new generation like M*A*S*H and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Ironically, despite the freedom afforded Wilder that probably would have been unimaginable a decade or two earlier, his audience was no longer interested.
The saga of the film’s different incarnations is well documented on the R1 DVD, which ported over several of the laserdisc extras. A new 15-minute interview (from 2003) with Christopher Lee, who plays Mycroft Holmes, doesn’t shed a lot of light on the various cuts, but it does give Lee the chance to single out Wilder as the best director he’s ever worked with, and it also lets the actor reminisce on his own turns playing Sherlock Holmes. The film’s editor Ernest Walter, the man referred to by Wilder in Crowe’s book, goes into great detail about what was cut and so forth in a half-hour interview from the mid-nineties that was originally on the laserdisc. Then, you can see for yourself much of what was removed. A prologue with Colin Blakely as Watson’s modern-day grandson would have further set up the idea that these four episodes derived from material deemed too private to be published in Holmes’ lifetime. This particular portion is told on the DVD from still photos and script excerpts, but the viewer definitely gets a good feeling of how it might have turned out.
The crude reconstruction continues with one of the excised sequences, a lengthy story involving an upside down room. It has audio, but only photographs instead of video. I think this would have been an exceptionally strong portion of the film had it remained because it reinforces the idea that Watson cares deeply for Holmes and that the detective is sort of miserably entwined in his own intelligence. The next scene removed was a brief flashback where Holmes and Gabrielle/Ilsa are just about to go to sleep on the train. The scene was intended as a means for explaining some of Holmes’ reluctance to become romantically involved, stemming from an incident with a schoolboy crush who turned out to be a prostitute. This too would have fit perfectly within the film and improved the existing scene without bogging it down.
The final episode not in the finished film exists on the DVD in letterboxed video, but is missing the audio. The dialogue from the script has been inserted as subtitles. The scene is very funny and concerns Watson putting on Holmes’ hat (literally) and trying to solve a murder. In relation to the rest of the film, it seems to fit the least of the cut portions. If the movie had been made today, this little bit could have worked perfectly as a DVD-only extra or even a short intended to run before the film. All total, there’s over an hour of extra material here, all of which was shot and excluded from the final cut. The inclusion of this footage on the DVD is really something to be thankful for, but the hope that somehow Wilder’s full version could be restored still nags.
Images: Marcus Brooks