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It was Billy Wilder's biggest, most costly movie and for a comedy with so many funny lines, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) gave the great writer-director little but heartbreak.
Wilder had been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries for years before he made his first move towards creating his own piece of Sherlockiana. While in England shooting Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Wilder got permission from the late author's estate for a Broadway musical about the great detective. "I would have preferred doing it as a movie but, at that time, you couldn't show on the screen the things about Holmes I wanted to show."
Finding no backers for a stage production, Wilder changed his mind about a movie version after the success of his racy film Irma la Douce (1963). Originally Peter O'Toole was to star as Holmes with Peter Sellers as Watson. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe of Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) fame were to supply the songs. However, after Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks on the set of Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), the project fell apart.
Finally in 1968, Wilder managed to get The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes underway. He and his co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond conceived a 165-minute long Holmes extravaganza featuring four complete adventures plus prologue and epilogue. The production was a troubled one, full of technical snafus like having to reshoot the entire Loch Ness sequence (the real location was too difficult to properly light among other problems). Leading lady Genevieve Page recalled in Charlotte Chandler's biography, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, "When we lost our Loch Ness monster, he wasn't too concerned, even though he was also the producer. He was more concerned about how the man who made it felt when all his work sank to the bottom of the Loch Ness. He went over and comforted him." She was referring to special effects man Wally Veevers's elaborate "monster," which worked beautifully until they gave it a test run in the Loch Ness. After its failure, Wilder decided to shoot it in miniature in the studio."
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was made during a period when Hollywood was sinking its money into road show movies running three hours or more with engagements only at exclusive theaters. Unfortunately, by the time of this film's release in 1970, the fad was long past and the producers insisted on an average-length film. Called to the shooting of his next film, Avanti! (1972), Wilder had to leave the film in the producers' hands. It was chopped down to a mere two of the four original storylines. In the interview book by Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder, the director recalled, "when I came back [from Paris], it was an absolute disaster, the way it was cut. The whole prologue was cut, a half-sequence was cut. I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing...It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot."
The cutting did not help the movie at the box office. Critics thought Wilder was making fun of Sherlock Holmes in his usual sarcastic way. Only years after its failure did fans and critics rediscover The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the history of its creation and the love and insight intended for its central figure. Andrew Sarris, in his overview of the American sound cinema, went so far as to dub it "one of the greatest films of the Seventies." By then, sadly, most of the original elements of the movie's missing material had been destroyed.
Fortunately, enough of Wilder's original approach to Holmes remains to create a fascinating portrait. These two adventures allow Holmes' fellow investigator Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) a special insight into his friend's addiction to a seven-percent solution of cocaine ("Five percent!" Holmes says in the film. "Don't you think I know you've been diluting it behind my back!"), and his estrangement from women ("I don't dislike women, I just mistrust them. The twinkle in the eye and the arsenic in the soup..."). Shakespearean actor Robert Stephens delivers Wilder and Diamond's bon mots with flair while capturing the melancholy in the soul of this "thinking machine."
Other delights of this movie are performances by Genevieve Page (El Cid (1961), Belle de jour, 1967) as a mysterious client and Christopher Lee as Sherlock's smarter brother Mycroft. Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound (1945), Ben-Hur, 1959) adapted the film's beautiful score from his own 1956 Violin Concerto and appears in a cameo as the conductor of Swan Lake.
Producer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond, Arthur Conan Doyle, Billy Wilder
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Film Editing: Ernest Walter
Art Direction: Tony Inglis
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr. Watson), Genevieve Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Tamara Toumanova (Madame Petrova), Clive Revill (Rogozhin).
by Brian Cady