Austrian-born Billy Wilder is still considered one of the most celebrated directors of all time, helming such Oscar-nodded dramas as THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and comedies such as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), and having a productive and admirable career that spanned nearly 50 years. One of his later efforts was this unconventional take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes (a literary character second only to Dracula in number of cinematic appearances), which now sees its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
In the late 19th century, world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens, THE ASPHYX) resides in London’s Baker Street with his friend and physician Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, THE VENGEANCE OF SHE), along with motherly landlady Mrs. Hudson (Irene Handl, THE WRONG BOX). Holmes and Watson have a rather erratic relationship, with Watson being sort of a publicist for his cohort, documenting his adventures and investigations in The Strand magazine for all to read. Holmes, who doesn’t at all embrace his celebrity status or glorification, is also criticized by Watson for his occasional narcotics use. Invited to a local Russian ballet performance of “Swan Lake”, afterwards, Holmes is ushered into the dressing room of the dance troop’s star Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova, TORN CURTAIN), while Watson flirts with the leggy female dancers. Tempting him with an authentic Stradivarius as payment, Madame Petrova requests Holmes accompany her to Venice to bare her a child; he reveals his sexual preference is not in the fair sex, and tags Watson as his live-in partner, much to the doctor’s chagrin and bewilderment.
After this incident, a cabbie delivers a nearly-drowned woman (Geneviève Page, BELLE DE JOUR) to Holmes’ front door, as his address was found on her person. Suffering from temporary amnesia, and entering Holmes’ bedroom in the nude later that night in her state of confusion, she turns out to be a glamorous Belgian named Gabrielle Valladon, desperate to find her missing engineer husband. Holmes agrees to take on the case, but there’s instant opposition from his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee, who played Holmes a few years earlier in Terence Fisher’s SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE), who ask him to drop the investigation by order of the her majesty’s government. But Holmes doesn’t back down, traveling by train to the castles of Scotland along with Watson and Gabrielle (and charades as her husband), and is propelled into a mystery involving caged canaries, a quartet of mourning midgets, bogus silence-vowed monks, an encounter with Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness Monster!
Shot at the Victorian-era-friendly Pinewood Studios in England and on location in Scotland, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was written by Wilder and his long-time scenarist I.A.L. Diamond, and was a project that the legendary director was trying to get off the ground for years (with rumors of casting Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson). When it was finally completed in 1970, Wilder’s original cut was to be a 165-minute Road Show picture (complete with intermission), with additional stories and scenes, and the outcome expected to be something of an episodic epic. But studios executives insisted on a more feasible running time (in this case, 125 minutes), resulting in a twofold story with the shorter first half being the section to explore Holmes’ “private” side (the cutting of the film and production problems in Scotland gave Wilder much heartache, not to mention that it was a huge flop at the box office). The introductory segment is brilliant, presenting a Holmes that’s easily bored, finding comfort in a seven-percent solution of cocaine (as he says to Watson, "Five percent. Don't you think I know you've been diluting it behind my back?”) and seemingly misogynistic. The entire sequence after the ballet in Madame Petrova’s dressing room (with excellent comic support from the great Clive Revill, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) where the sleuth admits his homosexuality and a confused (and later furious) Watson wonders why the dancing girls have deserted him in favor of their male counterparts is just so well done; humorous and captivating the audience of the film’s characters. What follows perhaps doesn’t live up to that, but its a whimsical, interesting enough caper helped by the fine cast and scenic Scottish locations. The script is well written, not as a Holmes spoof but rather a serious representation with humor and humility added; the dialogue is choice and always well-delivered, and bound to bring on hearty laughs in spots.
The casting of Stephens as Holmes and Blakely as Watson were great choices: while both were not overly familiar and certainly not box office draws, both are excellent in their roles and quite different than previous big screen interpretations of their characters (Watson could have been a bumbling buffoon, but he’s a rather headstrong and sometimes defiant against Holmes, and Blakely is able to inject just the right amount of humor into the character when the scene calls for it). At this point in his life, Christopher Lee was wanting to be cast in more diverse roles outside his genre typecasting, and he’s excellent as Mycroft (who indeed turns out to be Holmes’ smarter brother in this instance). Lee considered this a high point in his career and the first time that he had a film role with all the qualities coming together they way he desired, behind and in front of the camera (also of note is the fact that Lee is the only actor to play both Holmes and his brother on film). Surprisingly, Lee’s onscreen credit is buried with the list of supporting players rather than a much deserved “special guest star” billing. The cast has a number of familiar British character actors in smaller roles including Catherine Lacey (THE MUMMY’S SHROUD), Frank Thornton (“Are You Being Served?”), Godfrey James (CRY OF THE BANSHEE), Peter Madden (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), Stanley Holloway (THE LAVENDER HILL MOB) and Kenneth Benda (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN). A grand score is provided by the great Miklós Rózsa (THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD).
As the 2003 MGM release of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was not without its problems, Kino’s new Blu-ray is a vast improvement (the HD transfer is also being released on DVD). The film is presented in 1080p in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are far better saturated and fleshtones more appealing than they were on the previous DVD, and detail is also up to par. Some of the visuals have a flat, softer focus appearance, but overall the image is consistently good with some scattered dirt and debris on the source print. The audio comes in a DTS-HD Master Audio English 2.0 track, and it’s clean and trouble-free throughout. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The Blu-ray has a number of extras, most of which have been carried over from MGM’s 2003 DVD. “Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder” (15:17) has the actor discussing the character of Holmes and Mycroft, his other Holmes film performances, and he states that this film changed his life completely as an actor, calling Wilder the best director he ever worked with (the audio is noticeably off sync here, though it wasn’t like that on the DVD). A video interview (recorded some time in the early 1990s) with editor Ernest Walter (1919-1999) lasts nearly 30 minutes. He talks about his start as an army cameraman during World War II and then goes on to discuss his editing on SHERLOCK, spending a good amount of time on the set and the suggestions he made (he also talks about the segments that were cut from the final film). Like Lee, Walter describes working on the film as a wonderful experience. There’s a section of reconstructed deleted scenes (50:04) including such unseen bits (to the theatrical release) as the opening prologue, and the segments “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” and “The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective” (both presented here with actual dialog alongside stills and script excerpts). “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” actually shows surviving footage, but with subtitles as there’s no dialog. This footage has Holmes and Watson on a cruise ship when two naked corpses are discovered in one of the chambers: Holmes gives the case over to Watson to solve himself. The deleted epilogue scene (6:21) has dialog played over a single still (most of what is found here is actually in the film, except for few seconds at the end when a Scotland Yard inspector calls on Holmes about a murderer named Jack the Ripper (this extra is new to this release). An anamorphic theatrical trailer rounds out the supplements. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS