Judge Patrick Bromley is fiddling in the parlor, while there's a burglar in the bedroom!
Anything but elementary.
Billy Wilder's 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite of the many adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective and one of the most underrated entries in Wilder's impressive filmography. It's also a movie with a tortured history and which we'll never see in its intended form. It's amazing, then, that even the compromised version is this good.
Robert Stephens (The Duellists) plays the world's greatest detective and Colin Blakely (A Man for All Seasons) his faithful companion Watson. The duo comes in contact with a mysterious woman (Genevieve Page, Belle de jour) who is pulled out of the river and claims to be looking for her missing husband. Holmes and Watson take the case, which eventually includes dwarves, submarines, Holme's brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula) and a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.
Chopped to pieces (much of it by Billy Wilder, who talks about his disappointment of the movie at some length in his book-length interview with Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder, which this reviewer recommends highly) but partially restored for its 2003 DVD release, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes remains a compromised movie. Originally designed as a three-and-a-half hour epic (including an intermission), the movie was butchered when United Artists got cold feet about the film's financial prospects and Wilder himself became disenchanted with the movie; entire mystery subplots were removed (there were originally several cases that played out; the finished film has roughly one), as well as a dream sequence, a prologue and an epilogue. More than an hour was eventually taken out of the movie, and today only pieces of that excised footage have ever been located. That means we're never going to see Wilder's "true" movie—a fact that remains one cinema's great heartbreaks.
Wilder's script, co-written with his usual partner I.A.L. Diamond, is way ahead of its time, marrying the classical structure and setting of Conan Doyle's writing with dialogue and ideas that feel completely modern (one of the most amazing things about almost all of Wilder's movies is how little they have dated). The script is witty and literate, the mystery a mix of old-school Holmes and post-Cold War concerns. The movie also predates the current "untold story" craze, in which movies take existing characters and properties and reboot them with the justification that they're telling the "real" story. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes doesn't shy away from the detective's famous cocaine habit and makes greater implications about Holmes's often-speculated sexual orientation. Some of it is for fun in a self-reflexive way—the character embracing those suspicions for his own ends—and some of it is Wilder's own interpretation of the character.
Though he never became a household name, Robert Stephens gives a fascinating performance as Sherlock Holmes (Wilder might not agree, as he reportedly had second thoughts about the actor's casting). Though decidedly prissier than past interpretations, Stephens never shies away from the more difficult aspects of Holmes' personality—it predates Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal on the BBC's Sherlock in that way. Wilder, Diamond and Stephens avoid making him an emotionless robot, though, and the way Holmes relates to Page (but, for one reason or another, cannot act) gives the character a heart and painful sense of loneliness. The film's resolution is sad and touching and altogether unexpected—yet another example of Wilder's maxim that movies should mix the sour and the sweet. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is certainly both.
Kino Lorber's HD transfer of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is acceptable but brings out many of the movie's visual problems. Because it was shot so much in soft focus, there isn't a ton of fine detail to be found, though at least it's true to Wilder's intentions. The print is in fairly rough shape, too, with a good deal of damage, scratches and debris visible throughout the movie. The movie still looks good—possibly as good as it has looked since its theatrical run—but it doesn't represent a vast improvement over MGM's DVD released in 2003. The lossless stereo audio track is a bit better, offering clear dialogue that's balanced well with Miklos Rozsa's lush orchestral score.
The bonus features have been ported over from the MGM DVD, consisting of two good interviews with Christopher Lee and editor Ernest Walter, the latter of which goes into some detail on the movie's post-production problems and mixed reception. Nearly an hour of deleted scenes go a long way towards giving viewers a better idea of the movie Wilder was originally trying to make by way of reconstructing audio, production photos, actual filmed footage and pages from the screenplay. The original ending is presented in audio form only. The film's original theatrical trailer is also included. It is the only bonus feature presented in HD.
If you already own The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on DVD, I'm not sure this new Blu-ray is worth the upgrade. It's a slight improvement in A/V quality, but the lack of a true restoration and extras that have previously been released keep it from being a true "essential" release. Still, if you have never seen it and are any sort of fan of either Holmes or Wilder, you owe it to yourself to track it down. Funny, moving and altogether beautiful, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is Billy Wilder's last great movie.
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