The Film: 4/5
In 1969, with $10 million in funding secured from several production companies and distributor United Artists, the legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) teamed up with his longtime screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond to make one of the most ambitious features of his career: a comedy-mystery-adventure about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth Sherlock Holmes, told from the perspective of his faithful friend, assistant, and oftentimes, conscience, Dr. John Watson.
Titled The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder and Diamond’s script would completely be their own creation and not based on any previously published Holmes story. The project was intended to consist of a series of interlinked episodes drawn from Watson’s recollections of cases involving Holmes and himself that he deemed too strange for public consumption. Although respected name actors such as Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Sellers expressed interest in Wilder’s latest effort, the director instead favored lesser-known talents as he didn’t want Private Life to become a star-driven feature.
Cast as Holmes and Watson, respectively, were Robert Stephens (Romero and Juliet) and Colin Blakely (The Dogs of War), and while neither actor delivered the definitive interpretations of their famous characters, they still managed to turn in smashing performances nonetheless. The biggest name in Wilder’s cast would be none other than horror icon Christopher Lee, cast against type (and sans hairpiece) as Holmes’ perpetually understanding and occasionally helpful brother Mycroft.
Lifelong Holmes fan Wilder envisioned a nearly three-hour epic that would be exhibited theatrically in a roadshow presentation, with intermission and everything, but by the time the passion project reached movie screens, it was in a severely compromised form that was the result of United Artists demanding nearly an hour of footage be resigned to the cutting room floor. Times were changing in the film industry, and audiences were less likely to sit through a roadshow-length Sherlock Holmes movie than they were a decade or so earlier.
The 125-minute studio-sanctioned cut discarded many scenes crucial to Wilder’s vision, including a flashback focusing on Sherlock’s younger years and an episode that gave Watson the rare opportunity to play the hero in yet another puzzling investigation. In the butchered version, the genius detective and the good doctor become embroiled in a case centered around the missing engineer husband of Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page), who ended up on the doorstep of their restful abode at 221B Baker Street late one evening with memory loss after being fished out of the Thames River. Their quest for answers takes them to a castle in Scotland, where they encounter mysterious monks, dwarves with questionable motives, and the Loch Ness Monster (obviously).
Criminally deprived of its intended multi-episode narrative structure, what remained of Wilder’s vision for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes displays great wit, a melancholy tone, and terrific chemistry between Stephens and Blakely that helps the film get through the pacing issues and tonal inconsistencies doubtlessly created by United Artists’ cuts. Stephens makes a good Holmes for the most part, highlighting the famed detective’s eccentricities with subtlety if not being permitted much room to demonstrate his sleuthing genius, but it’s Blakely who puts on a better show as the fussy, overwhelmed Watson. The two actors are able to construct a believable relationship for their characters without having to spell everything out for the benefit of the audience.
The script does a solid job of giving us a Holmes & Watson adventure that pays due respect to Doyle’s conception for the characters while incorporating many of Wilder and Diamond’s only insightful ideas about these complicated men, what makes them tick, and what keeps them going when it looks like not every mystery they get involved in is going to have a tidy wrap-up. Holmes’ cocaine usage is touched upon as a crutch for his antisocial behavior in both his eyes and Watson’s, and he provides a rational (for him anyway) explanation for his misogyny.
That isn’t to say that the script is flawless. I could do without the gay panic humor that crops up during the first act, though I wouldn’t doubt that it was perfectly acceptable to audiences of the 1970’s. It’s not just that the material is hilariously outdated, it’s also that it doesn’t belong in a Sherlock Holmes film (even one that aims to grant the character the revisionist treatment). Also, outside of the Holmes and Watson characters and their relationship, there isn’t much for the cast to play. The supporting actors are given short shrift, especially Genevieve Page, who is good in the part of Gabrielle even though she is underserved by the script. Only Christopher Lee gets to make an impression as Mycroft Holmes, well suited to play the character’s mounting consternation and barely-concealed suspicious motives.
Private Life was a handsomely-mounted production, filmed on location throughout England and Scotland - with the expansive interiors shot at the famous Pinewood Studios – and captured on celluloid through the sumptuous widescreen cinematography of Christopher Challis (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). The enchanting score by the famed Hungarian-American composer Mikloz Rozsa, who previously scored Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend as well as the epics Ben-Hur and King of Kings among many others, stands out as one of the finest of his career and would have made a perfect fit for Wilder’s original roadshow version of the film. Though it must have been painful for editor Ernest Walter (The Haunting) to cut the director’s intended epic down to a more marketable running time, he should be commended for salvaging a smart and wistfully entertaining film that unmistakably contains the creative DNA of Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in spite of its flaws.
For the latest release in their Masters of Cinema line, Eureka presents The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on Region B Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high-definition transfer accurately framed in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Despite the film being in dire need of a restoration, Eureka chose to use the same ancient video master that first appeared on Kino Lorber’s 2014 Blu-ray. The transfer isn’t a complete disaster, but it isn’t exactly a cause for celebration either. The source elements were riddled with dirt, grit, and scratches that were not removed when creating the transfer. Details are bland and hazy, though at least the color timing appears accurate and consistent - favoring warm browns, dark blues, and the occasional red – but nothing pops. This film is crying out for a new 4K scan; maybe one day some enterprising distributor will finally come through.
On the audio side of things, Private Life fares much better. The original mono soundtrack is represented very well with an AVC encoded English LPCM 2.0 track that won’t blow out your speakers but offers audible dialogue and a distortion-free integration of Rozsa’s score. Plus, the track doesn’t bear any trace of damage. English subtitles have also been provided.
Eureka has ported over the extra features that appeared on MGM’s 2003 Region 1 DVD and the Kino Blu-ray. Interviews with co-star Christopher Lee (15 minutes) and editor Ernest Walter (29 minutes) provide many fond remembrances of the production, with Walter also giving us a blunt honest glimpse into the process that saw many crucial scenes forcibly removed from Wilder’s preferred cut of the film.
Though that cut footage has mostly been lost, perhaps for all time, the featurette “The Missing Footage” (50 minutes) does its best to provide us with a reconstruction of those deleted scenes through script excerpts, black & white and color production photos, and surviving film footage and audio tracks. The sequence titled “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners”, included in this feature, first appeared as a bonus feature on Image Entertainment’s 1994 laserdisc release. Since the soundtrack was lost, subtitles were used recreate the missing dialogue. The film’s original ending has yet to fully surface, but the audio of said scene survived and is presented here as the “Deleted Epilogue Scene” (6 minutes), with only a single black & white still of Stephens and Blakely for illustration when script pages would have worked better.
Produced exclusively for this release is an excellent new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard (21 minutes), who delves into the colorful and complicated production history of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, its place in the Holmes movie canon, the extensive editing that left it a butchered would-be classic, and more. The supplements close out with the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes).
The Blu-ray also comes with a 52-page collector’s booklet featuring a new essay about the film by Philip Kemp, another one by Trevor Willsmer devoted to exhaustively documenting the fabled deleted footage that was originally published in 1994 but has been updated, and film and disc production credits.
Though it will likely never be seen in director Billy Wilder’s preferred cut, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes regardless remains a fun, crazy comic adventure and an underrated entry in both Wilder’s filmography and the cinematic Holmes mysteries. Eureka’s new Region B Blu-ray release has much to recommend it, from the film itself to the extensive supplements, but the HD transfer is hopelessly outdated and in serious need of an upgrade. Otherwise, this comes recommended.