What's It All About?

What's It All About?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes


This article is my contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon A Screen (aurorasginjoint.com) and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled (kelleepratt.com).  Click on those links to find the list of contributors to this event.  

The film I have chosen to highlight of all the works of Billy Wilder is probably the one of which he was most disappointed, most loved by him, didn't make much money, and was not a hit at the box office.  Wilder was a prolific director and writer, one of the best.  His movies always carried the Wilder touch of humor, sharp dialogue and human pathos.  The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (hereafter referred to as Private Life), released in 1970, contains all of those, plus the added touch of the love Wilder felt for the great detective.

Robert Stephens as Holmes
Wilder had a dream about creating a film dedicated to Holmes as not just the razor-sharp consulting detective, but also a man with a private life, feelings and emotions.  Arthur Conan Doyle did not create emotions for the great detective since those human reactions get in the way of logic and deduction, something Holmes would never allow.  However, it was Wilder's intention to create what the lovers of Holmes had never seen -- the life he and his friend Dr. Watson shared in between the great cases they solved.  Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond worked assiduously on a script that became the building block for a three-hour movie.  (Diamond also co-wrote Wilder's The Apartment, one of my top 10 favorite films.)  The two men wrote an episodic film which told the stories of four particularly strange cases (one of which had the very interesting name of The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners).  Originally, Holmes and Watson were to have been played by Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers, respectively.  Much as I love both of them, Private Life would have suffered.  Wilder also believed that lesser-known actors would better showcase the story he wanted to tell.

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson
Sadly, the real 'dreadful business' affecting Private Life was the reluctance of United Artists to release such an epic-length movie.  UA had just lost a great deal of money on Hello, Dolly and a couple of other blockbuster flops.  Wilder was forced to agree to an unbelievable cutting of half the original running time.  The episodic format made it a little easier to cut because the studio just cut out two of the cases, but Wilder was devastated:  "... 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."  Private Life was left with basically two primary stories to tell, one of a beautiful woman, Gabrielle (Genevieve Page) in which a missing husband and six midgets play a part, and one that involved the Loch Ness monster and the royal family.  There is also a very funny episode in which Holmes is forced to intimate that he and Watson are gay lovers, in order to fend off a determined Russian ballerina.  Of interest to classic movie fans are two cameo appearances:  Christopher Lee appears as Sherlock's brother Mycroft; and the part of a gravedigger is played by Stanley Holloway, a tribute to the wonderful character actor who had also played the part of the gravedigger in Olivier's Hamlet 22 years  before.

Robert Stephens
However, no matter what was done to the movie, I completely agree with Wilder ... it is a wonderfully elegant picture.  The two paramount reasons for this are the incredible music by Miklos Rozsa and the prodigious talents of British actor Robert Stephens as Holmes.  Stephens was a classically trained actor, described as on a par with Laurence Olivier.  Stephens' own private life was rocky, with failed marriages and a drinking problem to contend with, but his professional life of acting primarily on stage, with a few films to his credit, was indeed tour de force.  He brought to his depiction of Holmes a wonderfully effete air and nasal British accent that was haughty enough for the top of London society.  He was pencil-thin (which Wilder insisted upon), and kept a nose-in-the-air attitude that just fit perfectly with the humor that Wilder and Diamond had written for him.  Of particular note is his annoyance with Watson (Colin Blakely) because of his description of Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap and cape, which Holmes had never worn and only did so because the public expected it of him. Holmes disagreed vehemently with other descriptions made by Watson:

Holmes:  "I don't dislike women, I merely distrust them.  The twinkle in the eye and the arsenic in the soup."
**************
Holmes:  "You've painted me as a hopeless drug addict just because I occasionally take a five-percent solution of cocaine."
Watson:  "A seven-percent solution."
Holmes.  "Five percent.  Don't you think I am aware you've been diluting it behind my back?"

Robert Stephens and Genevieve Page as Gabrielle ('the woman')
Stephens was wonderful in the humorous parts, but particularly striking in the portrayal of Holmes with regard to 'the woman' and his feelings and relationship with her, and a core of loneliness that was Wilder's creation.  After I saw Private Life for the first time, I believed that Stephens was one of the best Holmes in movie adaptations.  Stephens had a lot to work with in Wilder and Diamond's spot-on writing.  Another important aspect of the film is the music of Miklos Rozsa.

Rozsa's music had graced many films, including Ben Hur and Lust for Life.  He was at the top of his game with Private Life.  I've always believed that music can make or break a movie, and great music can play as important a part as any star or director.  Rozsa created a score that included his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 24, which is highlighted in the opening titles.  I found the opening truly haunting -- a mysterious box being opened to reveal possessions of Holmes and Watson, with a manuscript that had never been read.  Rozsa's accompanying music, particularly when it segues into the concerto, is ravishing to the ear.  If you have not seen Private Life, make an effort to do so, if only to relish Billy Wilder's writing and direction, Robert Stephens' marvelous performance, and the music of Miklos Rozsa.