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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Movie Review

wilder film billy road

1970 – Billy Wilder –

During the six months it took to shoot this film, the idea of the road show as a way of showcasing movies had fallen into disfavor in Hollywood. In the earlier 1960s, this road-show format had been ideal for epic films: it publicized the movie as an event, included an intermission (“to give your kidneys a break,” as Billy Wilder joked to writer Tom Wood), and limited screenings to just two a day with higher ticket prices and reserved seating. The films that began their releases as road shows form a roster of the most successful epics of the decade: Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago.

And The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been added to that list had it not been for the sudden financial losses incurred by a number of expensive road shows near the end of the decade. Star! seems to have flopped the worse, but the box-office disappointments of Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly!, coupled with indifferent reactions to a preview of Wilder's very personal film about Sherlock Holmes, led to an impasse between Wilder and United Artists. Although the director had the final cut on the Holmes film, the studio refused to release the original 200-minute version that comprised four secret episodes of the detective's life. Wilder reluctantly agreed to their request to shorten the film. Seventy-minutes were cut (two of the four episodes and some flashback sequences). This two-hour version had been the only one available until 1994 when MGM/UA released a laserdisc with two partially restored episodes (one has picture with subtitles instead of sound, and the other has audio but no picture; the discs, however, also include a full screenplay).

The premise for the film is that fifty years after the death of Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely), a strongbox of his secret papers may now be opened in the vault of a London bank. The box contains accounts of the cases of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) too controversial for publication during the detective's life. Wilder conceived the stories as analogous to the movements in a symphony, each shedding light in a different way behind the facade of coldness and reason that Holmes presents to the world. The greatest loss may be the flashback to Holmes' college days when he wins a lottery sponsored by his rowing teammates at Oxford. The prize is a night with a prostitute, which Holmes traipses off for reluctantly since he has a crush on a girl he's spotted near the campus; he discovers that the prostitute is really his idealized girlfriend. (Wilder had earlier used nearly the same plot device with the characters played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, and it works there too.) Much of the rest of the film seeks to penetrate further the defenses regarding women that Holmes has constructed as a result of this early event. “I wanted to be more daring,” said Wilder, “but unfortunately, the son of Conan Doyle was there. I wanted to make Holmes a homosexual. That's why he's on dope.”

The film also features some of the finest work by cinematographer Christopher Challis (who had shot Michael Powell's classic The Red Shoes), set designer Alexander Trauner, and composer Miklos Rozsa, whose plaintive violin concerto captures beautifully the tone of this elegiac film.

Cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr. John Watson), Genevieve Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Tamara Toumanova (Patrova), Clive Revill (Rogozhin), Irene Handl (Mrs. Hudson), Mollie Maureen (Queen Victoria), Stanley Holloway (First Gravedigger), Catherine Lacey (old lady), Peter Madden (Von Tirpitz), Michael Balfour (Cabbie), George Benson (Inspector Lestrade), James Copeland (Guide), John Garrie (First Carter), Godfrey James (Second Carter), Robert Cawdron (hotel manager), Paul Hansard (monk), Miklos Rozsa (orchestra conductor at the ballet) Screenwriter: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond Cinematographer: Christopher Challis Composer: Miklos Rozsa Producer: Billy Wilder for United Artists MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 125 minutes (cut from 200 minutes) Format: VHS, LV Budget: $10M Box Office: $1.5M.

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