The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd December 2017).
The Film

As stipulated in the will of Dr. John H. Watson, a dispatch box housed in the vault of Cox & Co. is opened fifty years after his death containing belongings of the great detective Sherlock Holmes along with a collection of scandalous cases withheld from public view. By 1887, Holmes (The Asphyx's Robert Stephens) has grown bored with unimaginative criminals and living up to the color image embroidered by his official biographer Watson (Evil Under the Sun's Colin Blakely) has built up of him in the public from his deerstalker cap to his reputation as both violin virtuoso and hopeless dope-addict, not to mention his misogyny ("I don't dislike women, I merely distrust them: the twinkle in the eye and the arsenic in the soup"), retiring more and more to the influence of the needle. Declining a case looking into the whereabouts of six missing midget circus performers, Holmes has to be dragged to the ballet and a performance of "Swan Lake" by Watson when two tickets turn up mysteriously. The sender turns out to be Rogozhin (The Legend of Hell House's Clive Revill), director of the Imperial Russian Ballet, on behalf of the great ballerina Madame Petrova (Torn Curtain's Tamara Toumanova) who is retiring at the age of thirty-eight (actually, forty-nine) and looking for the sire for her offspring. Having already rejected Tolstoy ("too old"), Nietzsche ("too German"), and Tchaikovsky upon discovering that "Women are not his cup of tea," she has set her eyes on Holmes. When Holmes extricates himself from the awkward situation by intimating that he too prefers the company of men as "a bachelor living with a bachelor for the last five years," a lusty Watson is caught off-guard by Rogozhin's attempts to better accommodate him. The ensuing explosive confrontation with Holmes over concerns about his public reputation and the one Watson has constructed of Holmes leads Watson to question the nature of Holmes' attitude toward women, whether he was holding back a dark secret or just "a thinking machine incapable of any emotion." Their next case, however, is due to provide him with something like an answer when beautiful amnesiac Gabrielle Valladon (Belle de Jour's Genevičve Page) is pulled from the Thames and brought to their doorstep, the victim of an apparent murder attempt. Gleaning her identity from her inscribed wedding ring as well as that of her husband Emile, Holmes is able to jog her identity upon tracing her belongings at Victoria Station where she had come off the boat train from Belgium (Holmes having noted clues from her wardrobe while Watson was focused on her body, including her lack of a corset). Valladon reveals that her husband was an engineer working in a copper mine and had developed a new type of air pump. When he came to England to work for the company Jonah Limited on some undisclosed project, they exchanged letters which stopped coming three months ago. Arriving in London, she discovered that the address to which she had been sending letters was an empty storefront and that Jonah Limited did not exist. His curiosity piqued, Holmes agrees to help Valladon find her husband, much to the prurient interest of Watson and landlady Mrs. Hudson (The Italian Job's Irene Handl) since the pretty young lady cannot afford to pay for Holmes' services, what with her purse lying at the bottom of the Thames. Holmes has Valladon write another letter to her husband and they wait inside the abandoned store to see who picks it up. While waiting, they witness tradesmen collecting two dozen canaries from a wheelchair bound old woman (The Mummy's Shroud's Catherine Lacey) for someone named Jonah ostensibly carrying out operations in Inverness, Scotland Holmes surmises from the newspaper lining the birdcage used to collect the birds. Holmes is surprise, however, to discover that the letter delivered to the store by the post is not the one Valladon wrote but an invitation to lunch at The Diogenes Club by his brother Mycroft (Horror of Dracula's Christopher Lee). With the Diogene Club's use of such expeditions to discover the source of the Nile and hunting for the Yeti as fronts to insert themselves into political situations across the globe, Holmes is not surprised when his brother warns him off pursuing the Valladon case any further. Traveling to Scotland incognito as Mr. and Mrs. Ashdown and their valet John, the trio find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy involving Scottish castles, midget mourners, dead canaries, Queen Victoria (The Wicked Lady's Mollie Maureen), and the Loch Ness Monster.

A decade in development and cut down from its proposed Roadshow length of two-hundred minutes, the ten million dollar-budgeted The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes would end up being one of the few undisputed commercial flops of director Billy Wilder (Avanti!). Although it was certainly not his final film, and the three subsequent films he would direct in the following decade could not truly be considered a slowdown considering the development periods and shooting schedules of his previous hit projects, the seventies found Wilder, his style, and the subject of his stories more and more out of step with contemporary Hollywood. Originally conceived and shot to be structured as four separate cases with a contemporary wraparound featuring one of Watson's descendants, the final two hour cut of the film is rather awkward in retaining something of the contemporary wraparound utilizing Watson's narration to tell the audience they are about to hear cases that illuminate Holmes' private life only to then frame the second case (the first having been jettisoned entirely) involving the ballerina's indecent proposal occupying roughly the first half-hour of the film to set up the feature-length third episode by way of Holmes' relationships with women when the ballerina vignette probably could have been dropped in its entirety with the only setup needed for the Valladon case being the likening of her to "the woman" of the Holmes case "A Scandal in Bohemia" (which may not exist in the film's universe since it draws no comparison in the narration or dialogue to any one of the sixty-odd published cases to which Watson refers in his introductory narration). The tone of the film is perhaps not what audience expected of a Wilder film as it contained some light comedy but was not a parody or spoof in the mold of Gene Wilder's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook-scripted The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Without a Clue. The expected light comedy does dilute the drama, but it is also perhaps Holmes' evasive nature that blunts audience identification with his inner devastation at the end – not to mention his going along with what Queen Victoria describes as a bit of Mycroft's "unsportsmanlike" behavior – while Valladon is unfortunately never quite as intriguing and mysterious Irene Adler (seemingly a fault of the script that would rather have her appeal to Holmes' smoldering romantic nature rather than his intellect). Ultimately, the film's appeal may lie in one's appreciation and speculation of what it could have been regardless of how much one knows of the film's behind the scenes issues. It is nevertheless a handsome production as one would expect from Untied Artists, Billy Wilder, and a top-tier British film crew including cinematographer Christopher Challis (Two for the Road), production designer Alexandre Trauner (The Man Who Would Be King), and costume designer Julie Harris (Live and Let Die), and the cast is peopled with familiar faces including Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) as a Scottish gravedigger, Are You Being Served?'s Frank Thornton as a one-armed porter, and Christopher Gable (The Boy Friend) as one of the Russian ballet dancers.

Video

A box-office flop from United Artists upon theatrical release, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes got the usual panned-and-scanned tape release from Fox sub-label Key Video (along with a sell-through edition from MGM in 1994) - along with a Warner edition in the UK - but a sufficient cult following developed for MGM and Image Entertainment to not only release it to widescreen laserdisc but to make that a full-fledged, two-disc, four-sided laserdisc edition including the film's isolated score, production stills, the shooting script, music cue sheets, the pressbook, the twelve-minute deleted "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" segment with subtitles since the audio was lost, audio for the deleted "The Curious Case of the Upside Down" room sequence since the video was lost, an interview with editor Ernest Walter (The Haunting), the film's theatrical trailer, and an essay about the cutting of the roadshow version. When MGM released the film to DVD in the US with an anamorphic transfer, the deleted scenes extras were somewhat reconfigured while the other extras were dropped but for the Walter interview and a new interview with actor Lee was added (as with a number of early American MGM special edition DVDs, European territories including the UK got barebones editions). Kino Lorber stateside released the first Blu-ray reproducing the extras of the MGM DVD and a 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen encode of the film on a BD25. Eureka's Blu-ray features the same master in a higher-bitrate 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescren encode with an image that looks darker than the previous DVD edition while also boasting bolder colors and superior detail in the shadows. The optical transitions are of course grainier with the irised shots looking much coarser perhaps by design (although only one seems to have appeared at a reel change including a reel change mark and a few scratches).

Audio

The only audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono track that is clean and free of any distracting hiss, although it is unfortunate that neither Kino Lorber or Eureka have carried over the isolated score track (and augmented it with the few unused Rózsa tracks that appeared on the seventy-seven minute soundtrack album). Optional English HoH subtitles are also provided.

Extras

While the extras largely mirror the US release, Eureka includes a new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard (20:45) who suggests that the reason the film defies expectations of a Wilder comedy is that the director was known to be a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories and that the last thing he would want to do is lampoon the character. He discusses the project's gestation period, including an earlier proposal of a musical starring Rex Harrison, Wilder finding inspiration in the violin concerto Miklós Rózsa composed for Jascha Heifetz which is featured in the film (along with Rózsa himself conducting the orchestra during the ballet sequence), and the script developed by Wilder and associate producer I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment) who felt that the script developed over a period of ten years was so refined that the cast was not allowed to deviate from it (Diamond was actually on set and allowed to call cut if an actor chose to improvise or ad-lib). He also discusses the cut vignettes, the original structure, the alternate ending, as well as the clues that the novelization by Holmes experts Michael and Mollie Hardwick and the unused cues on the Rózsa soundtrack suggest about the preview cut and how it varied from the script.

"The Missing Cases" (50:03) presents the film's deleted scenes reconstructed from script excerpts, production stills, and some surviving footage and audio which includes the modern-day opening with uncredited actors, the first vignette "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room" (which included Inspector Lestrade who appears nowhere in the finished film), and the fourth vignette "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" (note that the brief nudity in this segment is blurred as it was on the MGM DVD, although it was uncensored on the laserdisc edition) while the deleted epilogue scene (6:20) – in which Lestrade asks Holmes to consult on the Jack the Ripper case – is presented separately with its surviving audio only. "Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder" (15:17) is an interview with Lee from the MGM DVD in which he recalls his friendship with one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sons who praised his performance as Holmes in the German-made Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace which Lee praise for the sets and actors but felt was otherwise dreadful (especially because his voice was dubbed into English by another performer) – he is less charitable about the two miniseries he did as Holmes for Frank Agrama's Harmony Gold that were three hours apiece and often shown cut down to half the length – his impressions on Holmes and his brother Mycroft, Stephens and Blakely, and working with Wilder (the experience of which lead him to believe that he was not forever typecast as a horror star and encouraged him to seek out and take a more diverse variety of roles). Also carried over from the laserdisc and DVD is the interview with editor Ernest Walter (28:40) who discusses his beginnings as a cameraman during the war, getting into the MGM editing department through a colleague, working on projects for United Artists in England the California, getting involved with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes through The Mirisch Company, and his impressions of the production and the final cut. Also included is the theatrical trailer (3:00). Not included for review was a collectors booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp, the words of Billy Wilder, and rare archival imagery.

Overall

A commercial flop from Billy Wilder that developed a cult following in the video age, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on Blu-ray presents the definitive means of reassessing a misunderstood not quite masterpiece.

 


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