Cult Movie: Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes

Featuring a supporting turn by Christopher Lee, centre, Billy Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes was to be the last word on the Baker Street detective
Ralph McLean

BILLY Wilder made some of the greatest films ever to grace a cinema screen. From The Lost Weekend (1945) to Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959), his back catalogue is peppered with a bounty of timeless beauties and classy comedies – but the director’s great personal pet project, the film he desperately wanted to make above all others, wound up breaking him totally.

A lifelong lover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous literary creation, Wilder spent a full decade developing The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.

It was to be the last word on the Baker Street detective, a wise and witty study that would luxuriate over a three hour running time and throw new light – and just a little darkness – onto Holmes in all his complicated glory.

With a $10m budget at this disposal (a small fortune at the time), Wilder’s favourite screenwriter IAL Diamond on board and stars of stage Robert Stephens and Colin Blakley in place as Holmes and Dr Watson, it should have been a triumph.

When it finally appeared in 1970 it was a pale shadow of the epic that Wilder had hoped for. Cut to shreds by United Artists who feared that no one cared enough about the adventures of a Victorian sleuth to invest longer than two hours in his company, it was disjointed and uneven in tone.

The proposed four stories – all filmed, mind you – were hacked down to just two, leaving a lot of the early days and supposedly revelatory moments languishing on the cutting room floor.

Denied the prestigious release it had been promised, the film subsequently limped out to little praise, swiftly flopped with the public and left the director a broken man.

Time has been kind to it however – just witness the interplay between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson if you want to see how it has informed a modern take on the tradition – and watching it again thanks to Eureka Home Entertainment’s new Blu-ray release is a hugely enjoyable experience.

It may be flawed, but it's great fun – and with Stephens and Blakely sparking off each other like a comedy double act, it plays out like a strange and particularly camp episode of The Avengers.

After an initial comic interlude with a Russian ballet dancer who wishes the sexually ambiguous Holmes to sire her a son, the real story arrives in the form of a mysterious woman, Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page) who arrives at Baker Street dazed and confused but seeking her absent husband.

The trail leads Holmes and Watson to the wilds of Scotland where they cross paths with everything from mysterious dwarves to the Loch Ness monster.

Along the way, there are supporting roles for Christopher Lee as the detective’s sniping brother, Mycroft, and the great Irene Handel as the much put upon Mrs Hudson.

It’s not perfect – Stephens plays it more like Oscar Wilde than Sherlock Holmes at times – but there’s much fun to be had in the outlandish plot all the same.

Sadly, much of that shorn material remains lost and the picture quality feels a little washed out, but the extras on this new Eureka disc do a fine job at placing the film in its rightful historical place as a compromised but still admirable addition to the cult of Sherlock Holmes on screen.

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