Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is one of Billy Wilder's last films - released in 1970, there would be only three more films before he retired just over ten years later. Starting off as a humourous take on the famous detective, the film ends as a more classic, if still deliciously funny, Sherlock Holmes adventure. It mostly covers two episodes, the first concerning a Russian ballerina, the second a Belgian woman in search for her husband.

There are many Wilder touches throughout the film that alone would be worth the price of admission: the wonderful dialogue in the ballerina's dressing room; the scene backstage at the theatre when gossip spreads like fire and one set of dancers replaces another; the special appearance of Queen Victoria (and his own "we are not amused"); the monks at the end. But interestingly, the ending. The mastery of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script is that the tone darkens so progressively, so subtly, that the rather bleak ending is neither out of place nor could allow a happier one.

Of course what we see is not what Wilder intended to be seen. While I feel that the film works perfectly well as it is, it’s well known that two whole episodes, accounting for over an hour of footage, were cut and the footage lost. With time, the sound of one of these episodes and the images of the other have been found, and were presented as extras in the US release of the film. Regretfully, I do not own it, so (annoyingly) I haven’t seen them.

The perfomances are wonderful throughout, with Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely wonderful as Holmes and Watson. Christopher Lee is also a delight as Mycroft Holmes, as a mastermind of British Intelligence which Mark Gatiss (co-creator of the BBC's "Sherlock") admited in the screening's introduction that he used as an inspiration for his own performance as Mycroft.

Alexandre Trauner, one of the greatest art directors and a regular Wilder collaborator also shines here. The sets are impeccable, detailed, lived in – as they were, for instance, in “The Apartment”. I think it’s a serious praise to his work, that while I am convinced that the London exteriors were sets, I am still wondering it they might have been the real thing.

In a career that includes "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Blvd.", "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment", a film like this is easily eclipsed. But even if it's not a first rate Wilder, it's still a delight and won’t disappoint.

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