A long-time dream project for Billy Wilder, beginning life as a musical, going through several years of rewrites and casting proposals - at one point even a vehicle for Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers until the director found both impossible to make a deal with - before going into production as a hugely expensive $10m budgeted three-hour plus roadshow picture only to be cut down to little over two hours when exhibitors refused to book the uncut version, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is something of a legend in itself. The whereabouts of all the elements for a full restoration has long defied the finest minds in film restoration, adding a layer of mystique and what-if? to the film's reputation.
The best way to watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is to forget what could have been and marvel at what is left. For all its problems, even in the heavily cut version that was eventually released, this is one of Billy Wilder's greatest and certainly most heartfelt achievements - and a pretty good yarn as well, throwing missing dwarves, dead canaries, Trappist monks, Swan Lake, Sherlock's mysterious brother Mycroft, Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness Monster into the mix, as well as an amnesiac woman who rouses more than Holmes' professional curiosity, to tragic results.
Throughout, Wilder presents a much less self-assured vision of the great detective than had been seen before. In the opening scene he castigates Watson for the expectations the Doctor's stories in Strand Magazine have instilled in the public, and the film proceeds to ultimately explore that painful gap between expectations and reality with no mercy to the character's feelings but much compassion.
Where to Watson's spirit of adventure, all things are possible, to Holmes all things can be disassembled and found wanting. There's real pain, loneliness and despair behind his façade of dry wit. Robert Stephens' Holmes is a genuinely tragic figure, a victim of his own intellect whose descent into becoming a thinking machine is more an act of self-defence at his poor judgement in matters romantic. The final shots of him reaching for a shot of cocaine to hide a broken heart are one of the most haunting images of its era.
Colin Blakely's Watson too is a great creation. He is never mere comic relief or the all-too-familiar buffoonish stereotype but a fully realised figure pained by his inability to deal with his friend's drug use (and discomfort with being his unwitting supplier). There's a humanity, familiarity and genuine emotional interdependence to their partnership that most other screen pairings have missed, aided immensely by some remarkable writing. If there's such a thing as a script so sharp you could cut yourself on it, then parts of this could cause fatal injury. To quote every good line would mean typing out half of the script, and certainly the entire Bolshoi Ballet where Clive Revill's impresario makes an unusual business proposal to Holmes. But it's not all highbrow. Example: "Who's that at this hour?" "Maybe Mrs Hudson is entertaining?" "Really? I've never found her so."
But more than amusing dialogue, this is a film which has been clearly thought through in every detail - at one point, Holmes' is even glimpsed through a haze of smoke as boredom clogs his mind. Even though Wilder's visual imagination is limited, the film is sumptuous to look at, particularly in its proper widescreen ratio, but for many, the major impetus for buying this DVD will be the location of the soundtrack (but not the picture) for the original opening half-hour of the picture (including The Case of the Upside Down Room) and the picture (but not the sound) for The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners. Unfortunately you won't find them on this video or the PAL DVD - thanks to MGM/UA's old policy of dropping extras from special editions of back-catalog titles outside the USA that was in place when this disc came out, you won't even find the trailer!
If you have a multi-region DVD player, go for the Region 1 disc instead - the transfer is equally disappointing, but the extras package goes a long way to compensating!
As for the extras that can only be found on the Region 1 NTSC disc...
The weight of expectation that comes with what has thus far been located of the missing footage is, in truth, more than two of the episodes can bear. The real gem is The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room, less for the case itself but for what it tells us about the relationship between Holmes and Watson, precipitating a crisis that is only resolved by deceit on Holmes' part (Holmes' admission to Watson is very affecting). It's also the only deleted section that seems to serve a real purpose in the film's design. Neither the original opening scene in the train, more of a skit than anything of significance, or The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners advance the plot or illuminate the characters, being little more than overextended, very mildly amusing sketches.
The supplementary section is also mildly disappointing, not because of the effort put in by the producers of the original laserdisc who collated many of them: again, it's a case of decades of expectation working against it. The laserdisc included an early draft script that was intriguing - apparently almost everything was filmed - but it also contained some crudely misplaced elements. Mycroft's line about the last doctor who warned him about his gout falling on an orange peel and breaking his neck originally replaced the fruit with a very unconvincing use of the word 'turd,' while the original addenda to the ending, with Lestrade asking Watson if Holmes will help solve the Jack the Ripper case, seems particularly lame. However, for the NTSC DVD release only script and stills montages for the deleted scenes are included.
The stills archive is good, although it is a shame that it limits itself to purely colour shots. However, there is far too little of the pressbook for those who want to know more about the film. For some reason a panned-and-scanned version of the quite brilliant but spoiler-heavy trailer has been used, and a well-worn one at that (note to newcomers to the film: avoid it until you've seen it, as it gives away two major plot twists). A lengthy on-camera interview with editor Ernest Walter is also included, although be warned that he gets one detail wrong (it is indeed Jenny Hanley who played Holmes' university `sweetheart' in a lost flashback sequence), while, exclusive to the DVD, there's also a 15-minute interview with Christopher Lee. The isolated music track of Miklos Rozsa's superb score that was on the laserdisc is NOT included on the DVD (the track was problematic: with the masters long lost, a dubbing mix track was used with the volume varying wildly).
Picture quality on the DVD is somewhat disappointing, especially compared to the laserdisc - a bit soft and definitely in need of a remastering - but at least unlike this sometimes awkwardly panned-and-scanned video version it's in the right widescreen ratio.