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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
The Billy Wilder Collection

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
MGM Home Entertainment
1970 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 125 min. / Street Date July 15, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Production Designer Alexander Trauner
Art Direction Tony Inglis
Film Editor Ernest Walter
Original Music Miklos Rozsa
Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Produced by I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder
Directed by Billy Wilder

Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment, Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

When Filmex held its big Billy Wilder marathon in 1972, they showed several of his (at the time) harder-to-see pictures, like Emil and the Detectives and Ball of Fire. They also showed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was then only two years old but already just as obscure. Like Stanley Donen's Bedazzled and Arthur Penn's Night Moves, Sherlock became well-known as a flop that everyone liked. It played constantly in revival houses, and gained a reputation not only for its funny script and Miklos Rosza's romantic score, but for the rumor that the released version had been cut by almost a third. Its production history makes the film sound as if it should be a disaster, but it's not at all.


When there's not a pending case for the great consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) to solve and his associate Doctor Watson (Colin Blakely) to fictionalize for The Strand magazine, they bicker incessantly. A wily Russian opera manager (Clive Revill) tries to buy Holmes' services as a stud for retiring ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova). Sherlock slips out of the deal by telling a lie that gets him into trouble with Watson. Then, amnesiac Belgian mystery woman Gabrielle Valldon (Geneviève Page) turns up at their door, launching the pair into a complicated case involving kidnapped scientists, dead canaries, Trappist monks and Holmes' brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), a spymaster for the foreign office. Sherlock, Watson and Gabrielle take the train to Scotland to find the source of the mystery, which proves to be almost too much for the brilliant sleuth.

In the latter half of the 60s, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond found themselves struggling. The Fortune Cookie had been a commercial success, but the changing landscape of feature films and public taste threatened their commitment to classically-designed comedy. The pair embarked on a massive roadshow production that, with endless casting, took four years to bring to the screen. It was finally finished just as a series of costly flop roadshow pictures was bankrupting Hollywood. Suddenly United Artists was no longer keen on releasing a three hour movie about 1880s England, with no big stars.

Billy Wilder wasn't forced to cut Sherlock Holmes; he himself had become disenchanted with his movie, feeling that he still hadn't cast the main role correctly. The movie was once divided into 4 adventures, three short ones and one lengthier one. Two of adventures were simply dropped, with a more elaborate opening, and a crucial flashback also trimmed away. The film as released is not some butcher job, but his final approved version. (more on the cut scenes below)

Robert Stephens went against the 1970 image of Sherlock, which was still dominated by Basil Rathbone's pictures from 30 years before. Stephens was more like a true prudish-and-proper London gentleman, trading witty vaudeville routines ("Dust, Mrs. Hudson, is an essential part of my filing system!") with Colin Blakely's wonderfully genial Watson. Typically ahead of so-called permissive trends, Wilder and Diamond's hard look at the Doyle character finally addresses the fact that Holmes doesn't seem to have a love life. One of the lost, cut episodes seeks to explain his acute distrust of women; in the shorter released version the revisionist writers dance around the possibility that Holmes might be gay.

Wilder has always been an adult filmmaker, and after decades of winking at the audience with edgy jokes, he'd just gone through a string of increasingly ribald pictures, one of which hit such a raw nerve with the Catholics and the production code, that UA had to release it out the side door, through an affiliate distributor. Their Sherlock Holmes was more sophisticated, unlike like the new, post-Valenti big-studio exploitation - Myra Breckinridge, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart. The nudity was nominal, and the sex-related humor all verbal. Unfortunately, the picture was sold as if it were something shocking - I read an article in the short-lived Show magazine entitled The Private Sex Life of Sherlock Holmes. The family trade stayed home.

In The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina, the question of Holmes' sexuality is a joke: " ... Caprice of Mother Nature"; "So there'll be a little gossip about you in St. Petersburg ..." But the detective cagily refuses a direct demand for the truth from Watson. But Holmes always thwarts Watson's attempts to peg him on any issue. Holmes is obviously attracted to Gabrielle Valladon, but he doesn't trust her, for the wrong reasons, as it turns out. Holmes' habit of cautiously recoiling from the beguiling Valladon makes him seem strangely ineffectual and vulnerable, even when professing total confidence in himself. One critic compared Robert Stephens' moody inertia to Greta Garbo. Wilder's Holmes is a disillusioned romantic, an intellect who retreats defensively to a position of asexuality.

The final The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective completely overturns the Holmes mythos, subtly rethinking the character as A.I. Bezzerides had done to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. (spoiler) Like Bezzerides' Hammer, Wilder's Holmes also fumbles his big case, because what he takes for one of his Victorian parlor crimes, is really the beginning of a new era of international espionage. Holmes fails, but his romantic foe Ilsa Von Hoffmanstahl never knows it, for he's too cowardly to admit he was fooled by love. The romance of his life moves in a futuristic world where treachery is commonplace, where he doesn't fit in. Master spy Ilsa is never going to be content knitting by a fire while Sherlock smokes his pipe. The final bittersweet revelation is a shock that indeed does send Holmes running to his seven-percent solution of cocaine.

Viewers who haven't seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes are in for a big surprise, for it is a loving valentine to old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography of the lush Scottish landscape is beautiful, and the scenes backstage at the ballet are a riot of soft colors and balalaika music. The script is a witty delight, with Wilder and Diamond decorating their mystery plot with a constant stream of arcane clues and character-driven jokes.

Well-known now from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Robert Stephens played mostly character parts in films as diverse as Cleopatra,, Travels with My Aunt, and The Asphyx. He may not be a bankable star as Wilder's first choice Peter O'Toole, but he's excellent in the role. Colin Blakely is the comedic dynamo who makes the jokes sparkle and the period farce work ("Holmes! You cad!"). Genevieve Page - at 40 - is a credible, sexy damsel in distress. In lively bits are Clive Revill (Avanti!) as a finicky Russian ("Madame has read every story - her favorite is Beeg Dog from Baskairveel"), Irene Handl as the patient landlady of 221B Baker Street, and horror star Christopher Lee in his breakout role, perfectly cast as the insufferably pompous Mycroft.

None of these talents measured up to the All-Youth demands of the 1970 distributors, and after numerous production problems - including 47 extra shooting days due to Stephens' illnesses - this borderline masterpiece was simply dumped with a campaign that appealed to nobody. It's a shame that Wilder lost faith in his own film, and that United Artists didn't come up with some kind of clever, compensating marketing gambit with which to spring it on the public. Even in this shortened form, it's a movie gem hiding in plain sight.  1

MGM's hotly-awaited DVD of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes isn't as dazzling as it should be. It's perfectly acceptable in general terms - the jokes certainly aren't any less funny - but it can't touch the memory of the beautiful theatrical prints. The transfer is from an element with colors that are always slightly 'off'. The opening reels tend to be reddish. The biggest casualty is the ballet scene, which was stylized with beautiful hazy pastels, that now seem ordinary. Finally, many darker scenes have film-sourced halation effects in the blacks, a problem more often found in bad prints of much older films. It's very distracting.

The extras on this disc center on the famous unreleased roadshow version. In the early 90s, Image and MGM released a laserdisc that had the two major missing scenes, but only parts of them: The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room, a comic attempt by Watson to cheer up his bored friend, was audio-only; and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, where Watson takes a turn at playing detective, was picture-only. The laser played an interview over the audio track of one, while subtitling the other.

There were other alterations for which no film survived. The lost opening had Watson's grandson claiming the box of precious artifacts left in charge of bank manager John Williams. A key flashback on the train to Inverness told the story of the collegiate Sherlock's encounter with a dream-girl sweetheart - who turned out to be a prostitute and warped his perception of women forever. These were barely covered on the laser, but the DVD uses script excerpts and some newly-found stills from the AMPAS ... although photos for the prostitute scene are still very thin. Robert Stephens at age 19 has the same problem his wife Maggie Smith had two years later in the flashbacks in Travels With My Aunt - he can't possibly look young enough.

Some of the text accompanying and explaining the lost version seem to be 'borrowed' from the Sergio Leeman liner notes from the old laser. There's an interview with the editor of the film, Ernest Walter, taken from the laserdisc. Holders of the laser might want to hang onto it, because there's some incidental nudity in one of the recovered scenes that MGM has this time chosen to digitally blur. The DVD department has a rule not to show any nudity in added value material unless a waiver is obtained from the actor involved.

Christopher Lee is interviewed for this disc, and he covers his brief participation in the film very quickly, giving thanks again to Wilder. Then he drones on forever about the Doyle character and his personal appearances in Sherlock Holmes films. Lee can be a charming interview subject (see Anchor Bay's The Three Musketeers), but fan-oriented interviewers repeatedly allow him to wear out his welcome.

The old laser also has a discrete music track for Miklos Rosza's score. I received a letter claiming that the new DVD should have had the laser disc's stereo track. My copy of the laser has the mono mix on the left linear and digital channels, and the stand-alone mono music on the right linear and digital channels. I'm also informed that there is at present no stereo music master for the film, which explains the non-appearance of a soundtrack album. It certainly is one beautiful score.

The package illustration is not only tacky (Stephens' head is pasted onto a weirdly-angled silhouetted figure) but totally misleading. Colin Blakely glares soberly from an inset photo. Anyone buying this disc based on the cover art, won't be expecting a comedy.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good-
Sound: Good
Supplements: Interview Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder, Interview with the editor, Deleted sequences
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July, 2003


1. Perhaps it would have been a longshot, but my brilliant idea was to turn one or both of the lengthier cut episodes, into television specials that would help re-introduce the character of Sherlock Holmes to 1970 audiences spoiled by James Bond. Along with a lot of hype for the film, each special would have had its own self-contained comic mini-mystery. Frankly, although it's all very funny, a Private Life of Sherlock Holmes an hour longer than it is now, might have seemed to go on forever.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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