• Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, The

    Released by: Eureka/Masters of Cinema
    Release date: January 22, 2018
    Directed by: Billy Wilder
    Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Irene Handl, Clive Revill, Tamara Toumanova, Stanley Holloway, Mollie Maureen, Catherine Lacy, James Copeland, Jenny Hanley, Alex McCrindle
    Year: 1970

    The Movie:

    After being fished out of the drink, an apparent amnesiac, a beautiful French woman named Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page), is brought to 221 B Baker Street, home of the famed private detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his overexcited assistant, Dr. James Watson (Colin Blakely). Recovering soon after, Valladon confesses to Holmes that her husband, an engineer, disappeared three weeks earlier, not long after inventing a new kind of engine. Holmes’s older brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee), warns him to drop the case, but Holmes’s curiosity is piqued. After a couple of plot twists, Holmes ascertains that Monsieur Valladon can be found in Inverness, a city along the River Ness in Scotland. Posing as a married couple, Holmes and Madam Valladon, along with Watson as their valet, follow the clues to Urquhart Castle, which overlooks a certain famous loch. There they make a surprising discovery involving the missing man, midgets, the Loch Ness monster, and Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) herself.

    The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes came from the brilliant mind of Billy Wilder, who had staked out a claim as one of Hollywood’s most important and distinctive voices stretching back to the 1930s. His directorial career included a number of classic and award-winning films, both as writer and as director, among them Double Indemnity, 1944; The Lost Weekend, 1945; Sunset Boulevard, 1950; Stalag 17, 1953; Some Like It Hot, 1959; The Apartment, 1960, and many others. Working with his most trusted co-scenarist, I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder crafted a Sherlock Holmes story like none before it. Skating right up to the parodic line without falling completely over it, Private Life was a humorous mix of sardonic wit, political intrigue, and engaging mystery.

    The film takes its time building its two primary characters before jumping into its main story. While attending the ballet for a presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, Holmes and Watson are approached by the manager of Russian ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who has gone through a long list of potential lovers in search of the perfect father for her future children. After crossing one name after another off her bucket list, she’s finally settled on Holmes, but the famous investigator wants none of it, fearing intimate relations with the fairer sex. Instead, he starts a rumor about himself and Watson to get her off his scent, one that spreads around the theater like wildfire.

    The scene is as daring as it is humorous and is one of the things that appears to have appealed to future television producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, whose series Sherlock is clearly modeled after this film's touches. Wilder’s take on Holmes, as an effeminate fop disinterested in social interactions divorced from sleuthing, is the natural progression of a character whose stuffier elements were dignified by the likes of Basil Rathbone and Arthur Wontner. Stephens is perfect in the role, presenting the most interesting screen incarnation of the character since Peter Cushing’s take in Hammer’s horror classic The Hound of the Baskervilles over ten years before. His isn’t the only performance that works in the film’s favor, however, as Blakely’s Watson is pitch perfect, neither the buffoon of the Fox/Universal series nor the straight-laced assistant of Hammer’s sole foray into the field. Yet, it is Christopher Lee who somehow manages to sneak in and steal the film as Holmes’s stiff older brother Mycroft. Eschewing the toupee in favor of his own balding dome, Lee is magnificent, delivering his lines with a deadly earnestness that makes them all the funnier, just as he intended.


    Released on Blu-ray by Kino in the United States in 2014, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes sees its U.K. debut in the format thanks to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line. Bearing an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition, the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer appears to be the same used for Kino’s presentation, so anyone who owns that version likely won’t need to upgrade. Too bad, too, as the film is worth a much better remastering than it’s gotten. From the opening shot, it’s clear that this isn’t one of the format’s better transfers. The biggest issues lie with the elements, which were clearly not in the best of shape. In addition, much of the film was shot in soft focus, and there are sequences with an intentional optical fog; the result is that many scenes simply don’t have the requisite detail for a strong transfer to latch onto, though there are moments when detail becomes enhanced and looks quite good (usually during well-lit interior sequences). Unfortunately, these moments are frequently offset by dirt, debris, an abundance of speckles, and some minor print damage here and there. Transitions involving fades look particularly bad, and while grain is mostly organic, there are a few times when it becomes blown out. Even worse, several darker scenes suffer from serious noise problems, and there’s some crush. Color is also problematic. Given the amount of red in the costumes and furnishings, one can conclude that Wilder intended the film’s color to be bright and vivid, but the elements are a bit on the faded side. The best test of this is in skin tones, which tend toward a very pale peach.

    Thankfully, the sound fares a bit better. Presented in lossless English LPCM 2.0, the track is a suitable one, a decent auditory exhibition of Miklos Rozsa’s classy score. Dialogue is mostly clear, though there are a few instances where sounds bleed together. Minor examples of hisses and pops actually add to the filmic feel rather than detract from it, at least for this viewer. For anyone who has trouble with making anything out, there are optional English subtitles. Unfortunately, there’s no audio commentary as most of the participants are long gone, including the leads, many of the co-stars, the director, and the co-scenarist. The take of a film historian, particularly one steeped in the cinematic representations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, would have been welcome.

    All that said, there are no complaints to be had about the extras. They begin with an interview with film historian, college professor, and author Neil Sinyard. The featurette lasts a little over 20 minutes. It begins with Sinyard discussing the various reasons the film failed both at the box office as well as with critics at the time before giving a brief history of the film and Wilder’s interest in the character. He also dissects the story, including the character of Holmes and why he has a distaste/distrust of women. The interview is offset by various clips from the film, and it’s interesting enough that one wishes Sinyard had recorded a commentary.

    There are two other interviews included on the disc, one with actor Christopher Lee, the other with editor Ernest Walter, both of whom are no longer with us. The interviews were recorded for previous special-edition releases of the film. The Lee interview lasts approximately 15 minutes and focuses on his work with Wilder. He begins by telling how working with the famed director changed his life and the trajectory of his career. He spends some time discussing Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, characters he clearly loved long before starring in Wilder’s film. He also touches on his starring role in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and his turns as Sherlock in a couple of Harmony Gold productions from the 1990s.

    Walter’s interview lasts considerably longer, close to half an hour. He begins with his career in the military in the 1940s, where he was a cameraman. From there he got into film as an editor. He discusses how he came to meet Wilder and Diamond and his journey to Private Life. He also covers the deleted scenes and why they were cut. The interview focuses almost exclusively on Private Life and offers a number of interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes as well as observations about various aspects of the film itself.

    The interviews are presented in standard definition and full frame, as they were originally shot.

    Speaking of cut scenes, some of them are included here under the title “The Missing Cases.” Lasting a whopping 50 minutes, these are partly recreated from various preexisting materials cobbled together as best possible. Existing film, audio without visuals, stills, and script excerpts are combined into a disjoined whole. It’s a great extra for enthusiasts of the film, but it will likely be a slog for more casual viewers. Also included as its own extra is audio of the deleted epilogue.

    Rounding out the extras is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which runs three minutes.

    The Final Word:

    In an example of a trailer getting it right, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is “anything but elementary.” Audiences and critics of the time clearly didn’t understand what Wilder gave them; the film is not only one of the director’s best, it’s also a superlative entry in the Holmes film canon. People who have never seen it but want to experience it for the first time will want to do so on Blu. Even if the visual presentation leaves a lot to be desired, it’s still better than previous home video releases, and ample extras provide strong incentive for a blind buy.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!