DVD Review: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder | STARS: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Genevieve Page, Clive Revill
RELEASE DATE: 7/22/14 | PRICE: DVD $19.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES: deleted scenes, interview with editor Ernest Walter, interview with Christopher Lee
SPECS: PG-13 | 125 min. | Mystery | 2:35 widescreen | Dolby Digital 

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


Fans of Billy Wilder sometimes argue about which of the great director’s later films is as good as his classic work. Although there are dissenters who favor Fedora (like this reviewer) or Avanti!, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, an unusual 1970 amalgam of wry comedy, drama and Conan Doyle-esque mystery, is considered by many to be the last great Wilder picture.

This supplement-filled package is a remastering of the 2003 MGM DVD release for Blu-ray and standard DVD.  The supplements provide much-needed context for the film and explore what Wilder initially set out to do and what eventually reached the screen.

For Private Life was one of the director’s most ambitious projects. Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond intended for it to be composed of four separate “adventures” and were no doubt frustrated by the fact that only two remained in the finished film.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes movie scene

Colin Blakely (l.) is Watson, Robert Stephens is Holmes and Irene Handl is the housekeeper in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

They also wanted to emphasize the more “modern” aspects of the Holmes stories, including Holmes’ dislike and distrust of women (here Holmes implies his relationship with Watson is a love affair to rid himself of a female admirer) and his use of cocaine — Private Life appeared four years before Nicholas Meyer’s novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The plot is a tangled one that begins with Holmes (Robert Stephens) lamenting that “There are no great crimes anymore.” Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) and he are soon drawn into a web of intrigue involving the British and German governments, the Loch Ness monster, a seductive Belgian widow (Genevieve Page) and a team of midgets. As the film moves on, it becomes clear that Wilder and Diamond wanted to fashion a Holmes saga that was worthy of the Conan Doyle originals, while still infusing the tale with their trademark sarcastic dialogue.

The supplements provide a good look at what Private Life might have been like if Wilder had been allowed by the producers to make his intended three-hour epic. The missing scenes and lengthier prologue and epilogue are represented in whatever condition they have survived. Thus some sequences are present only as photos and script pages, while others exist as audio or film footage.

The missing “adventures” would’ve put a greater spotlight on Watson, since one mystery is actually a distraction dreamt up by Watson to lure Holmes away from his cocaine habit. Another is “solved” by Watson, who wants to show his mentor that he, too, is a master of deductive reasoning (this fragment has the single best “punchline” in the whole project).

A lengthy interview with editor Ernest Walter puts the deleted scenes into context. Walter also describes an amusing sequence that Wilder and Diamond wrote that he wished had been the film’s finale (Wilder nixed this idea). From Walter we also learn of Wilder’s “dream cast” — his hope was to cajole Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) to play Holmes and Peter Sellers (The Magic Christian) to play Watson.

Also interviewed is Christopher Lee (Dracula: Prince of Darkness ), who played Mycroft Holmes in Private Life. Lee contends that the film “changed my life completely as an actor,” since his being cast by Wilder freed him from being stereotyped as a horror actor. Lee seems eternally grateful to Wilder for the gig and notes that Wilder was “the greatest director I ever worked with.”

Private Life has been released with seven other titles — including Wilder’s courtroom classic Witness for the Prosecution — to launch the new Kino Lorber Studio Classics label. All of the titles will be available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”