Billy Wilder's Screenwriting TipsAs told to Cameron Crowe:
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’'e seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -- that's it. Don’t hang around.
Almost all the 25 films Mr. Wilder made as a writer-director displayed his slashing wit and stinging social satire. Yet no other major filmmaker slipped so easily into so many genres.
Vincent Canby, the longtime chief film critic of The New York Times, once wrote: "Wilder is often called cynical, mostly, I think, because his movies seldom offer us helpful hints to better lives. There are few people in his movies one could model one's behavior on. He doesn't deal in redeeming social values. Instead, he sees the demeaning ones."
Mr. Wilder was a director who protected his scripts. The look of a movie was less important to him than its language. "I don't like the audience to be aware of camera tricks," he told one interviewer. "Why shoot a scene from a bird's-eye view, or a bug's? It's all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic."
In postwar Germany, Mr. Wilder was a colonel in the United States Army who oversaw a program that prevented former Nazis from working on films or in the theater. When asked by the director of the traditional Passion play in the town of Oberammergau if a former Nazi, Anton Lang, could play Jesus, Mr. Wilder responded, "Permission granted, but the nails have to be real."
Diamond, who wrote the unforgettable "Nobody's perfect" last line in "Some Like It Hot," described his partner's approach to movie making as "a Middle-European attitude, a combination of cynicism and romanticism." The cynicism, he said, "is sort of disappointed romanticism at heart - someone once described it as whipped cream that's gotten slightly curdled."
The biographical details of Wilder's life are as vibrant as his film scripts. Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in 1906 in Sucha, a village in Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian province that is now part of Poland. It is well documented that his mother loved all things American and nicknamed her son 'Billie' after Buffalo Bill. The young Billy briefly tried to fulfill his parents' other dreams by studying law. But he very quickly changed vocations and started working for a tabloid newspaper. Stories from this period in his life abound. Wilder was a big jazz fan as well as a dance gigolo. Both these pursuits found their way into his writing, as well as motivating his subsequent relocation to Berlin. From 1927 through to 1929, he learnt his craft by 'ghostwriting' on an estimated 200 scripts. His first official screenwriting credit was for The Devil's Reporter (Ernst Laemmle, 1929), and this was followed by writing and collaboration credits on a number of early sound films. In 1933 the Nazi ascendancy caused him to flee from Germany to Paris, and finally to emigrate to America in 1934. Wilder was the last surviving member of a group of similarly exiled 'magicians of the cinema' that included Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann.
Wilder's work has also received much criticism over the years, including the suggestion that his reputation would have been greater had he been more of a film stylist. But Wilder was intent on developing the classical principles of transparency and invisibility:
I would like to give the impression that the best mise en scène is the one you don't notice. You have to make the public forget that there's a screen. You have to lead them into the screen, until they forget the image only has two dimensions. If you try to be artistic or affected you miss everything. Richard Armstrong, in his excellent book, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, emphasizes Wilder's use of real locations, real streets and actual urban settings – a practice not common at the time. Armstrong finds a poetic edge in this quest for a realistic mise en scène. He singles out sequences like the “dumping of Dietrichson's body at the railroad tracks” in Double Indemnity “shot 'night-for-night' for maximum gloom” as an example of poetic realism reminiscent of the work of Zola or Renoir. Wilder's realist aesthetic, his deep shadows, gritty hard-edged streets, railway tracks, baroque houses, dramatic staircases and barren desertscapes offered startling, moody, and evocative images. While always in the service of his story, they also describe a powerful expressive film style that we now appreciate as his own.
The other main criticism that has been directed against his films is that they are deeply cynical and bleak. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951) is the film that has most often been singled out in this way. A down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum sees his chance to get back to the big city newspapers when he stumbles across a man trapped in a desert cave-in. He unnecessarily prolongs the rescue operations, in order to build the story and his own fame, only to end up resulting in the death of the cave-in victim. The story is brutally tragic and the representation of media and society is vicious. Yet, it is also a powerfully entertaining film full of wit and sparkling dialogue with lines like “I never go to church; kneeling bags my nylons” or “I've met some hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're twenty minutes”. Wilder's vision is certainly dark. However through the darkness we also discover, as Cameron Crowe says, “a clear eyed view of life in all its humour, and pain...”
I think Sikov says it best in his Wilder biography:
...not even Wilder, the master cynic, could foresee the kicker. The big joke is, with each passing decade Wilder's acerbic tales only seem more tender. At the end of our vicious and exhausted century, Wilder's nastiness has taken on a kind of romantic poignance. His movies are shockingly delicate…There was always decency there, even if no one could ever quite grasp it for good. There was love, however uncertain or tentative.
First and foremost a writer, Billy Wilder, by his own admission, became a director to protect his scripts, having frequently bounced onto a set to express his fury at their misinterpretation in other hands. Sometimes criticized for tempering the harshness of his vision in deference to the box office, he operated with assurance across genre boundaries, compiling an impressive body of work featuring language over character, its wit and astringent bite setting his oeuvre refreshingly apart from mainstream Hollywood fare. With the help of co-writer Raymond Chandler, he produced a masterpiece of film noir, "Double Indemnity" (1944), which he followed with "The Lost Weekend" (1945), a social problem play that despite its unconvincing, upbeat ending delivers a brutally uncompromising look at an alcoholic. Wilder, who created a variation on the comedy of manners and seduction of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch in films such as "Sabrina" (1954) and "Love in the Afternoon" (1957), mixed black comedy with farce for "Some Like It Hot" (1959), his most purely entertaining movie, and alienated Hollywood with arguably the greatest Tinseltown insider's tale, the cruel and haunting "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).
The string of box-office failures forced Wilder reluctantly into retirement, but he remained a vibrant link to Old Hollywood, always ready to oblige with a trademark quip, especially when accepting the many lifetime achievement awards that came his way. A marvelous director of actors, he coaxed career performances out of Milland, Swanson, Holden, Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe and Rogers, to name only a few, and who can't love a guy that at one time or another infuriated almost every segment of the movie-going population. He brought to the screen an outsider's sharp satirical eye for American absurdity and cruelty, and a master scenarist's skill at rendering those absurdities within a dozen variations. Some were bitter, some sweet, but all were marked by intelligence, clarity and even affection, with just a touch of innocence. Whether you prefer the earlier darker version ("Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard") or the more free-wheeling later one ("Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment"), there can be no denying Wilder was a master storyteller with a great ear for a memorable line.
Wilder's work is an amazing string of hits. From sarcastic and cynical social commentary to outrageous sex farce, Wilder pushed his audiences to look at their own values and morals. He was an outsider who wasn't afraid to point out the hypocrisy of his adopted home.
"My father told me once, nobody's an alchemist," added Wilder with a wink. "But if I was, I'd make a thriller. There was never one kind of picture I made. I went from 'Witness for the Prosecution' to 'One, Two, Three.' Mr. Hitchcock, he made only thrillers, and magnificently. But you know what a thriller is to me? It's the movie where the boss chases the secretary around the desk. . . . That's a thriller--and that's alchemy!"
During the course of his directorial career, Billy Wilder succeeded in offending just about everybody. He offended the public, who shunned several of his movies as decisively as they flocked to others; he offended the press with Ace in the Hole, the U.S. Congress with A Foreign Affair, the Hollywood establishment with Sunset Boulevard ("This Wilder should be horsewhipped!" fumed Louis B. Mayer), and religious leaders with Kiss Me, Stupid; he offended the critics, both those who found him too cynical and those who found him not cynical enough. And he himself, in the end, seems to have taken offence at the lukewarm reception of his last two films, and retired into morose silence.
Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder's work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end. Frequently, though—all too frequently, perhaps—the counterfeit turns genuine, masquerade love conveniently developing into the real thing. For all his much-flaunted cynicism, Wilder often seems to lose the courage of his own disenchantment, resorting to unconvincing changes of heart to bring about a slick last-reel resolution. Some critics have seen this as blatant opportunism. "Billy Wilder," Andrew Sarris remarked, "is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism." Others have detected a sentimental undertow, one which surfaces in the unexpectedly mellow, almost benign late films like Avanti! andThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But although, by comparison with a true moral subversive like Buñuel, Wilder can seem shallow and even facile, the best of his work retains a wit and astringent bite that sets it refreshingly off from the pieties of the Hollywood mainstream. When it comes to black comedy, he ranks at least the equal of his mentor, Lubitsch, whose audacity in wringing laughs out of concentration camps (To Be or Not to Be) is matched by Wilder's in pivoting Some Like It Hot around the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
By his own admission, Wilder became a director only to protect his scripts, and his shooting style is essentially functional. But though short on intricate camerawork and stunning compositions, his films are by no means visually drab. Several of them contain scenes that lodge indelibly in the mind: Swanson as the deranged Norma Desmond, regally descending her final staircase; Jack Lemmon dwarfed by the monstrous perspectives of a vast open-plan office; Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) trudging the parched length of Third Avenue in search of an open pawn-shop; Lemmon again, tangoing deliriously with Joe E. Brown, in full drag with a rose between his teeth. No filmmaker capable of creating images as potent—and as cinematic—as these can readily be written off.
Wilder learned to forge compelling stories about a brutal world in the inflation-riddled Vienna of the ’20s. Rejecting the preferred vocation of middle-class Jewish parents, he dropped law and became a reporter. Dispensing with the flowery feuilletons of traditional Viennese reportage, Wilder wrote tough, realistic pieces on sporting personalities, local celebrities, and visiting jazz musicians. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow, he introduced sports writing into Austria single-handed.
In 1926, bandleader Paul Whiteman invited Wilder to be his guide on a tour of Berlin. Wilder never returned to Vienna and became a dapper Americaphile, driving a Chrysler and, reputedly, learning English by memorizing song lyrics. Drifting into screenwriting, his career will emulate that twentieth-century paradigm: the European Jew emigrates, buys into the American Dream, resells the dream in Europe.
Andrew Sarris, the American critic, dismissed Wilder in his 1968 American Cinema as a director who “is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” He made reference to the scene in Stalag 17 in which Holden’s character “bids a properly cynical adieu to his prison-camp buddies. He ducks into the escape tunnel for a second, then quickly pops up, out of character, with a boyish smile and a friendly wave, and then ducks down for good. Holden’s sentimental waste motion in a tensely timed melodrama demonstrates the cancellation principle in Wilder’s cinema.” He charged that Wilder’s “conception of political sophistication” added up to “a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right.” Sarris further asserted that even Wilder’s best films “are marred by the director’s penchant for gross caricature, especially with peripheral characters. All of Wilder’s films decline in retrospect because of visual and structural deficiencies.” Sarris later famously reversed his opinion, and, in his most recent work, apologetically paid tribute to Wilder, observing that he had “grossly under-rated Billy Wilder, perhaps more so than any other American director.” It is my view that Sarris underrated Wilder in 1968 and overrates his work now.
Millar comments: “The truth is that no one comes comfortably out of a Wilder picture. This refusal to betray sympathy or award moral marks has been reproved as coldness, bitterness, contempt for the audience, or, more generally, for humanity, and his critics have usually managed to indict Wilder at the same time on the grounds of bad taste.... More often he is simply abused for having told the truth about an unpleasant area of human behavior.”
While true in a general sense, this may be a little too generous, as is Sarris’s critical volte-face. There is no question that some of those who leveled criticisms at Wilder’s supposed cynicism simply did not care to take a hard look at the institutions or practices at which the filmmaker was taking satirical aim. That is to Wilder’s credit. There is no need to pull one’s punches in regard to the state of American life or morals.
That does not settle the issue, however. There are missing elements in nearly all of his films. Compassion, for example, and the sense of an alternative to existing reality, even a moral or emotional one. At times his targets seem a trifle obvious, the work as a whole a little brittle, like a bright and shiny object in the water that remains near or close to the surface. The films, by and large, lack extraordinary resonance, texture and depth, at least when compared with the greatest films.
Perhaps in the end one should not concern oneself so much with what is lacking in Wilder’s work, and appreciate what is present. Within the bounds of the commercial film industry, he represented the principle of satire and irony, legitimate tendencies, and ones that are sorely lacking in the contemporary cinema world. He is a giant when compared to nearly everyone involved in American filmmaking today.
Playboy: Are you conscious of any kinship in your films or your philosophy, as several critics have suggested, with the savage satire of Bertolt Brecht, or with the intellectual cynicism he articulated for his generation?
Billy Wilder: I knew him in Germany, and I knew him when he lived for a time here in Hollywood, and I regard him with Mr. Shaw - George Bernard, not Irwin -- as one of the monumental dramatists of this first half-century, but I was never aware that he influenced me. Brecht was dealing with enormous subjects of the hungry, exploited masses which neither my brain nor my attention-span can cope with. His was a much vaster canvas than mine. After all, was Mickey Spillane influenced by Tolstoy? That's Leo Nikolaevich, not Irwin. If there was any influence on me in those days, it must have come more from American books and plays I read. One of the most popular writers was Upton Sinclair. I read him, and Sinclair Lewis, Bret Harte, Mark Twain. I was also influenced by Erich von Stroheim and by Ernst Lubitsch, with whom I first worked on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. But I don't believe I have been influenced by the cynicism of the times or even shown any of it on the screen. When they say that I have, they could be referring to, say, Double Indemnity, but this was done from a short story by James M. Cain, an American. It is not sugar-coated, my work, but I certainly don't sit down and say, "Now I am going to make a vicious, unsentimental picture."
Playboy: A friend of yours once said "Billy's collaborators are $50,000 secretaries." Is your creative hand really that authoritative in writing a scenario?
Do you remember my telling you earlier about that rooming house I lived in when I first was trying to get into the movies in Berlin? Well, next to my room was the can, and in it was a toilet that was on the blink. The water kept running all night long. I would lie there and listen to it, and since I was young and romantic, I'd imagine it was a beautiful waterfall - just to get my mind off the monotony of it and the thought of its being a can. Now we dissolve to 25 years later and I am finally rich enough to take a cure at Badgastein, the Austrian spa, where there is the most beautiful waterfall in the whole world. There I am in bed, listening to the waterfall. And after all I have been through, all the trouble and all the money I've made, all the awards and everything else, there I am in that resort, and all I can think of is that goddamned toilet. That, like the man says, is the story of my life.
Wilder: First of all, whoever said that is no friend of mine. If that were the case I would hire my relatives and make the money I give them tax-deductible, at least. But my collaborator, Iz Diamond, and I work together from the word go, and after it's done it cannot be said that this was his idea, this was mine, this was my joke, this was his. It all occurs together, like playing a piano piece four-handed.
Playboy: Many moviemakers claim to have found an intellectual stimulation and creative freedom in Europe that's unattainable in Hollywood. Have you?
Wilder: Remember, the movie scripts that Hollywood people go to Europe to shoot are still written in Hollywood, don't forget. So they make La Dolce Vita in Rome; but they also make Hercules and the Seven Dwarfs. As for freedom, all the Mirisch Company asks me is the name of my picture, a vague outline of the story, and who's going to be in it. The rest is up to me; can you get more freedom than that? And as for there being more intellectual stimulation in Europe, some of my best friends have gone to Europe and then to seed intellectually. I don't believe any of that "intellectual stimulus" crap. Take Confucius - he said some pretty stimulating things, but he never got to Paris in his life.
Playboy: Hollywoodians often speak enviously of you as a man of uncompromising standards. How is it that you and a few other filmmakers have managed to resist the pressures of compromise?
Wilder: To me, it is a matter of dollars and cents. It doesn't have only to do with Hollywood, it has to do with a man's approach to the problem of making those dollars and cents. Some compromise, some do not. Look at Fellini. He cleaned up with La Dolce Vita. When I saw it I couldn't decide if it was the greatest or dreariest picture I'd ever seen, and finally I decided it was both. A remarkable film, excellent because he had stuck to his own principles.But the worst thing that can happen to us in this business is if a dog picture makes a hit, then we all have to make dog pictures because the people with the money trust dogs. But if one like Fellini's makes a hit, it is the greatest thing - as long as it is not loaded with the stars who are always advertising themselves in the trades.
It's a question of money, and yet it is not a question of money anymore in Hollywood. The beauty of our capitalist system is that you can't keep what you make even if you make a lousy picture that's a hit; so why not try to make something good? Today's capitalist system is for those who already have the money, not for those who are making it. There is really very little use in my working, since I can't keep the money. I can never get richer than I am. So why am I beating my brains out? I go to the studio because I can't stand listening to my wife's vacuum cleaner at home, and also because I can't find three bridge partners or somebody to go to the ball game with. Also I work to waylay some of the phonies from getting Academy Awards.
Playboy: Isn't it true that when you're between pictures you've been known to volunteer your services to other producers and directors?
Wilder: Only when asked. I enjoy making movies, I enjoy the problems. If I'm not working on something of my own and someone calls me up and says, "Look here, Billy, I have a problem," I will try to do what I can to help out. I'm restless. My stomach hurts when I'm working, but it also hurts when I'm not. It's exasperating - I should get into something else. But that's the way it is, and I'm stuck with it. After 30 years of making films I'm used to trouble and well-acquainted with grief.
- Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963
One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don't even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit ("You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate." "You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?" "See what you can do.") it's the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate's heels, Cagney's numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.
That's not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney's office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it's stately and big enough to contain Cagney's booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.
Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney's delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it's doubled by Horst Buchholz' angry young Communist, it's like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.
Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney's McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it's supposed to be improvised, but it doesn't quite feel that way - it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it's a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It's an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.
Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of One, Two, Three among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Helmut Fiebig, Steadycam (2007)
Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007)
Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007)
Rob Blackwelder, BobSassone.com (2003)
Bertrand Tavernier, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
HISTORICAL REVIEWS, PRESS AND PRODUCTION INFORMATION
IT is too bad the present Berlin crisis isn't so funny and harmless as the one Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond have whipped up in their new movie, "One, Two, Three." And it is too bad it can't be settled so briskly and pro-Americanly as James Cagney settles the one in this picture, which came to the Astor and the Fine Arts yesterday.
But the sharpness of wit and satire is less conspicuous than the magnitude and speed of the obvious jokes and comic action as they pour through the film like a cascade. There is nothing subtle about it, least of all about Mr. Cagney's role, which is that of the deus ex machina (or "mein fuehrer," as his wife refers to him). It is simply a matter of moving very fast and getting lots of things done, from sales pitching for Coca-Cola to an automobile chase through East Berlin.
With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good—Pamela Tiffin, a new young beauty, as Scarlett; Horst Buchholz as the East Berlin boy, Lilo Pulver as a German secretary, Leon Askin as a Communist stooge and several more—the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney, who is a good 50 per cent of the show. He has seldom worked so hard in any picture or had such a browbeating ball.
His fellow is a free-wheeling rascal. His wife (Arlene Francis) hates his guts. He knows all the ways of beating the rackets and has no compunctions about their use. He is brutishly bold and brassy, wildly ingenious and glib. Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him—but he sure makes you laugh with him.
And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh—with its own impudence toward foreign crises—while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes.
WEST BERLIN -- Billy Wilder, producer-director, strode out of his Hilton headquarters here the other day, took a quick look up at the clearing skies and said, in his nervous, impatient way: "Okay. Get your steel helmets, everybody. We're going back to the Gate." And with that he jumped into a waiting car and sped to a location site on the Strasse des 17 Juni, near the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the cast and crew of his new comedy, "One, Two, Three," which he is making here for United Artists release late this year.
While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of "Splitsville," as the divided city is known to the company...
The project represents the Viennese-born director's return to his old home grounds. In 1934, carrying a half-filled suitcase, he fled Berlin one step ahead of the Gestapo. Eleven years later, he was back as film chief of the American Information Control Division in Germany. Those experiences inspired the memorable comedy "A Foreign Affair," with Marlene Dietrich as postwar Berlin's most attractive commodity.
In many respects, Wilder is a bigger star on his own pictures than any of his actors. Something of an aggressive imp, he achieves his results with a steady barrage of bubbling comments, most of them derogatory, many of them unprintable, but all of them highly quotable. Speaking of one of his associates of some twenty years, for example, he said, "Obviously the man has no talent but I'm used to him." Another time, after one of the rebuffs at the gate, he commented, "I wonder if they'll let us shoot there if I have the musical score written by Irving East Berlin."
Though some of the action of the story, which is an outrageous attempt of American big business to penetrate the Iron Curtain market, takes place in East Berlin, none of the film will be shot there. Thanks to Berlin's sense of history, there are many places here that have been left just as they were when the Third Reich fell. Some of these areas, particularly those centering on Margareten and Victoria Strassen and the Anhalter railway station, are dotted with gutted buildings and piles of debris and look for all the world like most of the Soviet sector.
Playboy: Though it certainly didn't dwell on the subject of human meanness, One, Two, Three was an incisive satire of both sides involved in the Cold War. Were you concerned, while filming in Berlin, that the authorities on one side or the other might cause trouble?
Wilder: We got to Berlin the day they sealed off the Eastern sector and wouldn't let people come across the border. It was like making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down. Khrushchev was even faster than me and Diamond. We had to make continuous revisions to keep up with the headlines. It seemed to me that the whole thing could have been straightened out if Oleg Cassini had sent Mrs. Khrushchev a new dress. But we weren't afraid of creating an incident like Mr. Paar. We minded our manners and were good boys. When they told us we couldn't use the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, we went to Munich and built our own.
Playboy: Was there any negative reaction to the picture as a flip treatment of a serious subject?
Wilder: Of course. There is a little group of people who always say I'm not Spinoza. The thinner the magazine, the fatter the heads of the reviewers. They were shocked because we made fun of the Cold War. Others objected because it was very quick-paced and they could not catch everything. People either loved it or hated it.
- Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963
Wilder's constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE - a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: 'I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it - the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.' But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn't gone too far with his 'experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.'
The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture's hero is. 'It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,' is the way Brendan Gill described the film. 'For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.' (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder's ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had 'never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.' (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)
Wilder's direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn't always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes - only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus - Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner's art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like 'Yes, We Have no Bananas' with incongruous effect into his score.
ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell 'Cut!' the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.
Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.
One, Two, Three is the smoking gun that proves Diamond did it. That is, ruined Wilder by downgrading his work to processed shtick. Today, One, Two, Three is as dated as a rerun of Pete and Gladys. It was just as dated when it came out, at least according to Pauline Kael. Reviewing it in 1961. she wrote, "It was shot in Berlin and Munich, but the real location is the locker room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes. " A typical howler: The Russians reject a shipment of Swiss cheese because it's full of holes.
The reason why One, Two, Three, set as the Berlin Wall was going up, seemed crass to Pauline Kael in 1962 is that its manic scenario exploited a situation which had complex political dimensions. With distance, Sinyard and Turner in 1979 read the film as mirroring America's evolution from Virgin Land to Superpower. With greater hindsight, this dynamic screenplay not only simplifies the ragged conflicts of German and American history, but recalls the most manic of '30s Hollywood screwball comedies. As is usual with Wilder, no distracting camerawork or cutting is allowed to stand in the way of dialogue, which cuts its cloth to fit MacNamara's (and Wilder's) myopic odysseys.
Though it was rumored that Wilder and his "One, Two, Three" star James Cagney didn't get along, [Charlotte] Chandler [author of Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography] says they liked each other, though the veteran actor didn't like the rapid-fire dialogue he had to deliver. "I remember when I spoke with [the film's costar] Horst Buchholz, he said he found James Cagney dancing one morning as fast as you can imagine. Cagney said he was dancing that fast because it helped him get up to speed verbally."
>An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process...
As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass — which at several points I would have been very happy to do."
Revisited today, Billy Wilder's 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin's western zone with a double-tiered wall...
Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster ("put your pants on, Spartacus," he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin's imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of "Yes We Have No Bananas" while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.
Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late '61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their "circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery," and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season's other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder's jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.
The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s' two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid '80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.
Certainly there are other films that Billy Wilder made that I love more than One, Two, Three (Sunset Blvd. is in my all-time Top 10), but the more I see it, the more I realize that Wilder may never have made a movie that's as much fun. James Cagney may have achieved stardom in gangster films, but if you put all those together, I doubt the machine gun fire contained within would come close to equaling the speed of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that he fires in this Cold War (and cola war) comedy. No wonder Cagney decided to quit movies for 20 years after this — he must have been exhausted and needed that long to catch his breath...
No Wilder film moves like One, Two, Three does with pacing that is downright remarkable. On top of that, there are subtle messages about capitalism, communism and just about everything in between. When a jaded Otto realizes that one of his communist comrades is ready to leap to the west side of Berlin, he asks, "Is everyone in the world corrupt?" to which the defector replies, "I don't know everybody." With One, Two Three, Wilder bottled a concoction with more fizz than any bottle of Coke. Really, it was Wilder's last truly great film, yet many people haven't seen it. They don't know what they're missing. One, Two Three is the real thing.
James Cagney is the whole dynamic show in this hilarious Billy Wilder satire (1961) on Coca-Cola diplomacy in divided Berlin. The plot is something about a Coke executive (Cagney) who has to chaperone the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin), who is infatuated with one of Berlin's ever-present communist students (Horst Buchholz), who is in turn dedicated to destroying everything symbolized by Coca-Cola, etc, etc. The pace is blistering, and Wilder's deep-seated hatred of Germans has never been put to more comic use.
I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.
This is the featherweight comedy film on the Cold War that James Cagney decided to end his illusturious film career on, only to come back twenty years later to make in 1981 Ragtime. Billy Wilder ("Avanti!"/"Buddy Buddy"/"Irma La Douce") directs this zany but heavy-handed sitcomlike comedy that's based on an obscure play by Ferenc Molna. It's cowritten by Wilder and regular writer I.A.L. Diamond. Despite being fast-paced, hard-hitting, and filled with topical gags, it's creaky as the targets of Wilder's satire--a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture--are too obvious to be that funny. It's a futile attempt at farce to return to Ninotchka territory, that drags its heels through an overlong hardly funny middle-part and a crudeness that is hard to overcome. Cagney as the harried but crafty executive is splendid, delivering one-liners with machine-gun rapidity and being the entire force of the film.
One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy... The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.
You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.
The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision - precisely as Wilder wrote it (it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh - and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the next joke - Wilder's pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a quick breath.
The best-looking disc in MGM's "Billy Wilder DVD Collection" and the second-most handsome of the Wilder titles available on the format thus far (edged-out by Sunset Blvd.), One, Two, Threepreserves Daniel L. Fapp's Oscar-nominated cinematography with tremendous clarity of detail and contrast. (Sadly, Fapp received the film's only Academy nod.) Ignore the pan-and-scan side of the disc in favour of the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; I just wish I knew why MGM keeps replacing original logos with the '90s-era growling Leo: it makes no sense to introduce a b&w movie with a splash of colour, for starters. Source material is in excellent condition with the exception of irregular blotches that could be water damage. (It's doubtful the immersed viewer will notice them, anyhow.) The 2.0 mono soundtrack potently reproduces Wilder's sixties composer André Previn's riffs on Richard Wagner and Aram Khachaturyan, and Cagney's voice lacks the shrill quality one anticipates from previous viewings. One, Two, Three's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
The writer-director Billy Wilder, impressed by the skits Diamond wrote for a Writers Guild dinner, asked him to cowrite a screenplay. Wilder had worked with several writers since his breakup with the writer-producer Charles Brackett, but had failed to find the ideal collaborator. Though their personalities were dramatically different, Diamond's withdrawn, introverted qualities proved to be the perfect balance for Wilder's extrovert nature. They not only shared a common European immigrant background, but the same dry sense of humor.
Beginning with Love in the Afternoon, their partnership spanned 25 years and a dozen films. While popular and critical reception of the pictures varied, their combined talents created some of the best and most enduring comedy/dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Witty dialogue and sophisticated sexual situations marked their stories. They openly challenged the long-standing assumption that allHollywood productions should be family oriented, and provided moviegoers with tasteful, adult entertainment. Their most satisfying pictures combined cynicism with sentiment, playing the two extremes against each other until the softer side of human nature won out. Frequently focused on illicit sex, their scenarios were also about love and the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships.
For Diamond and Wilder cynicism knew neither sexual nor age boundaries; it belonged to the middle-aged male (Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment), to the youthful bachelor (Curtis and Lemmon in Some Like It Hot), and to the simple working girl (Shirley MacLaine in The Apartmentand Irma La Douce). They poked fun at modern mores (Avanti!), at the American Dream (One, Two, Three), at ambition (Kiss Me, Stupid), and at greed (The Fortune Cookie). Their repeated casting of stars such as Lemmon, MacLaine, and Walter Matthau gave an additional continuity to their work. Particularly effective was the teaming of Lemmon and Matthau in a series of films (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy) focusing on male relationships.
Screened December 25, 2008 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT rank #796 IMDbWiki
A mellow apotheosis from Hollywood's most celebrated cynic. This gently naughty poke at Sherlock Holmes' emotional life and sexual proclivities reveals an inner desolation in its title character (Robert Stephens) that amounts to the most touchingly humanistic portrait of a human being in all of Billy Wilder's work. The trademark acerbic comic banter of Wilder and longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is evident, but toned to a quaint Victorian repartee between Holmes and Watson as leisurely as a picnic game of badminton. Shot in warm, soft-focus with a loving attention to 19th-century detail, individual frames pop vibrantly like panels from a graphic novel, a visual splendor unmatched by anything in Wilder's career. This unprecdented meticulousness to mise-en-scene mirrors Holmes' fastidious attention to his environs, which the film posits as a byproduct to a yearning for love displaced by an abiding love-hate mistrust in fellow humans, whether his bumbing sidekick Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, excellent) or in the beguiling charms of a woman in distress (Genevieve Page).
This feast for the eyes and ears was intended to be a 165 minute roadshow presentation consisting of four stories with an intermission, but was cut in half by MGM. The missing episodes, partly reconstructed from existing materials on the MGM DVD, touch pointedly on Holmes' relationship with Watson, his cocaine addiction, and his pained romantic past, adding significant layers to the release version. In all likelihood, this director's version was as destined for commercial failure as the original release, hopelessly out of sync with the openly liberal culture of the 1970s. Today its encapsulation of its own time, space and values speaks vividly for itself.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Adrian Turner, Time Out (1995)
Bodo Frundt, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007)
Ulrich von Berg, Steadycam (2007)
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Molly Haskell, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Time Out, 100 to Watch (2006)
Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006)
Download the script in .pdf format(courtesy of DailyScript.com)
Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication, the first two qualities we'd expect from the director of "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie." It begins promisingly enough with Sherlock being offered five pounds to trace six missing midget acrobats and complaining: "That's less than a pound a midget." There are also some sly innuendoes about his relationship with Dr. Watson, introduced solely to be disproved (Sherlock, you'll be glad to learn, is satisfactorily hetero in the Wilder version). But before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure...
...The Holmes character, creeping around with his magnifying glass and (Watson tells us at the film's beginning) identifying a murderer by measuring the extent to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a warm summer day, is a promising subject for the kind of satirical examination we expect from Wilder and his frequent co-author, I. A. L. Diamond. But they pass up the chance and bore us while Holmes laboriously unravels a case involving the midget acrobats, a missing husband, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, dead canaries and a copper ring that has turned green. It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on...
The fun of a good detective story isn't in the solution, anyway, but in the complications. My favorite Raymond Chandler novel is "The Big Sleep," which is so complicated that Chandler never does pull the case together. Same thing happens in Howard Hawks' movie version, with Humphrey Bogart. Watch carefully, and you'll discover that the loose ends are never tied up, and the case ends without being solved (and with no one, apparently, noticing). So what?
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s excellent extension of Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of popular detective novels, is a risky attempt to transform one of pop culture’s key figures into something a bit more human. On its surface a forgotten entry into the series of the detective’s great cases, the film in many respects plays much like any other adventure that the world’s most filmed character has partaken. It revisits a familiar setting and characters that fans have grown to love, and inserts particularly Holmes-ian touches into its mystery such as the inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, and an amnesiac. Still, Wilder is after something more profound than a simple mystery tale here, and to a large extent he succeeds in his quest to cast Sherlock Holmes, the man, in relief when held up against Sherlock Holmes, The Legend. As played by the brilliant Robert Stephens, this film’s Holmes is a mess of contradictions and compromises so convincing that it is likely to make one question the unfettering stoicism that other Holmes films feature.
This Sherlock’s ingrained distrust of the opposite sex and his unwillingness to indulge in anything as reckless as emotional passion make him a great detective (and make the excitable Watson a perfect comic foil), but they also make him eerily similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the way that he puts his logic before his heart. What’s interesting about this attitude toward the detective are the ways that the mystery that he investigates during the course of the film comment directly on that questionable mindset. Through a series of plot twists, we see how Wilder’s attitude toward Holmes grows increasingly complex. In the very first scenes of the film, Wilder begins what would almost feel like an attack on the character’s character, were it not for later compassion the film shows him. Holmes is not only presented as an inferior version of the figure we know from the familiar stories (he can’t play the violin nearly as well as one might think, for example), but also as a dope fiend who makes excuses for his addiction and, for a moment or two, as Watson’s gay lover. As the story proceeds, he’s blessed with his usual, uncanny deductive skills, but he’s also revealed as man who’s pragmatic to a fault, and his unwavering faith in his logic becomes problematic when he, inevitably, begins to become emotionally involved in an assignment. By the film’s end, his great intellect has become a huge liability, his reputation has turned into an outright burden, his greatest liability becomes a refuge, and his figure can only be looked at with much uncertainty. Yet for all of that doubt, the film doesn’t feel like a nasty look at the beloved character. If anything, its poignancy begs why Arthur Conan Doyle himself hadn’t seen the same dangerous compulsions in his creation and examined them.
...Much like the film that surrounds him, this Holmes is too self-aware to be content with easy answers or simple opinions of people, and that makes him rather fascinating. That the solution to the mystery confirms the director’s cynical worldview, despite any affection toward the central characters or comic bits that were scattered throughout, suggests that the self-reflection should be viewed more as awareness of Wilder’s own predilections and less as an attempt to reform them. Whatever the case, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes offers a compelling what-if that seems much at home in Wilder’s cinema of the ambivalent.
This 1970 Billy Wilder comedy-drama about a major defeat in the career of Sherlock Holmes may have little to do with the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in its uncut form it happens to be one of the finest films of the decade. Robert Stephens makes a perfectly splendid Holmes, brilliant, sophisticated, and deeply flawed, while Colin Blakely plays Dr. Watson as a drinker and ladies' man with more personality and intelligence than is often granted him by filmmakers. The case (which has some echoes of Doyle's story "The Bruce-Partington Plans") begins with Holmes aiding the distressed Madame Valladon (Geneviève Page), who is searching for her missing husband. The inquiry shifts to Scotland, and despite a stern warning from the hero's brother, Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee), Sherlock pursues events that reveal a top-secret government plan. Lush, energetic, funny, gorgeous to look at, and ultimately tragic, the film is layered with Wilder's familiar collision of cynicism and yearning, hope and betrayal, grace and isolation.
Billy Wilder, in an exceedingly mellow mood, portrays Holmes as a tortured man, trapped by his own legend and paying the price for his reputation of invincibility (1970). Robert Stephens is superb as a very real Holmes, and Colin Blakely is equally good as Watson. The cutting of more than 40 minutes from the original film hurts its initial continuity, but once the action begins, this takes on a magical quality that makes it one of Wilder's best efforts. Affectionately conceived, chock-full of marvelous subtleties, this meticulously constructed adventure-romance shouldn't be missed.
Billy Wilder's distinctive, irreverent slant on the world's greatest "consulting detective" holds up reasonably well 32 years on; you wouldn't expect anything directed by Wilder and scripted by his long-time associate IAL Diamond to be anything less than funny and watchable, and this is both.
Yet it doesn't feel like the work of a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlock buff. The heavy-handed opening gag about Holmes and Watson looking like a couple of gays seems grounded in a simple belief in the essential comic effeminacy of all limeys and Wilder's initial inspiration is clearly not so much Conan Doyle as My Fair Lady with Holmes and Watson as Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering splutteringly enduring a mysterious, amnesiac woman in their bachelor establishment. There's a disapproving housekeeper, played by the inimitable Irene Handl, saying "yays" for yes, and Stanley Holloway appears as a gravedigger. There's plenty of fun though, and hints of Buchan and Childers, as the trio pursue their quarry to Inverness, shadowed by some dodgy German-speaking monks. Christopher Lee is a crisply disapproving Mycroft and Robert Stephens, as Holmes, is splendidly debonair.
This is possibly the most gossamer tragedy ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.
Billy Wilder. Sherlock Holmes. A mismatch of flavours the thought of which doesn't so much turn your stomach as lead to speculation, and the taste of which is soured only by a foreknowledge of missed opportunities. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder's roadshow movie, his intermission film--a "symphony in four parts," as he called it, that would run longer than three hours excluding the break in the middle. The script, written by Wilder and mainstay collaborator I.A.L. Diamond over a period of twelve years as a blend of homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and adaptation of the same, was shot in its entirety, but at some point during post-production, Wilder took off to prep another project, and two of the four "movements" plus a present-day prologue and subheadings (each story passage had its own introductory title card) were lifted out of the film in answer to the common test-screening complaint that it was "too episodic" (well, duh), with only one of the movements preserved (somewhat perfunctorily, because it had nice imagery of an ocean liner) for possible inclusion in a TV version that never materialized. It's important to note that editor Ernest Walter and producer Walter Mirisch liquidated parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Wilder's blessing, though Wilder seems to have regretted the decision in his late-life conversations with Cameron Crowe.
What remains is a perfectly-cast film that doesn't quite hold up its end of the bargain made by an opening voiceover that states we're about to see a potentially unflattering portrait of Holmes (Robert Stephens) courtesy anecdotes Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) hadn't the wherewithal to publish in Strand Magazine when his super-sleuth partner was alive. Though the picture is ultimately too prosaic to be confidential, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been the first Holmes interpretation for the screen since 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles to acknowledge the detective's taste for a seven-percent solution of cocaine. The film feels like a work in progress, even if its bittersweet bookends give off a convincing illusion of completeness and Watson challenges Holmes' claims to heterosexuality often enough to add a sardonic humour typical of Wilder that consolidates the title character's dalliance--which wasn't built to support the picture, as became expected of it--with Madame Valladon (Genevieve Page), the aristocratic femme fatale whose husband has vanished, with the rest of the proceedings. That alliance of comedy and drama which proved so pivotal to the success of Wilder's The Apartment keeps The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes afloat through the sinking realization that we are watching the I'll Do Anything of its generation (and I would argue that I'll Do Anything's director James L. Brooks, much more than Brooks' protégé Crowe, is the modern Wilder), a feature-length retraction of romantic ambition too poignant in its own right to discount.
Deception painstakingly unmasked, and casual decadence as a way of life: these have been Billy Wilder's twin obsessions as a filmmaker from his days as screenwriter among the lavender excesses and delights of Weimar Berlin. In THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his last great film, Wilder found a way to combine these two themes in a film that seems sweet and perverse at the same moment, a valentine with a syringe in its hand.
Wilder had been fascinated with Conan Doyle's urbane, obsessive sleuth since childhood. Several of his first films as a screenwriter, such as THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF (1931) and EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES (1931), were films of crime and detection. But Wilder's affections for Holmes went much deeper than a respect for the famously relentless Holmesian logic. Wilder saw Holmes as at least as complex a personality as himself, a singular creature of many more moods than Basil Rathbone had dreamed of.
As with almost all of Wilder's films, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES underwent a complete makeover. He began tinkering with a Holmes project as far back as 1957. The first intriguing idea was to mount a Holmes musical on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison. Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe were briefly enlisted as collaborators, but Wilder's great run of film successes -- SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE -- intervened. Next, in 1963, there was the idea of a film musical, now with the remarkable cast of Peter O'Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. But what really stymied Wilder was the matter of plot. For virtually the only time in his career, Wilder had a shelf full of engaging characters -- the brooding genius Holmes, the genial, loyal Watson, and the marvelously arch stock Holmes villains -- and no plot that he felt could adequately service them. Wilder went through several collaborators, including his long-time alter ego I.A.L. Diamond, Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and British playwright John Mortimer, before he resettled on Diamond, and work on the screenplay began in earnest. Still lacking a plot, they went ahead anyway. Wilder and Diamond didn't feel the whodunit nature of most of the Doyle stories did justice to the subtleties of Holmes' character. (Wilder was most fascinated by those rare cases Holmes was not able to solve, such as "A Scandal in Bohemia.") He determined to write new capers for the Baker Street shamus which would show off the dark pools at the core of his personality, rather than rehash the parlor tricks of Holmes' ratiocination that previous Holmes movies had doted on. The conceit they chose was the discovery of several "unpublished" Holmes tales: "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room," "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina," "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners," and "The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective," all stitched together in omnibus format. Wilder purposely chose as the film's stars the sterling theatrical actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely because he did not wish to associate his Holmes and Watson with the characters of well-known Hollywood leading men.
Wilder & Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 165-minute epic that would include an intermission and tour the country as a roadshow. This meant that the film would be screened at only one of the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging a higher admission price, but offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady were among the many films presented in this format during the 1950s and ‘60s to great success.
Wilder described the 220-page screenplay he and Diamond spent over a year writing as “a symphony in four movements.” A modern day prologue featured Dr. Watson’s grandson (also played by Blakely) arriving in London to open a lockbox containing four Holmes cases unpublished by the doctor due to their personal nature. “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” concerned Watson concocting an odd crime scene to distract Holmes from his cocaine habit.
In “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” Watson investigates a murder abroad a cruise liner, while Holmes observes the disastrous results. “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” toyed with possibility of Holmes’ homosexuality. All three episodes were intended to be humorous, followed by an intermission and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” a mystery that leads to Loch Ness and Holmes’ feelings for Gabrielle Valladon, concluding the film on a more serious note.
With a budget of $10 million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Wilder’s most ambitious film to date. Shooting commenced in May 1969 in Pinewood Studios outside London and lasted through November. Wilder then screened his symphony to United Artists. It clocked in at three hours and twenty minutes. In the time since Wilder had conceived of his roadshow, one Hollywood extravaganza after another had flopped; Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Doolittle. Believing the roadshow was out of fashion with audiences, UA urged Wilder cut the film down to two hours.
The director was so discouraged by the reception that rather than insist on his contractual right of final cut, he departed for Paris to work on another project, entrusting editor Ernest Walter and producers at The Mirisch Company to make the necessary subtractions. The prologue, two of the first three episodes and a flashback to Holmes’ college days at Oxford - which illustrated his distrust of women - were all left on the cutting room floor. Wilder was left despondent. “When I saw the way they had cut it, I had tears in my eyes. It seemed longer when they had made it shorter.”
Released November 1970 in the wake of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was dismissed by critics at the time, many who felt neither the plot, nor the postmodern take measured up to Doyle’s literary mysteries. Wilder’s confidence that youth audiences would embrace a great story - regardless of the changing times - never panned out. The film was a box office failure. In ensuing years, some critics and scholars have rediscovered it and hailed the film as an overlooked masterpiece.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes cost more than $10 million to make. A film for which Wilder had such great hopes, it's failure was a blow to his career and to his pride. Usually he avoided indulging in regrets or self-recrimination, but he felt that only he was responsible for Sherlock's failure, though even with hindsight, he wasn't certain exactly what he had done wrong. He did regret being timid about going father into the exploration of Holmes' homosexuality and he wished that he had been able to stay and cut the film himself, but as he told me, "Even hindsight isn't 20/20."
The lack of success of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes certainly meant something far more serious for Wilder than "the occasional failure" which according to Holmes we all experience now and then. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the only commercial failure Wilder was never able to leave behind, the only film about which he regretted having been forced into making changes. Yet in the long run, the film has recovered in cultural capital what it failed to secure at the box office at the time of its release. For many of Wilder's critics, the film counts today among his most accomplished achievements, combining an elegiac and romantic tone never seen before. Andrew Sarris has called it a "mellow masterpiece," while Stephen Farber similarly praised its "mellow, autumnal mood, unusual for Wilder." Kevin Lally has claimed that the film may visually be "the most handsome film of Wilder's career," and Leland Poague has written that it "has grace and style beyond all power of description." Sinyard and Turner, who can still claim to be the most astute critics of this particular film, conclude their insightful analysis by calling it, "the very essence of a mature masterpiece. Breathing a serenity without sloppiness, a melanchoy without rancor, a mellowness without sentimentality, its very defiance of modishness makes it one of the most beautiful of modern films."
Several of Wilder's films are famous for scenes that were shot but not included (most notably Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard), but in these cases the cuts were the director's choice, who felt the film would be stronger in the shorter version. Indeed no other Wilder film has been as seriously mutilated by the studio as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (clearly also a sign of his diminishing authority), and there is no film about which Wilder has felt greater disappointment for not having been able to show it the way he had planned. In his conversation with Cameron Crowe, Wilder who is usually not one to dwell on commercial failures, was uncharacteristically candid about the film's lack of success, reminiscing that it was "a very, very well-done picture. It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot" - only immediately to fall back into character by adding, "I don't shoot elegant pictures, Mr. Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures." What a pity indeed, then, that the one film Wilder considered worth of that praise did not survive in the form the director had planed.
Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa was a giant talent in Hollywood for decades and penned some of the biggest scores to burst out of the silver screen. His robust orchestrations and refined melodic ability, coupled with a tenacious romantic sensibility, brought to life a string of biblical ‘epics’, thrilling noirs and much more besides, earning himself many admirers and three academy awards along the way. With April 18th 2007 marking the centenary of his birth, much focus will be on his biggest and most celebrated achievements, particularly the likes of Double Indemnity, El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spellbound and Soddom and Gomorrah, many of which will be re-issued or re-recorded for a new generation of fans to embrace. One score from the latter period in the composer’s career deserves as much attention and Tadlow Music have made that happen with their world premiere recording of Rózsa’s complete score for Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s not a title that would immediately spring to mind when thinking of Rózsa, the aforementioned works so famous in comparison; however, this score is an important entry in the Rózsa canon and a must-have for fans as it represents an interesting convergence of the composer’s musical identities, that of his film and concert music. Billy Wilder had always wanted to use Rózsa’s 1956 ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ on film as the work was one of his favourites. With the appearance of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the director could think of no better opportunity to use it, what with the fictional detective’s own love of the violin. Rather than simply use a recording of the concert work, Wilder approached Rózsa, with whom he had already worked numerously, with the idea of writing a score with the violin concerto at its heart… and so he did.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has too long been an unreleased jewel; it has all the dramatic fire and flair of Miklós Rózsa’s Golden Age works but with a distinctive and legitimately classical heart at its centre, and what a beautiful heart it is.
The music itself is simply wonderful. While Rozsa's scores are admittedly all cut from a very similar cloth, he still managed to apply them very well to a wide range of films, and there is a slightly lighthearted sense of adventure here which is pitched perfectly. Several themes are introduced in the wonderful main title piece, including a stately theme for Holmes himself and an exquisite love theme. That love theme is one of the composer's most expressive and rewarding, working beautifully when played by solo violin ("Gabrielle" could bring a tear to the eye), but equally when taken up by the full orchestra. It is truly one of Rozsa's greatest creations.
With a world class film score such as this, accompanied by informative, interesting liner notes (a short note from the composer's daughter Juliet, a biography of Rozsa by Steve Vertlieb and lengthy analysis and information from Fitzpatrick himself), given such a fine performance - it's already hard to imagine that too many film music releases in 2007 could be in the same league. The disc is dedicated to David Wishart, the pioneering film music album producer who tragically died earlier this year. The album is available from the usual online retailers, and also from Tadlow direct.
The album kicks of with the "Main Titles" which very much has a traditional overture structure introducing some of the main themes. After a brief fanfare opening, it launches into the Main Theme which seems to capture perfectly the outward character of this great detective and the times in which he lived. A secondary adventure theme takes over for a while and then leads into the Love Theme with its sumptuous solo violin, before returning to the main detective theme in the "221B Baker Street" section. The "Smoke Machine / Concerto / Cocaine" track is darker and more mysterious though flowing into a middle section of unaccompanied violin solo for "Concerto". The next track is a good workout for the whole orchestra written for scenes removed in the final cut of the film, and "Moving Out" continues the violin concerto in a sequence also cut from the movie. "Watson's Rage" is moody and more reflective in nature and then "Von Tirpitz" introduces another important theme which we've here labelled the Monastic Theme. The "Gabrielle" track is the heart of the whole soundtrack, a slow movement based on the violin concerto's love theme but clearly slightly troubled. This describes Holmes infatuation for a mysterious lady and must surely represent an important aspect of his "Private Life".
The adventure continues over a series of tracks which takes us to a number of London-based locations including "The Diogenes Club" with its Elgarian Pomp & Circumstance Theme before heading off to Scotland. In "To Glenahurich" Rozsa treats us to an arrangement of the well-known melody for the Scottish song "Loch Lomond". Other tracks make reference to other Scottish folk material and carry the adventure to other other Scottish locations, through a number of action oriented scenes like the rhythmic train ride of "Castles of Scotland", and even an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, before thematically tying up a number of lose ends and final mysteries in the story. In the final "Auf Wiedersehen / The End" track the violin leads us one last time through the key themes in a grand symphonic coda, but the album doesn't end there. A total of four bonus tracks illustrate the evolution of the finished music with alternative versions which were recorded but ultimately not used in the final film.
The comprehensive sleeves notes tell us how this re-recording came about as a filler recording session because the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra had originally been booked for another project which had fallen through. However in one of those rare fortuitous sequence of events, they managed to secure not just the music from the film itself but also a number of cues written for the film but not used in the final cut, and all this in the centenary year of the composer's birth. The CD has a total running time of 78 minutes including 20 minutes not used in the film. This album, a Limited Collector's Edition, is only available online or through mail order - see www.tadlowmusic.com for more details.
As in Some Like It Hot, Wilder is certainly more interested in suggesting the possibility of a homosexual relationship rather than presenting irrevocable facts; ambiguity is clearly more titillating than certainty. It is furthermore safe to assume that the heirs of Conan Doyle, from whom the right to use his characters were purchased, kept a close watch over the kind of image Wilder and Diamond portrayed of the famous detective and his companion. As it stands, the ambiguity surrounding Holmes' possible homosexuality provides a most fitting subtext for a film about two males involved in an obsessive yet futile search for clues and certainties, in the course of which they repeatedly misread evidence, both conclusions, and face sudden, unexpected revelations. Thus, the desire for detecting evidence becomes an allegory for indecipherability itself, which is part of a larger critique of instrumental reason and rationality that has tragic consequences for all characters in involved. Even though The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is Wilder's only film that uses as protagonists famous characters created by another author, it can be seen to be one of his most personal films, providing a captivating and emotional reflection on his own career at a moment in his life when he is ready to draw the sum of his existence.
"I wanted to show Holmes as vulnerable, as human. He falls into an emotional dither over a woman and so his mind does not function as well; and actually, you see, in my picture, he does not solve the mystery. No, he is deceived. Sherlock Holmes has failed to be Sherlock Holmes precisely because he has fallen in love, and yet he is a better human being than he was ever before."
When Billy Wilder saw Sherlock Holmes in his mind's eye he saw a character who was almost a mirror reflection.. Wilder himself. His intention was to probe the detective's psychology and motivations. He intended to delineate a Holmes who was at once cerebral and passionate; a man with a compulsion to work; a man with a cynical view of the world and human nature, aware of the depravity of the soul and the dark side of life, of murder and deception; a man increasingly prone to boredom and mental fatigue, seeking escape in music and drugs; a man with an ambivalent attitude toward women - attracted to them yet careful to detach himself from them - his most powerful desire having been for that clever and egotistic career lady, Irene Adler, "the most wicked woman in Europe." If we were to substitute an addiction to athletic sports for cocaine, and a predilection for compulsive shopping for violin playing, we would have almost a portrait of Billy Wilder in Sherlock Holmes. In the original planning, Wilder wanted, as he once told me, to show a lonely and troubled side in Holmes. There certainly was one in Wilder. But the fictional hero and the real one disguised their loneliness.
The Holmes here is ultimately a failure at the hands of technology, bested by his brother Mycroft, who, in turn, suffers a major miscalculation of his own. So is it the dissolving of myths that Wilder is interested in? Is this his Liberty Valance? Yeah, I sort of think so. Though he was only 64 at the film’s release, and would churn out four more pictures afterwards, Wilder created his definitive “old man” movie here. The call-backs to a more classic style even than in his previous few efforts and the patience of experience he displays are both important elements to bridging the old with the new. Even when Wilder was younger, he didn’t normally employ the classical and calculated sense of purpose seen here. The structure is considered and nearly perfect. This is part of why it’s so incredible to think that the film was initially envisioned as much longer. The existing version feels appropriate as it is, only marred, in my opinion, a little by the first part of the Loch Ness Monster bit.
When Sherlock Holmes fails to really do much of anything right, despite his predictably shortsighted detective work, it’s at the expense of volumes of lionizing literature. The film thus works as a warning against the perils of smug overconfidence. For Holmes, the sticky truth isn’t that he’s a failure (something he seems to be fighting against throughout), but that a promising opportunity for romance has been squandered. It’s a slow realization, but by the end it’s obvious that he’s in movie love with the not-really Belgian Gabrielle/Ilse. The sexuality aspect here is interesting because Wilder and Diamond put it at the forefront for the viewer. Holmes’ reluctance to declare his heterosexuality to Watson early on seems to be due to one of three reasons: 1.) He’s being coy; 2.) He’s unsure himself as to his current feelings; or 3.) He’s so desexualized as to make it seemingly irrelevant. I think any of these three explanations work perfectly fine. With any of them, Holmes makes it obvious that he’s not actively searching for female companionship, making the presence of Gabrielle/Ilse a difficult situation.
The forced push at the end, when Holmes seems to realize his feelings for her just when she’s no longer attainable, serves as another reminder of how empty his life is. Watson and his silly stories are just about all the character has going for him. Then when it looks like the audience will be treated to the usual ending wrapped in sentimentality, Wilder continues the film and, in so doing, removes any trace of happiness. Watson is little more than a hyper-intelligent canine with a medical bag and Holmes the junkie can only shoot up and pass out (off-screen, of course). In essence, this is Wilder’s most daring film since Ace in the Hole, and it appeals to generally no one outside the director’s most devoted followers. He was able to completely demystify a legendary character with a huge following, using a fully sincere approach, while also putting together a deceptive genre story that proves quite entertaining. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is destined to remain largely unappreciated because it has few of the attributes Wilder is most known for, but it’s nevertheless an atypical slice of brilliance from the director.
MGM offers The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on DVD individually or as part of the 8-disc (not 9, as announced--Witness for the Prosecution was mysteriously dropped) "Billy Wilder Collection", and granted the studio's stabs at reconstruction and their decision to at long last present the film for home viewing in its original aspect ratio therein, this is an essential platter. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer bears a seventies mien in its low-contrast mistiness, and the source print, though fresh-looking, is not pristine, but the restored compositions contribute a sense of scale and improve the film's humour, particularly a sight gag involving Watson dancing in a chorus line that was overreliant on our imagination in pan-and-scan. While the 2.0 mono soundtrack is inoffensive, nothing more or less, the extra features provoke unbridled enthusiasm. For starters, there is "Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder", a 15-minute featurette that doesn't get around to the Wilder portion of the conversation until the 9-minute mark, but nonetheless imparts an impressive amount of Holmes arcana in a short period. (Lee has thrice played Holmes on-screen and appears as Sherlock's "smarter" brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) His posture occasionally defensive, Lee barks, "People who say that I'm typecast shouldn't be in the business," referring to having logged so much time outside the gothic horror genre.
Meanwhile, the "Interview with Ernest Walter" (29 mins.) is bound to be a difficult watch for some film fans, as Walter effortlessly--with the Diamond/Wilder screenplay on his lap--itemizes his alterations to the The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' intended structure, and the nature of the piece (Walter addressing an ancient video camera impersonally mounted on a tripod) lends it a strangely confessional quality not unlike the recent Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable historical document (especially given Wilder's notorious stinginess with the details of the film's bowdlerization) that pre-emptively answers questions raised by the section of "deleted scenes" regarding their context and how they may have impacted the material in the final film. MGM's search for the lost footage turned up only the aforementioned sequence set aside for television ("The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" (12 mins.)), albeit without a dialogue track (necessitating subtitles) and with nudity blurred out. The other omissions--the prologue (9 mins.), "The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room" (25 mins.), and "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective" (4 mins.)--are patchworks of script pages and production photos that push Holmes closer still towards the archetypally paper-tigerish Wilder hero. A backstage gallery 47 slides strong (a few of which are inexplicably cartoons) and the film's theatrical trailer round out The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes DVD.*** (out of four) | Image: B+, Sound: B, Extras: A| English Mono | CC |English, French, Spanish Subtitles | DVD-9 | 125 minutes
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.
From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Billy Wilder dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. His films range from stark melodrama, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), to antic farce, such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), to satiric comedy, like A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.
Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors, and still active in the 'New Hollywood' era, Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the postwar period. A '30s screenwriter who became a contract director in the '40s, by 1950 Wilder had come to be regarded as a consummate studio auteur. Producing from the mid-1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were renowned in front office and fan magazine for making money, teasing audience sensibilities, and pleasing the critics. If the early-1960s saw a critical downturn, by the mid-1970s Wilder's reputation led to accolades and awards.
[Director of Photography] Christopher Challis felt that Wilder was more interested in what he was shooting rather than in how he was shooting it:
"He had a different approach. I don't think he was a great visual director. By that, I mean he knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how he wanted it to look, but he wasn't sure whether he'd got what he wanted until he saw the dailies.
"He had certain things that he liked. I mean, he liked rather long takes, and I was amazed. He once said to me quite early on, 'You know, I hate this modern method of filmmaking. I don't like all these hundreds of huge close-ups," and of course now, it's got very much worse. He said, 'The close-up is a jewel. It should just be set in the right place in the overall picture, and it shouldn't be used indiscriminately, or it loses all its impact.' Well, now, that's typical of Billy, and I think he was absolutely right.
"Another thing that I found very interesting with him was that he was primarily a writer. I think the written or the spoken word was all-important to him, and the actors had to do it his way. I mean, he didn't let them have a lot of freedom. He insisted on them playing lines the way he wanted them played. He would play quite important dialogue on people's backs, with them walking away from you, because he knew exactly what the impact would be, whereas most directors would go around the other side and cover it the other way in case it wasn't right. Well, Billy didn't do that. He didn't cover things. It had to be right, the way he did it, and that was it. He was quite unique like that."
As one considers the entire body of Wilder's work, as a whole, as an expression of his ruling obsessions, one sees him carefully threading his way through the labyrinthine maze of the Eternal Woman. His films are studies in the varieties of women. A man's yearning for a woman after whom he lusts or whom he loves is counterpointed against his equal and powerful compulsion to do his work, the masculine hunter in the primitive jungles bringing food for the mate. Freud had said, towards the end of his life, that he still did not know what women wanted. And this is one of the riddles of every man's existence, being confounded by a woman's soul and body and mystery from the hour of his birth and his first taste of mother's milk. The Wilder complication was the dilemma of the whore. The presence of woman in one or another variety of independent, self-sufficient role was a dilemma. In a Foreign Affair, the "good woman was posed against the "bad." In Lost Weekend the "good" woman was posed against a compulsion. In Double Indemnity, the woman is venal, she is evil, she is the corrupted, playing her classical role as the devil's assistant, the temptress, as she does in Ace in the Hole - though in both these films the hero is either the willing partner or the leader in the evil. Sunset Boulevard was the turning point in Wilder's evolution: the force of the woman, a real woman, is defeated by the "bad" woman, but she is not really "bad"; she symbolizes, as I believe, Wilder's own idea of the movies and how they almost kill him. Audrey Hepburn twice played innocent girls who studied to be sophisticated independent women so they could manifest their true beings to the men they loved. And Shirley MacLaine on two occasions, and Marilyn Monroe on two occasions, also impersonated women who were beyond any simple labels marked "good" and "bad." They were individual persons. Sometimes they were forced to play a charade which a man compelled them to play and sometimes they won their freedom to be who they were. The answer Wilder learned to the riddle of women was that it did not consist in attempting to decipher her inscrutable mysteries, since these varied from one woman to another, but in looking into oneself.
In asking himself, "What do I want from a woman? What do I want from this woman? How can I be of service to this woman? What can I give to this particular woman whom I love?" When a man once looked into himself and dedicated himself to pleasing a woman he loved, as Billy had come to do with his Audrey, suddenly the old mystery of Woman with the capital W, woman as unscrewable and inscrutable, vanished, and you were face to face with your own mystery as a man, which was even more frustrating because you discovered how little you knew about yourself, and that was the resolution of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. You were given the choice of being a worse detective - and a better person - or a splendid detective and a crippled human being. In the end, Holmes gets Ilse von Hoffmanstal her freedom. He gets his brother to release her and he receives a final and beautiful letter from her as she is about to be executed as a spy in Japan.