Monday, October 28, 2013

Billy Wilder and Jack the Ripper Take on Sherlock Holmes

The 1970s featured two revisionist takes on Sherlock Holmes: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was released in 1970 and Murder By Decree appeared at the end of the decade. While neither film is wholly successful, they each boast a lot of star power either in front of or behind the camera. They also overcome convoluted conspiracy plots and miscast actors to justify a couple of hours of your time.

Murder By Decree opens atmospherically with the sounds of London--a dog barking, a baby crying, distant bells--accompanying a heavy fog. A quick scene at a local theatre, in which the Prince of Wales is jeered by the crowd, indicates a tumultuous political climate. Shortly thereafter, we experience the third of a recent series of Whitechapel murders through the eyes of the killer. 

Before you can say "Elementary, my dear Watson," the Baker Street sleuth (Christopher Plummer) and his companion (James Mason) are delving into a labyrinthine plot that involves Jack the Ripper, 33rd-degree members of the Secret Order of the Free Masons, a possible psychic, and a "decadent monarchy."

Holmes in disguise.
With an assist from screenwriter John Hopkins, Plummer transforms Holmes into an athletic hero who uses a weighted scarf as a weapon (sort of like a bola). He also makes jokes at Watson's expense and sheds tears at human injustice. It's a far cry from the more conventional Sherlocks portrayed by Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Jeremy Brett. There's certainly an audience for different Holmes interpretations, as shown by the success of Robert Downey, Jr.'s films, but one's appreciation for Murder By Decree will hinge largely on whether you accept Plummer as Holmes.

Holmes as action hero?
Plotwise, Murder By Decree squanders an interesting premise by layering it with too many complexities. It's also not the first film to pit Holmes against Jack the Ripper. A Study in Terror, a tidy 1965 mystery, holds that distinction (and also features a fine John Neville performance as Holmes). Interestingly, Frank Finlay played Inspector Lestrade in both A Study in Terror and  Murder By Decree. The 2001 Jack the Ripper film From Hell, although based on a graphic novel, shares some plot similarities with Murder By Decree (though there's nary a Sherlock Holmes to be found).

There's no Ripper to be found in Billy Wilder's ambitious The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It opens 50 years after Watson's death when a new manuscript is discovered in a sealed box in a bank. The document contains a letter from Watson, in which he states that in addition to his published Holmes stories, "there were other adventures which, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date." 

Robert Stephens as Holmes.
Wilder and distributor United Artists originally intended The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to be a three-hour "road show" attraction. However, such motion picture "events" were being phased out (one problem was that lengthy films often generated less profit because they could only be shown twice the days before multiplexes). As a result, the film was edited down to 125 minutes by removing two stories: the 15-minute "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" and the half-hour "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room."

The two tales that remain are a mixed bag. The first is a slightly amusing, albeit silly, story of a ballerina offering to pay Holmes for a week of lovemaking so that she can conceive a child genius. She points out that Holmes was not her first choice, but there were problems with Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and Nietzsche. Not wishing to offend, Holmes implies that he and Watson are more than just friends--an insinuation that Watson fears will destroy his reputation.

The second tale starts with the appearance of a mysterious amnesiac woman and spirals into a mystery that involves a missing mining engineer, peculiar monks, midgets, the Loch Ness monster, and a conspiracy headed by none other than Sherlock's older brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee). Its outcome is a letdown, but there are delights along the way, such as the stunning Scottish scenery.

Blakely as Dr. Watson.
In fact, the same can be said of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in general. Wilder never quite finds the right tone, but Robert Stephens is a delightful Holmes (unfortunately, Colin Blakely's overexcited Watson is a liability). Wilder and his frequent screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond have a grand time debunking some of Holmes' famous traits. For example, Sherlock wears the deerstalker hat solely because the public expects to see him in it. Holmes blames Watson's magazine stories, while Watson claims it was The Strand's illustrator that added the now-famous head apparel.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a first-rate production, from the period sets to Miklos Rozsa's lovely score. Still, it was neither a popular nor critical success at the time of its release, though critics have grown more appreciative over the years. Billy Wilder would go on to direct four more films, the last one being Buddy Buddy in 1981.


  1. I enjoy PRIVATE LIFE OF... just fine, but prefer MURDER BY DECREE, which is very atmospheric and features one of the warmest Holmes/Watson pairings ever depicted onscreen. Plummer is arguably an altogether too humanistic and emotional Holmes, and the plot is definitely convoluted. James Mason is a joy throughout; I especially love his crestfallen rejoinder to Plummer's Holmes: "You squashed my pea."

  2. I haven't seen Murder by Decree, but a recent viewing of Private Life made me deeply appreciative of it. I love that the film has no real antagonist, but rather is focused on how Holmes faced obsolescence in the waning days of Victorian England. I also felt the film was deeply autobiographical, with the hero worship and insecurity of Holmes something that could mirror Wilder's own aging feelings of being out of touch with a rapidly changing world.

    The MGM disk for Private Life also reconstructs the missing footage, which is all excellent. There's another segment you didn't mention where Holmes explains how he fell for a girl and was embarrassed when she was revealed to be a prostitute, once again demonstrating how rubbish Holmes could be at what he so prided himself on, and how easy it is to ignore something when you don't want to believe it.

  3. I haven't seen and wasn't aware of Murder by Decree, but I have seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes more than once. I wasn't aware there were episodes that had been edited from the film's final cut and am now very curious about them. Robert Stephens is a wonderful Holmes - he has that special combination of superior attitude and sexiness that is rare but very appealing in English leading men - and very interesting in Holmes who has generally lacked sex appeal on film/TV. Stephens was one of the highlights of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and I've always wondered why his film career didn't take off. His son with Maggie Smith, Toby Stephens, is also a fine actor.