Bittersweet: The Late Billy Wilder

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

‘Bittersweet’ – a word often applied to Billy Wilder, and one with associations with his home city, Vienna. The idea of a movie script as recipe, with ingredients to be perfectly measured and the chef to follow the instructions closely and skilfully, is one that Wilder might have approved of. The word also implies a certain necessary balance, with the bitter never allowed to overpower the sweet, or vice versa. It might seem, looking at Wilder’s work, that when the bitter predominated in a drama (Sunset Blvd, 1950, Ace in the Hole, 1951), the effect could be highly stimulating, but when it took over in a comedy, the result was at the very least unappealing to the mass audience (Kiss Me Stupid, 1964), and at worst hard to stomach for anybody (Buddy, Buddy, 1981).

Wilder liked to say that he made dramas when he was feeling happy, and comedies when he was depressed, to cheer himself up. If so, his last years as director must have been grim ones: after The Spirit of St Louis (1957), all his films are comedies, apart from Fedora (1978), although many of them are so tempered with tragedy or bile as to sometimes transcend, subvert, or simply trash the genre.

In this amnesiac age, it’s both striking and strange that Wilder’s late work is mostly easy to see, despite the fact that nearly everything he made after the career peak of The Apartment (1960) flopped on first release, and often received harsh critical notices. But Wilder, though he certainly set himself up against the Cahiers school and the auteur theory, always lived up to one of the unofficial prerequisites for an auteur filmmaker: his unsuccessful films are often as interesting, and nearly as enjoyable, as the ones where everything comes together. Nearly everybody admits that Bogart’s casting in Sabrina (1954) is an error, but nearly everybody loves the film anyway. Likewise, Gary Cooper is too old in Love in the Afternoon (1957), but the discomfort is fleeting and the appeal is lasting. Fedora creaks in places, and seems peculiarly drawn-out for a rapid-fire mind like Wilder’s, but in its rephrasing of ideas from Sunset Blvd, filtered through Wilder’s autumnal sensibility, it still seduces. Only Buddy, Buddy remains beyond the pale, a downright painful farce, with some of the desperate mugging of Blake Edwards’s S.O.B., but none of the desperate sincerity.

For me, the charming Avanti! (1972) aside, the late movie where it all, mostly, comes together, is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), the biggest flop of them all. An expensive attempt to serve up several new Holmes adventures, detailing the detective’s amorous escapades, the movie is characterised by a respect for Doyle’s creation that may have seemed anachronistic when the film first appeared. Wilder’s attempts to cast Peter Sellers as Holmes and Peter O’Toole as Watson foundered: the superstitious Sellers no doubt remembered the massive heart attack that forced Wilder to recast Kiss Me Stupid. Instead of stars, Wilder ended up with Robert Stephens, an up-and-comer who never arrived as a box office star, and character man Colin Blakely.

In Wilder’s Ten Commandments of Filmmaking, ‘The first nine are, Thou Shalt Not Bore. The tenth is, Thou Shalt Have the Right of Final Cut’. On Sherlock Holmes, Wilder had that right, but was told when the film was finished that unless he savagely cut down its running time, it wouldn’t get a release. The movie had aimed at the ‘roadshow’ market, expensive, long movies that toured the world in a blaze of ballyhoo, with the public charged extra for the honour of seeing the super-epics. But several of these had just flopped, and Wilder was forced to cut his movie from five stories to two, resulting in a rather ungainly structure.

Fans of this movie, a small but dedicated bunch, have long learned to overlook the troubled production history (Stephens attempted suicide partway through the shoot, a victim of alcoholism, marital break-up and Wilder’s exacting direction) and focus on the very real pleasures provided. On the surface, there’s Christopher Challis’s widescreen photography, glazed and graceful, and Alexander Trauner’s production design, featuring a recreation of Baker Street in forced perspective. Going deeper, there’s the film’s daring mix of bitchy comedy (a slight Jewish-American quality in the writing casts Holmes and Watson as a Victorian odd couple) and melancholy romance: Miklos Rosza’s score, his best for years, brings out every throb of the heartache underlying the hi-jinks. It’s derived from a violin concerto by the composer, which Wilder played while writing the script with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.

The first of Wilder’s tales is a puckish yarn in which an ageing ballerina attempts to hire Holmes to father a ‘brilliant and beautiful child’ – Holmes escapes the assignation by pretending to be Watson’s gay lover. Stephens’s performance at times appears to be an audition for the role of Oscar Wilde, so his thespian fruitiness is well-used here. Blakely is painfully straight, and so the imposture is all the funnier in his case.

In the second story (connected to the first by a slender plot thread involving vanished circus dwarfs), Holmes comes to the aid of a Belgian amnesiac (Genevieve Page) and is soon embroiled in a plot involving German spies and the Loch Ness Monster. It all makes sense eventually, with cameos by Mycroft Holmes and Queen Victoria, but what’s most effective is the love story between Holmes and his client, which occurs under false pretences: she’s a spy posing as a helpless widow, and his emotional attachment causes him to fail as a detective. What’s more, when he realises the extent to which she’s fooled him, his respect and love for her grow even more: only when he’s turned her in to the authorities does he quite apprehend how he’s outsmarted himself.

Holmes, the mastermind, misogynist and fool for love, seems like one of Wilder’s most autobiographical heroes: smart, cynical, a man who lives by his wits, working with a male associate. While Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow appears to have invented a tale of youthful disillusion – Wilder in love with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute – nevertheless the character resonates with the filmmaker’s persona and Zolotow’s invention finds its echo both in a deleted scene of young Sherlock Holmes at Oxford, and in the main plotline where the woman Holmes loves proves to be a spy. The crucial difference is that Billy had Audrey, an ideal life partner with a matching wit. Holmes can be seen as, in part, an attempt by Wilder to imagine life without his wife, dealing with the struggle of a workaholic ‘thinking machine’ in the realm of emotion.

Whatever the reason, this seems an unusually deeply felt film for Wilder, peppered with cheap jokes though it may be. They’re mostly very good cheap jokes. It’s been suggested by filmmaker and comedy specialist Richard Lester that Wilder’s problem, in his later films, stemmed from the fact that he had, like his mentor Lubitsch, evolved a delicate style whose purpose was to slip indiscrete nuances past the censor, to make adult films within a system that aimed at infantilism. And thus, when the censorship was, largely, removed, Wilder found himself without the (admittedly restrictive) framework within which he had flourished. Free to have his characters swear or take of their clothes, Wilder faced a challenge of tone and taste of a kind he simply never had to deal with before. One of Sherlock Holmes‘s deleted scenes, included as a soundless extra on the DVD, features a naked woman surprised in bed by strangers. She sits bolt upright, making no attempt to cover herself, although MGM have thoughtfully blurred her bosoms, since the actress could not be located to sign a release form for the nudity. This is inconceivable behaviour for a Victorian newlywed: it makes no sense in character terms. Somehow, the ability, or commercial requirement, to ‘move with the times’ short-circuited something in Wilder’s brilliant mind. The new freedom of expression affected the director the way love affected the detective.

But for the most part, the tone is supremely well-judged, with the period setting keeping Wilder out of trouble, the way it mostly does in his rambunctious remake of The Front Page (1974). For the ageing director, the past offers a handy bolthole. And in the broadly farcical sequence where Holmes must pretend to be gay in order to escape the amorous attentions of a Russian prima ballerina, Wilder indulges in the kind of winking innuendo he excelled at back when Joe Breen perused screenplays with blue pencil a-twitching.

David Cairns

3 thoughts on “Bittersweet: The Late Billy Wilder”

  1. Good piece about a favourite of mine. (I’m quite fond of Avanti, too.) I very much like the reference to Richard Lester: his point about the new freedoms in cinema conspiring to hobble old Hollywood hands like Wilder, who were so used to working with as well as against censorship, is something I’ve dimly intuited in the past, but never seen expressed so clearly.

    The original casting was news to me. Rather intriguing too, although surely the wrong way round – I can quite see the late 60s/early 70s Peter O’Toole as Holmes! (Having said that, I suppose Guy Ritchie’s Downey-Law combination is similar: a shorter, protean Holmes and a tall, good-looking Watson.) Stephens and Blakely were both great theatre men, appearing as the leads in the original production of Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun a few years earlier, during the glory days of Olivier’s National Theatre (in the parts Christopher Plummer – a decent Holmes himself – and Robert Shaw would play on film). PLOSH (I’ve read your related entry on acronyms!) is pretty much the only time either of them got a plum part. Some of Stephens’ supporting roles are interesting, though – I particularly like his eccentric performance as Clive Owen’s self-made immigrant dad in Stephen Poliakoff’s film Century – while Blakely’s main legacy is in TV performances (including a wonderfully diabolical, Irish-accented Stalin in the TV film Red Monarch).

  2. Thanks.

    Agree re O’Toole’s aptness. It’s a shame he’s never played the role, to the best of my knowledge. Maybe it’s not too late: I long for a movie about Holmes coming out of his bee-keeping retirement to solve some dastardly crimes in the 1920s or 30s.

    Stephens is somebody I’m always glad to see, and his fruity turns in Comrades and Mike Hodges The Dandelion Dead are great value, however brief. I recall a TV version of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter that Blakeley was excellent in.

  3. Nice article. I’ve been diving into late Wilder as of recently. He’s made so many film I’ve never even heard of. Count me also among those who really enjoyed “Avanti!”. Hopefully I can see “Sherlock Holmes” sometime soon.

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