Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes - the Original Script

I am going to make another rare excursion into a screenplay review, featuring "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond. It is one of those sad cinema genocides, since the available 125-minute film is only an abridged version of the original script and Wilder's and Diamond's vision. It is unclear how much exactly of the original footage was cut - and subsequently lost forever - yet the sole script is divided into four chapters:

1. Prologue: Up-Side-Down Room - 60 pages
2. Russian Ballerina - 32 pages
3. Naked Honeymooners - 17 pages
4. Dumbfounded Detective - 113 pages

That makes for a total of 222 page, and since no. 1 and 3 were completely deleted, they comprise about 35% of the entire film, or approximately 45 missing minutes.

The fact that a legendary director of Wilder's calibre was making a film about a legendary fictional hero of Sherlock Holmes' calibre was already astonishing by itself. It is a remarkable blend of two worlds. It would be, let's say, as if someone like Wes Anderson would chose to direct a movie about Superman today. The amount of potential was staggering, yet the sole 1970 movie was never quite there. It was good and had fresh moments, yet one could sense a large part of its narrative was missing. That notion bugged me so much over the years, I decided to find and read the original screenplay.

Needles to say, had they released the original film based on the screenplay, it would have been one of my favorite films of the 70s. The amount of the producers' bad judgement to cut 35% of the film is incomprehensible. Naturally, some films are indeed too long and need to be restrained in their weaker spots, but the cuts in this edition are practically suicidal: they deleted some of the best jokes in the film! They thus practically destroyed it themselves.

The first chapter starts in the modern day 1969 London, where Dr. Watson, the grandson of the Dr. Watson, is in Barclay's Bank and about to open the box containing the memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' life, much to the excitement of Mr. Havelock-Smith. There are some fabulous, inspired dialogues typical of Wilder and Diamond here, like when we find out that this Dr. Watson is actually a veterinary, or when Mr. Cassidy comments that the memoirs "don't look like much", causing Havelock-Smith to reply with: "To you, Cassidy, nothing looks like much unless it's wearing a mini-skirt." Havelock-Smith is so excited about the memoirs that Cassidy comments with: "You act like you discovered a new play by Shakespeare", causing this reply: "Shakespeare? He was a dilettante. Took him five acts to solve the Macbeth Murder Case - Gentlemen, if this should shed new light on the enigma of Sherlock Holmes, it may be the most important literary find since the Dead Sea Scrolls." The main narrative starts with Holmes and Dr. Watson having a comical encounter with an escaped Italian lover in the train, and continues back at their home, where Holmes is complaining how Dr. Watson exaggerated rumors about him, since he even got a request from Birmingham Symphony to appear as a soloist in the Mendelssohn Concerto. Though a more pressing thing is that Holmes is starting to bore himself, since no mystery is a challenge anymore. Here is where arguably the best joke of the chapter appears - the one where Holmes takes some bullets, opens the cartridges and puts the gunpowder into his pipe, mixing it with tobacco, before lighting it up - a moments that is so howlingly funny and unbelievably simple it is impossible to believe nobody actually put it on film ever since. As the title says, Holmes and Dr. Watson inspect a room where all the furniture is upside-down, and wonder if the dead man on the floor may have fallen from the bed on the ceiling above him. Overall, a great intro.

The second chapter is practically identical with the segment in the film, and features the great sequence where Dr. Watson is dancing with ballerinas, who are slowly getting exchanged by a male gay dancers who think he is gay as well.

The third chapter, Naked Honeymooners, is the shortest and the least impressive. As such, it is the only one that somewhat justifies being cut from the film since its punchline at the end - namely that the two heroes were in the wrong room the whole time - is rather thin compared to the rest of the film, albeit it at least has a good idea where Holmes gives his hat to Dr. Watson who thinks he was taught so much from the famous detective that he can solve a case all by himself for once.

The fourth chapter is the one that remained in the film, and is mostly a 1:1 recreation. However, it lacks one important flashback sequence, as prude as it may be, where Holmes explains to Gabrielle why he has distrust in women - as a student in Oxford, he was fascinated by a beautiful girl, until he found out she is a prostitute when he won sex with her as a prize, which caused him to run away - since it foreshadows his "deceived" relationship with Gabrielle.

Overall, it's not that the abridged movie does not have its moments. It's that the original screenplay gave Holmes a much broader spectrum of a viewing experience. Some have complained that it does not feature any real mystery case, instead only fake ones, yet the point was to show a different, personal side to Holmes, as the title suggests, to show him as a man who is great as a detective, but weak as a human being, a complex character who was bored, who was lonely and who used his cocaine addiction to suppress these feelings of sadness. It was as if the myth created about his persona prevented him from simply being who he really is, since it would never meet the people's expectations. Both comical and emotional, the screenplay is excellent, and finally gives a complete impression.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

As a member of the Italian Sherlock Holmes society, Uno Studio in Holmes (site and FB), I would like to know if a copy of the original screenplay, which includes the parts later cut from the film, can be had. It would appear from the article and related comments that a copy is available and I would be grateful to whoever could provide a copy, to be used as the basis of a series of articles on Wilder's film to be published in our association's semiannual journal, the Strand. Indeed, our latest annual meeting was centered on Holmes as depicted in films, with special attention given to Wilder's The Private Life. I will be appreciate any help that is offered and look forward to your replies. My email: