Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Madeira Porridge

When I was young, I listened to critics and ended up missing films I should have seen and seeing films that were a complete waste of celluloid.

Bad idea –– criticism is terribly subjective. Two critics can tear into the same film and, if not for the shared names and places in the review, you cannot conceive how they could be writing about the same thing. Criticism is a point of view – not a wax-sealed edict. In the end, one man’s misbegotten flop is another man’s lost masterpiece.

One film I avoided for years was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

I discovered the film again on a list of unfairly maligned British films over the Christmas holiday and was totally shocked at the passionate defense of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes both in the article and, with a little digging, from many other sources. Why had I listened to the’ nattering nabobs of negativity’?

Billy Wilder & Miklos Rozsa

The film had such a great pedigree. To begin with, Billy Wilder wrote and directed it.

Jascha Heifitz & Miklos Rozsa

Wilder had loved the Holmes tales from childhood, but it wasn’t until the 50’s, after hearing a Jascha Heifitz performance of Miklos Rozsa’s sublime Violin Concerto, Op. 24  that  a Holmes' project started simmering on his creative back-burner. Wilder found the heart and soul of his Holmes in the soaring music, and resolved to make a movie one day with a novel, Wilderian interpretation of the great detective (his first concept of the tale was actually a musical!). It took perfectionist Wilder nearly 20 years (7 of which were spent working on the concept with his writing partner, A.L. Diamond), but he finally made his Sherlock passion-project in 1970 (Rozsa ended up doing the delicious score for the film and Concerto Op.24 was the glorious leitmotif and soul of the film).

The actors were nonpareil. National Theatre stars, Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely played Sherlock and Watson. 

Christopher Lee & Robert Stephens

Christopher Lee did a stellar turn as Mycroft Holmes, breaking out of his horror mode with great success (and a balding wig!). 

All of the actors agreed –– Wilder was the best director they ever worked with – even if he was incredibly demanding.  Poor Stephens, who was in virtually every scene, had a bit of a breakdown over Wilder's relentless perfectionism. It required dozens of takes to get every line delivery and movement the way Wilder wanted it –– down to the last comma and eye roll.  Stephens did not give up and he came back full throttle after a few week's break and turned in a grand performance (Jack Lemmon commiserated with Stephen's on Wilder's directing -- saying he loved and hated him for it and that it drove him crazy too).

Geneviève Page

Geneviève Page portrayed the beautiful Gabrielle Valladon (a composite character surely inspired by the woman of whom Conan Doyle  wrote “And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory…. to Sherlock Holmes she is always theWoman.”

    Basil Rathbone
 Sidney Paget illustration  of Original Doyle Stories 
  Arthur Conan Doyle

I have loved Sherlock since I was a kid and saw the Basil Rathbone version of the 1930’s - 40’s which inspired me to read all the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories (56 stories from 1886-1927).

Jeremy Brett
Mycroft shot by Amy Hobby

I named my beloved St. Bernard – Mycroft (Sherlock’s older brother), after watching Jeremy Brett’s masterful The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series from the 80’s and 90’s.

Billy Wilder, Colin Blakeley and Robert Stephens

Given all this, I still passed on the Wilder version because I heard it was wrong-headed and not up to Wilder’s standards. Shame on me. It’s fabulous.

Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch

Mark Gatiss, who wrote the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock  (as well as some of the best Dr. Who episodes from 2005 – 2017 and 2020’s Dracula ), said, “The magic of this film, I think, comes down to the writing of the dialogue by Wilder and his writing partner, Izzy Diamond. There are a number of conversations between Robert Stephens (Sherlock) and Colin Blakely (Watson) that are just like tiny symphonies…. There's an amazing scene where, to get out of a situation where a Russian ballerina wants Sherlock to father her child, he claims Watson and he are gay. Watson is outraged and, when he calms down, speaks of the women all over the world who could attest to his sexuality. He says to Sherlock, "You do too, don't you?" Holmes is silent, and Watson says, "Am I being presumptuous? There have been women, haven't there?" Holmes says, "The answer is yes – you are being presumptuous." Sensational.”

Yes, it is sensational, and the delivery of the lines is divine (just listen to the perfectly timed pause between ‘yes’ and ‘you are’). You see, there is a reason Robert Stephens was called to do the part a full year before the film started filming.

The gorgeous delivery was not an accident, Wilder had asked that Stephens send recordings of his voice, then,  “he tailored the part listening to the cadences I used.” Sherlock's lines were actually written with Stephens’ voice in mind. Wilder didn’t lock in the dialogue until he cast the actor to play the part.

The actor was also told to learn how to play a violin (music really is a shimmering presence in the film). However, Stephen’s recalled that his violin teacher told him that the violin concerto he had to play had been written, “for one of the greatest violinists in the world" [Heifitz]. It was impossible for an amateur to master it, "so, we had to fake it all.”

Wilder made a brave choice in Stephens, but he didn’t want an international star an audience would associate with another character and wanted Stephens because “he looks as if he could be hurt” and because he was an amazing, classically trained actor (if this piques your interest - Stephens did a turn as the blind Victorian detective, Max Carados, in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes!). This wasn’t your mother’s Sherlock (my only criticism is Wilder’s look for Holmes – the short, awkward jackets, heavy eye makeup, raised hairline and bushy brows were odd choices).

As for Wilder's direction to the actor on playing Holmes?  Stephens’ remembered a particular exchange in an interview with Michael Pointer, “How do you want me to play it for the movie,” I asked Billy [Wilder]. “You must play it like Hamlet.”

Stephens’ Holmes not just a cold and calculating computer of a man, but a man like Hamlet, often trapped inside his own head, as Lewis observes ‘He does not want courage, skill, will, or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking…his senses are in a train of trance, and he looks upon external things as hieroglyphics which is how Coleridge described the Prince of Denmark, Elsinore his Baker Street; a palace of puzzles."

Stephens said “When I did it, it was more melancholic, more disillusioned. In the film I did, what Billy Wilder wanted to explore was why Holmes had this disdain for women, why he took drugs, why he lived with Dr. Watson – was it homosexual or not (Stephens decided not)?

This Holmes is not a misogynist, but he has been damaged by women – he doesn’t trust them and has been disappointed by them. A flashback of Holmes’ college infatuation with a young girl who turned out to be a prostitute was cut from the final version. (1 hour of film containing 2 cases and that college flashback was cut when the producers became afraid of the length of the film.

As it is, all that remains of a romantic backstory is delivered in a scene in a sleeping car with Gabrielle Valladon. The late night confession, with Holmes in an upper birth and Valladon in the lower, is strangely intimate and reveals the existence of a fiancé (the daughter of his violin teacher), who died of influenza before their wedding, along with a litany of acts of female mendacity ("nymphomaniacs, pyromaniacs, kleptomaniacs") that explain his mistrust of women –– proving that women are unreliable (although dying before a wedding IS a fairly unjust reason for mistrust of womankind). You do get the feeling he is leaving the most important thing out in this uncharacteristic unbosoming to a lady (after all, even Watson doesn’t know Holmes sexual history).

His true friendship with Watson is the center of his life –– however he may jest and spar and disappoint him with his use of cocaine. The mutual affection is palpable, as is the director's fascination and affection for Holmes. 

There is more to the production than the script, the music and the performances –– and that 'more' is what brings Holmes' world to life.

Wilder's direction was masterful and precise and the film was beautifully filmed by Christopher Challis who operated for the monumental DP,  Jack Cardiff on Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.

The sets were designed by the prodigiously talented Alexander Trauner  who worked with all the greats in Europe like Prevert  and Carné  and then landed with Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Many directors (like Orson Welles) thought he was the best in the business.

Alexander Trauner

He built a spectacular London street for the film – that you only see for a few moments.

Trauner Sketch of Victorian street

Authentic Victorian London:

Trauner’s Diogenes Club  lair for brother Mycroft Holmes is based on the great Victorian men’s clubs like the Reform Club I wrote about HERE.

The original Reform Club - 

 Reform Club

 Reform Club
Reform Club
Sidney Paget illustration for original stories- Mycroft in Diogenes Club

221 B Baker Street is a wonder of Holmesian lore and artifacts.  It is here Watson writes, Holmes catalogues tobacco ash or sulks with his cocaine or plays his violin and they take their meals, prepared and served by the indomitable Mrs. Hudson.

So, what did they eat??

Unfortunately, not much. The only meal you saw regularly in the film was breakfast… and they ate porridge. Well, why not. I love oatmeal – why not make some of that for a simple recipe for you.

I remember I had a an oatmeal dessert with Scotch in it that was divine.  Since this is for Sherlock, I added the Madeira which makes it unbelievably rich and mysterious –– appropriate for Mr. Holmes and this film since there is a big Madeira scene at the Diogenes Club with Mycroft (sadly they made the wine red -- which madeira is not - it's brown).   The porridge is great for breakfast but could be a dessert as well!

Sherlock's Madeira Porridge (1 serving)

1/3 c steel-cut oats
1/2 c milk
1/2 c water
1 T butter
1/4 t salt
pinch of nutmeg
1 bay leaf (optional)
1-2 T Madeira  (I used Rare Wine Company Boston Bual)

1/3 c blueberries
2 -3 T maple syrup 
1/4 t cardamom

Combine the first 6-7 ingredients and cook over very low flame for about 15-20 minutes until creamy - stirring occasionally.

While this is cooking, put the blueberries, maple syrup and cardamom in a pan and cook till slightly softened and syrupy over lower heat.

Add the Madeira to the oatmeal, remove bay leaf if you added it and  spoon the blueberries over the top.

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