Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

As the opening credits of Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes roll, the personal effects of John Watson (Colin Blakely) are examined. Among them are letters from Watson to his heirs. One of those letters talks about his days with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens).

Wilder was a Holmesian and had tried unsuccessfully twice before to make an adaptation. (A musical, no less!) Now finally given the opportunity, he and I.A.L. Diamond initially came up with a film that ran over three hours long. It's this heavy editing that makes the final product clunky; you can tell that it's missing something in its flow.

While not as strong as prior Wilder-Diamond collaborations, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has a certain charm to it. The film serves as both a parody and a deconstruction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famed (and most personally loathed) creation. It's little wonder it served as inspiration for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss when they made Sherlock.

That said, the film doesn't have Wilder's particular touch to it. Lacking the sharp cynicism and sardonic wit usually found in the director's work, it also has elements that are out of place for both Wilder and Doyle. Still, there's a particular amusement amid the oddity.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may not be top-tier Wilder but seeing Hollywood was beginning a new movement, he shows that he's not going to retire like his contemporaries just yet. (He'd make four more movies after this.) That being said, it was clear that he was becoming old hat. Oh, well; nobody's perfect.

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Winchester '73

Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 starts off like your standard western: Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and "High-Spade" Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) pass through Dodge City while on the trail of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Lin and Dutch compete in a shooting contest, where Lin wins the titular rifle (and Dutch promptly steals it). And that's where the story kicks off.

A simple premise, yes, but that's not the point of Winchester '73. As Mann demonstrated with Raw Deal two years before, it's more about the characters in the story, how their interactions shift the narrative. It was something Mann was good at depicting.

Stewart -- now in the second stage of his career -- drifts away from his idealistic screen image in favor of something a little darker. As he showed previously with It's a Wonderful Life and Rope, Stewart displays a cynical streak in Lin. And as later shown in Vertigo, he also displays a menacing one.

And Winchester '73 is photographed beautifully, thanks to cinematographer William H. Daniels. Hot off the heels of an Oscar win for The Naked City the year before, he goes from the looming buildings of New York City to the open outdoors of the western frontier. You genuinely feel that you're there.

Winchester '73 brought back the dying genre with a vengeance. Other westerns throughout the decade would have that nasty streak coursing through them, a morality more in focus than in years before. And a lot of that can be traced back to Mann and his film.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, January 3, 2022

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

You know how there are some movies that even after all these years still click. Their stars have long passed on, the politics of their day have shifted, and some elements aren't as risque or daring as they once were but regardless, they click. (Maybe Nietzsche was right about time being a flat circle.)

Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? -- while deviating from the premise of George Axelrod's original stage play -- is such an example. In the sixty-five years since its release, its satirical portrayal of celebrity and fan culture is all the more prevalent thanks to the advent of social media. (Good thing Tashlin isn't around to see fiction become reality.)

Being a former animator, Tashlin's background is very apparent throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? With enough visual gags that wouldn't look out of place in your standard cartoon, it shows that he was one of the more unique directors working at the time. It's little wonder that Tashlin was a mentor to Jerry Lewis.

On a similar note, there's enough fourth wall-breaking in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to warrant calling a mason afterwards. Be it towards the stars' private lives or their professional ones, Tashlin's script spares no expense. (Man, comedies from the 1950s were something else, weren't they?)

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starts to lose steam by the third act but Tashlin and the cast make it work nonetheless. Being made when sex comedies were becoming commonplace, it has the distinction of being just a touch classier than later titles. (Faint praise, granted.) Hey, the sexual revolution (and the MPAA's fruition) was only a few years away.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, January 2, 2022


There's no denying that Joseph L. Mankiewicz boasted quite the illustrious career in Hollywood. Be it as a writer, producer, or director, he and brother Herman had stories to tell and succeeded in their endeavors. It's little wonder that the name "Mankiewicz" still means something in that town.

By the time Mankiewicz made his directing debut with Dragonwyck, he had been well-established for several years. (He got the gig because original director Ernst Lubitsch fell ill.) And boy, you'd never know this was his first time directing as you watch it. (Granted, he also co-wrote the script so already he had an idea of how the film flowed.)

Bearing elements reminiscent of Rebecca six years earlier, Dragonwyck is the kind of film that Hollywood -- barring Crimson Peak, perhaps -- doesn't make anymore. And that's a shame, really; it's a genre that has a little bit of everything (with more focus on some elements than others) and it's a solid deviation of the standard romance. (Because -- let's be honest -- romance itself is more complex than what Hollywood has us believe.)

Having more screentime together here than in their previous collaborations (Laura and Leave Her to Heaven), Gene Tierney and Vincent Price have excellent chemistry together. And Price -- after years of bit parts and supporting roles -- finally has a meaty role to sink his teeth into. (It was originally going to be Gregory Peck but he dropped out after Lubitsch did.) Makes you wonder had he gotten more roles like this throughout his career.

Dragonwyck is one of those few directorial debuts that works after all these years. With stunning cinematography by Arthur C. Miller and a chilling score from Arthur Newman, it just proves that Hollywood has been playing it safe for too long. Take more risks, Hollywood, like you did before the MPAA came to fruition.

My Rating: ****1/2