Billy Wilder, Sherlock Holmes, and the 'never-out-of-fashion franchise': an interview with Kim Newman

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Kim Newman is one of those beasts we're encouraged to think of as mythical: a critic who is also an artist. 

As film critic, Kim is author of a definitive history of modern horror, Nightmare Movies (1988, revised and expanded 2011). But Kim's love of film and TV extends beyond horror, as is evident from the range of his reviews for film journals such as Sight and Sound and Empire, and also from his fiction. He is a prolific novelist, author of the ever-expanding Anno Dracula series, which imagines a world in which the bad guys win, as well as the Professor Moriarty-centred The Hound of the D'Urbervilles. Meanwhile, Life's Lottery (1999) is a hugely ambitious take on the 'choose your own adventure' story. 

In Kim's Empire review of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), he suggests that the executives responsible for ordering the film cut deserve to be found (or disinterred) and given a stern ticking off. I asked him how much he thought that knowledge of the film’s history affects one’s ability to enjoy the surviving film on its own terms.

On its own terms, it works perfectly well—arguably, the more focused storyline of the released version plays as well or better than the more episodic intended phantom version would have. Certainly, when I first saw the film—on television in the mid-70s—I loved it as it was. There’s always an impulse to wish that films we liked were longer just so we could have more of the experience … the downside of that are many instances of films that were well-regarded and hits on their original, studio-slimmed versions that later came out as bloated ‘director’s cuts’ which didn’t manage to supplant the original in the public affection/consciousness. Apocalypse Now Redux (1979, 2001) is interesting, but the release version is better—and the director’s cut of Dances with Wolves (1990) actually took away from the Oscar-winning rep of the original (one of those instant classics that has faded with the years, where a flop like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has gained stature). I’ve heard that the first cut of Annie Hall (1977) was a two-and-a-half-hour murder mystery no one liked, which was then severely rearranged into the film that clicked—if so, Allen has been canny in not letting his first take emerge in public. The pre-release version of The Big Sleep (1946), which now shows up as a DVD extra, makes sense of the plot but isn’t as much fun as the eventual film. I’d like to see the deleted sequences of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in better form, but I’m not sure they should be reintegrated into the film. Another version of the film that does exist is the novelisation—which, as I recall, includes a few things that were trimmed, but not all of the deleted cases. 

The studio's attempts to make it saleable weren't successful. Why do you think it failed with both audiences and critics in 1970?

I’d have to go back and look at the initial reviews, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t as many raves as pans in there. By the time I saw it, it was already gaining in reputation.  It may have suffered for being released in a period when the big hits were more modish, contemporary dramas—It was the era of The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969), MASH (1970), The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972)—and big period comedy-adventure was not much cared for. To my mind, the strength of the film is that it announces itself as cynical and deconstructionist, but is actually romantic and charming. It’s not a grim, serious Holmes film like A Study in Terror (1965) or Murder by Decree (1978) but it’s also not a knockabout comedy like Without a Clue (1988) or The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)—and it was a hugely expensive film not toplined by big movie stars (the original casting of Peter O’Toole might have been more commercial). Also, it was an expensive film – on a par with the big musicals and war filmsof its time—and so modest box office takings made it seem like a flop: I’d be surprised if it wasn’t seen by more people on its release than, say, comparable but smaller films like The Wrong Box (1966), The Best House in Town, The Assassination Bureau Limited (1969) or the Paul Morrissey Hound of the Baskervilles (1978). If it has a sub-genre, it’s ‘late 60s period romp’ … the biggest hit of this cycle was Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), a film which is seldom revived. 

To my mind, the strength of the film is that it announces itself as cynical and deconstructionist, but is actually romantic and charming

I suppose this is a question that is relevant to any cult film—but why do you think it gained an audience in the decades since its release?

By definition, a cult film is something that took a while to find its audience. The Wizard of Oz (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Blade Runner (1982) and The Thing (1982) are good examples— though there are instances like Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942) or Star Wars (1977) where a huge box office hit nevertheless becomes a cult movie simply by staying relevant or in the public eye while comparable successes don’t linger. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes perhaps falls into that category of cult—Blade Runner, another recut film, is an example too—of film which came and went without making much of a splash, but was later picked up on as a classic. People who might have loved it missed it when it came out because it wasn’t sold or distributed properly or there were other distractions, but later came to it via revival or TV showings. As to why this film has gained an audience, I think it’s a combination of its own inherent qualities, and appreciation of it as a Billy Wilder film and a Sherlock Holmes film. Incidentally, there are Wilder and Holmes fans who think of it as an aberration—Wilder is best remembered for contemporary American comedies (though Some Like It Hot (1959) is a period film—no one loves that movie as a skit on 1920s gangsters) and dramas … and it was the first ‘deconstructionist’ Holmes film, to take the character away from Doyle and suggest that the qualities which make Holmes a suitable Victorian hero might also betoken character flaws and neuroses. It’s the first step in a process that was greatly advanced by Nicholas Meyer’s novel The Seven Per-cent Solution—itself turned into an admirable but underperforming film (1976)—and practically all subsequent takes on the characters, including Jeremy Brett’s jittery neurotic sleuth, Robert Downey Jr’s Chaplinesque clown and the modernised madmen of Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. At this rate, it would be hard to sell a Holmes movie in which he was a straight-up, well-balanced good guy with a stalwart, admiring best friend. 

When casting a potential TV version of your Anno Dracula books, you pencilled in Christopher Lee as Mycroft. What are the qualities he brought to the role that made him especially suited to it?

Mostly that he was in the Wilder film—I also thought it would be interesting to do a Dracula story in which Lee played another iconic character. I like his reading of Mycroft, though he’s physically not right for the part: the plump Robert Morley in A Study in Terror is a much neater fit and seems a more Wilderian character—Lee’s Mycroft is dry and absurd, but Morley’s is witty. With Lee’s passing, I think my first choice would be John Sessions—Mycroft in Mr Holmes (2015), very briefly. 

Wilder’s and Diamond's re-imagining of the Diogenes Club as a cover or branch of the British Secret Service seems to have had a wide influence on pastiche Holmes fiction. Can you say something about your own versions of the club and how they relate to the one in the film?

I admit that the Diogenes Club in my fiction—the Anno Dracula series and the related Diogenes Club collections—is simply lifted from the Wilder-Diamond script … and, indeed, gets away from the version in the stories. Doyle has Mycroft as a behind-the-scenes government man and implies that he’s involved in counter-espionage but his club is just where he’s found rather than where he works—so far as I know, I was the first writer to pick up on the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes version of the Diogenes Club and use it, though there has been so much pastiche/parody/spinoff/ripoff that I couldn’t say for certain. As an idea, it does serve to link the world of Doyle to that of, say, James Bond … in the Man From UNCLE novelisations, it’s established that the bad guy organisation THRUSH is the modern incarnation of Professor Moriarty’s criminal enterprise, which is another variant on this premise. 

I admit that the Diogenes Club in my fiction—the Anno Dracula series and the related Diogenes Club collections—is simply lifted from the Wilder-Diamond script

You wrote once that when you were commissioned by the BBC to write what became ‘A Shambles in Belgravia’, you were certain you didn’t want to write a straight Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Why were you reluctant to do that?

I felt (and feel) that everyone else had taken a swing at it and I’d rather do something I could put my own stamp on. I have only written Holmes directly once—in a chapter of The Bloody Red Baron, initially deleted but now restored to the text. I’m not really interested in pastiche as a form … and when I’ve taken on pre-existing characters or texts I’ve always looked for angles unique to me. I’m not saying I’ll never do it, because I can’t rule out having an idea in the future that can only be done using Watson’s voice and Doyle’s characters … but I don’t have anything like that in mind at the moment.

You have said in the past that it’s always interesting to consider why something is popular at a particular time. Why Sherlock Holmes now? 

I’d argue that Holmes is one of those for the want of a better word franchises which is always popular—and, by the way, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as a franchise isn’t just Holmes but also Watson, a supporting cast (Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, Irene, Moriarty), a set of tropes (221B Baker St, deductive monologues, the game’s afoot, disguises), a handful of solid plots (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four), catch-phrases, a balance of threat and reassurance in the spectre of unimaginably ghastly crime dispelled by reason and rectitude and the Victorian setting with fog, gaslight, hansom cabs, etc., is a key, for all that it’s dropped from some successful adaptations (which was present day when Doyle started the series but the stuff of nostalgia by the time of his later stories). The canon affords an array of characters/plot licks/elements which are a gift to any subsequent author (Mark Gatiss has talked about Doyle’s great clues) and every time I’ve gone back to the Canon I’ve found stuff worth reusing. I have done a couple of stories with Sophy Kratides, an incidental character in ‘The Greek Interpreter’ who is barely present but vivid by implication—that story also includes a couple of almost openly gay villains.  Other never-out-of-fashion franchises include Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, the Three Musketeers, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Batman, Bond, Peter Pan, the Phantom of the Opera, Shakespeare’s big tragedies, Tarzan and Jane Austen—you can’t go more than a few years without all of these coming back. Some fall temporarily out of fashion, but few are dropped completely. The thing that all these share is being open to constant reinterpretation—they have their own associations with the period of their origins, so straight versions play on nostalgia, but they can also be reworked to stress contemporary relevance or because some current trend seems presaged in the material.

Any plans for more Moriarty and/or Moran stories? What’s next from you in fiction?

I’d certainly like to get back to Moran, though I’m more likely to pick him up after Moriarty has gone over the waterfall. I have a vague idea for a book called After Moriarty—which will partly be about what Moran is like without the Professor in his life. I’d also like to have more Sophy. My next novel is Anno Dracula One Thousand Monsters, in my Anno Dracula series—set in Japan in 1899, with some involvement of the Diogenes Club. I’ve an Anno Dracula comic miniseries out at the moment, Seven Days in Mayhem—which includes a Baker Street detective, but not the famous one. Also in the works is a play, Magic Circle. And a revised edition of my first Diogenes Club collection is out next year.

For reviews and updates on Kim's creative projects, go to his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook

Get updates via email

Join 213 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.

Join in the conversation

Sign in to comment
In editorial development
Publication date: TBC
103% funded
212 backers