Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee: An Overview
Part Two: Enter Mycroft
By Charles Prepolec
“Billy Wilder is, was, and always will be a great devotee of the Canon, and made the film with the very greatest respect, as a tribute. I think it was a marvelous picture.”
- Christopher Lee
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
In 1970, Christopher Lee took part in what was, at that time, the most ambitious and expensive Sherlock Holmes film yet. Easy to see why it was a turning point in Mr. Lee’s career as it was the biggest “A” film at that point in his career. It also proved to be Mr. Lee’s chance to work with one of the most brilliant film directors of all time, the inimitable Billy Wilder.

The amazing auteur was born in 1906, in the Galician village of Sucha Beskidzka near Krakow, was named Samuel, but received the playful moniker of Billy from his mother. After cutting his teeth as a scriptwriter in Germany, he emigrated to the US in 1934, narrowly avoiding the dangers of the rising Nazi Party.  From 1934 to 1941 he worked as screenwriter on a fair number of projects, including
Ninotchka. In 1942 he directed his first Hollywood film, the less than memorable The Major and the Minor. Within two years he began creating some of the greatest films to emerge from the US.
From his first success with Double Indemnity it was clear that Wilder had a knack for making visually creative films that were stamped with witty and incisive dialogue, but also able to expose the hypocrisy the pervaded society.  His filmography is incredible, and includes The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.  Wilder has the distinction of having personally written (usually with a partner) every single one of the films that he directed.
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
Billy Wilder had long maintained a desire to bring his own distinct version of Sherlock Holmes to the screen. The wheels were in motion as early as 1957, when Wilder approached Rex Harrison to play Holmes in a stage musical as part of a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe and Moss Hart, incidentally signing a deal with the Conan Doyle estate for the rights at that time. The musical was never to be, but the process that would inevitably lead to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes had begun. By 1963, Wilder was courting Peter Sellers for the role of Watson and Peter O’Toole as Holmes. Also a non-starter as it turned out.
In January of 1968, Wilder finally began his serious search for a Holmes and Watson. He spoke to the British Press in February, and described his view:
“What I plan is a serious study of Holmes, something in depth. After all, he was a most rivetting character – a dope addict and a misogynist. Yet in all the movies made about him nobody has ever explained why.”
Ed Sikov further quotes him in the book “On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder”:
“I was interested by this bachelor misogynist – the way his brain worked. “The best of the century,” as Watson said of his very dear friend. Was he just a thinking machine? An extraordinary eye with great intuition? With a great combination of talents? Or was there something in his life which wounded him, which gave him emotions? Did he hate women? Why did he take drugs? (You know that he took cocaine.) I had to explore all that as well as his marvelous relationship with Watson, a petit-bourgeois doctor retired from the army. It’s a situation like The Odd Couple, only with a Victorian backdrop – two bachelors living together. We made it funny and romantic. It’s not a Freudian analysis.”
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
By April of 1968, he had Robert Stephens as his Holmes and Colin Blakely as his Watson. Now in casting for a Mycroft, he turned to…George Sanders! The urbane legend was ill, and expressed serious doubts about being able to regain his health while working for a perfectionist like Wilder. In a letter to a friend, Sanders explained:
“I would rather do some crummy guest spot in a second-rate movie and take my time to get well.”
Copyright  2000 ©  Photofest
Fortunately, this left the door open for Christopher Lee. Quite frankly, this was to be Christopher Lee’s first film with a director of Wilder’s status and would mark a distinct move away from the horror films that had clearly resulted in his being typecast as a horror star. In a recent interview with Bob Badway, published in Filmfax magazine, Mr. Lee reiterates the significance of the film:
“In 1970, a couple things happened. One is very important, one is fairly important. The very important one was “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” with one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema…If I were good enough to appear in a film directed by Billy Wilder – which I suppose, for lack of a better word, could be described as a “light comedy” of sorts (although there were dark depths to it as well, particularly with the character of Sherlock) – then it’s absolutely no question of typecasting, because he wouldn’t have taken me. Then my career started to change. Everything started to change.”
Also noted in an interview in Scarlet Street #4, 1991:
“…I personally was extremely grateful, because it was the beginning of a very considerable change in my career as an actor. In the previous 10-odd years, I’d been appearing in films for Hammer and I was becoming typecast. I didn’t make all that many, but everybody seemed to think I did, and I was becoming typecast in that kind of picture – although in fact, I played romantic leading men in those films as well as heavies. I, like any actor who can play more than one role, was determined to prove my versatility to the industry and the public. And the opportunity came for me in 1970, when Billy Wilder chose me to play Mycroft Holmes in his film. I shall be eternally grateful to him, not only for the opportunity of having made a film with him, one of the great legendary directors of all time, but also because, by casting me in that part, he helped me to break this ring of typecasting. I was one of three or four actors considered for that role including George Sanders, Laurence Olivier and an actor called James Robertson-Justice, and I in fact was chosen. I remember Billy Wilder saying to me, “I’m really not interested in what you have done in the past. I’m only concerned as to whether you are the right actor, in my opinion, to play this part.”
Copyright  2000 ©  Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences
So, with a cast firmly in place and a 260-page monster script in hand, Wilder began production on his project at Pinewood Studios in the spring of 1969, with further location shooting at Inverness. Budgeted at $10 million, this was set to be a 165-minute Road Show picture with an intermission for comfort. This was to be the "Big One" for Billy Wilder! The shooting schedule ran for 6 months and resulted in a rough-cut that came in at 3 hours and 20 minutes. The film was originally structured as a series of very specifically structured linked episodes, each with a particular title and theme.
The opening sequence was to  feature Watson’s grandson in London claiming his inherited dispatch box from Cox & Co., there was also a flashback to Holmes’ Oxford days to explain his distrust of women. All were shot, but deleted from the final print. So what happened? Well, it appears that United Artists suffered a number of major film flops in 1969 that pretty much scuppered the road show format for Wilder’s massive project. Studio exec’s ordered the film to be cut to fill a regular theatrical running time, whittling the film down to a 125-minute version. The episodic format made the pruning process relatively simple, so cut were the opening sequence, the Oxford flashback and two full episodes entitled “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” at 15 minutes and “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” at 30 minutes. We can only hope that the full footage can one day be restored, although a full print is not currently thought to exist.
However, in 1994 Image Entertainment released a laser disc that did contain the soundtrack (without picture) to the “Upside Down Room” sequence and picture (without sound) for the “Naked Honeymooners” sequence. With any luck, perhaps something more will come to light before a DVD version is released. After the cutting process, the film opened to mixed reviews at Radio City Music Hall on October 29, 1970. After a short run, the film managed to take in only $1.5 million. The film was a financial and critical bomb that resulted in a distinct drop in Wilder’s prestige, but took Christopher Lee out of the horror genre and gave him a boost into more mainstream roles.
Copyright  2000 ©  Museum of Modern Art
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
The character of Holmes’ brother Mycroft appears in only 4 scenes, the first at the Diogenes Club, the second in a tent near the Scottish castle that leads into the presentation of the submersible to the Queen and eventually in the apprehension of Ilse Von Hoffmanstal. His final contribution is a voiceover to a letter explaining the final fate of the German spy. Not a particularly large part in the film, but memorable all the same.
The Diogenes sequence is by far the most satisfying and sets the tone for the clearly strained relationship between the Holmes brothers. Mycroft is smug, snobbish and arrogant in his dealing with Holmes and Watson. At times he treats Sherlock very much as a wayward younger brother. Christopher Lee’s appearance is not at all like the corpulent Mycroft envisaged by Conan Doyle. He is rather a lean, balding and well-dressed government official. Christopher Lee comments in Scarlet Street #4:
“What Wilder wanted for Mycroft, I assume, was an actor who physically resembled Sherlock a bit, who could have been his brother physically – both Robert Stephens and myself being fairly slim.”

“Yes, he’s always been described as burly and portly and bald. Of course, he’s been played by other actors. Robert Morley played him, perhaps as near as anyone to the conventional Mycroft Holmes... And although I did not play Mycroft as Conan Doyle had described him, how many actors have played Holmes as Conan Doyle has described him? How many actors have played Watson exactly as Conan Doyle described him? How many actors have played any written character exactly as described by the author? There are a few, but not all that many.”
The reference to Robert Morley is perhaps not coincidental. Wilder’s film was shot less than four years after the release of A Study in Terror which featured Morley, perfectly cast, as the corpulent Mycroft. Lee’s performance is very reminiscent of Morley’s, particularly in his delivery of certain elements of dialogue as well as the condescension to Sherlock. Whether this was a conscious effort on Lee or Wilder’s part is anyone’s guess. Regardless of how the character was envisioned, Lee manages to make a solid impact as Mycroft Holmes. His Mycroft is very prim and proper, yet conveys a sense of quiet authority. He even manages the odd bit of humour, generally at Sherlock's expense. Seeing Mycroft deflate as the Queen shows disdain for his submarine program is something of a joy. Perhaps Ron Haydock in his excellent book “Deerstalker: Holmes and Watson on Screen” states the case most succinctly:
“Actually, besides the wonderful sets and photography and more than capable performances by others in the cast, the real star of the film was Christopher Lee. While hardly the visual recreation of Mycroft Holmes from the Conan Doyle stories, Lee’s Mycroft was nevertheless a strong character, purposeful and dominating; the kind of man one would think of more as Sherlock, not the otherwise lazy and over-indulgent Mycroft. It was one of Lee’s best roles in films of any kind.”
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
While I do feel that Christopher Lee's performance is quite good, I'd say he has played more noteworthy roles, but at that point in his career, I'm certain that it was a welcome relief from the endless stream of villains that he had been portraying. Mycroft certainly ranks as an important part in both Lee's association with Holmes and in his own career.

The film itself was perhaps just a few years ahead of it's time, both in structure and content. The mammoth Sherlockian renewal to follow the release of Nicholas Meyer's
Seven Percent Solution was still a few years off. PLOSH is a fascinating film in that it attempts to do far more with Holmes than any previous incarnation. That Billy Wilder was a Holmes enthusiast is obvious, but that he saw room to add to the legend is also clear. The film raises some interesting points about Holmes the man, rather than Holmes the detective, particularly in reards to his sexuality. The missing vignette set in Oxford, that described the reasoning behind Holmes loss of trust in women is intruiging in itself. It deals with Holmes discovery that a girl which he adored was in fact a prostitute which resulted in his disillusionment with the fairer sex. As it is, Holmes sexuality is quite ambigous for much of the film and Wilder has stated that he thought he didn't go far enough with the character, originally wanting to present him as gay. So, whatever the case, the film did certainly shed a new light on Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately, over the years, the film has received quite a bit of attention and has risen in the esteem of both Wilder critics and Holmes enthusiasts alike. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Christopher Lee's next encounter with Holmes...
To be continued in Part Three...
In the follow-up I'll examine Christopher Lee's return to the role of Sherlock Holmes in
Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years
Copyright 1970 ©  United Artists
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Mirisch Films/United Artists
Producer: Billy Wilder
Assoc. Producer: I. A. L. Diamond
Dir: Billy Wilder
Assistant Dir: Tom Pevsner
Screenplay: Billy Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Photography: Christopher Challis
Special Effects: Wally Veevers & Cliff Richardson
Ballet Advisor & Dances: David Blair
Costumes: Julie Harris
Editor: Ernest Walter
Titles: Maurice Binder
Filmed in Panavision
Color : DeLuxe

Robert Stephens as Holmes
Colin Blakely as Watson
Genevieve Page as Gabrielle Valladon
Christopher Lee as Mycroft Holmes
Tamara Tourmanova as Madame Petrova
Clive Revill as Rogozhin
Irene Handl as Mrs. Hudson
George Benson as Insp. Lestrade
Mollie Maureen as Queen Victoria
Stanley Holloway as Head Gravedigger
Catherine Lacy as Woman in Wheelchair
Peter Madden as Von Tirpitz
Michael Balfour as The Cabbie
James Copeland as The Guide
John Garrie as First Carter
Godfrey James as Second Carter
Robert Cawdron as Hotel Manager
Alex McCrindle as Baggageman
Frank Thornton as Porter
Eric Francis as Other Gravedigger
Ismet Hassan, Charlie Young Atom, Teddy Kiss Atom and
Willie Shearer as The Submarine Crew
125 minutes
"Tall, Dark and Gruesome" by Christopher Lee. Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. 1999
"The Films of Christopher Lee" by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1983                  "Sherlock Holmes on the Screen" by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart. A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc. 1977
"Holmes of the Movies" by David Stuart Davies. Bramhall House. 1978
"The Films of Sherlock Holmes" by Chris Steinbrunner & Norman Michaels. Citadel Press. 1978
"Sherlock Holmes Screen and Sound Guide" by Gordon E. Kelley. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1994
“Deerstalker: Holmes and Watson on Screen” by Ron Haydock. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1978
“Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder” by Kevin Lally. Henry Holt and Co. 1996
“On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder” by Ed Sikov. Hyperion 1998
“FILMFAX” Aug/Sept. 2000, No.80. 
An Interview with Christopher Lee by Bob Badway
“Scarlet Street” Fall 1991, No.4. 
Interview with the Ex-Vampire by Richard Valley
Original text content is Copyright © 2000, 2001 Charles Prepolec. Images are used for review and publicity purposes only, no ownership is given nor implied. Any infringement of copyright is unintentional. Please email the webmaster for immediate removal of any infringing materials.
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