Looking Back in Anger

Standard

By Scott Ross

For the past two days I have been listening to Quartet Records’ meticulous reconstruction of Miklós Rózsa’s exquisite score for the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in, if not exactly a state of rage, at least fits of reasonably manageable pique.

A note on the Quartet website explains, to a large degree, the reason for my fury: The company’s producers and engineers, it tells us, “spent almost three years searching for the best possible sources, but the original masters are, unfortunately, forever lost […]  We have used three different monaural music-only stems from the MGM vaults for this release — none of which was in ideal condition.”

This is, sadly, an old story, all too often replicated. It is an especially cruel irony that, while the loss of priceless soundtrack masters is not unheard of within the vaults of the major Hollywood studios, this deplorable state of affairs holds true with much more depressing regularity on movies produced outside the system — in those very places where the filmmakers and their collaborators had more freedom than anywhere else. Time after depressing time, we who love film scores are told that the soundtrack for X movie, the cherished LPs of which we’ve worn to hockey pucks over the years, is simply gone.

For older studio scores, the major problem is often that effects and music (and, occasionally, some dialogue) were stored on the same tracks. Nothing to be done about that… at least for now; who knows what digital magician of the future may arrive to perform some as-yet unknown feat of prestidigitation that will ameliorate that fissure? Fortunately, later scores were isolated, often with their stereo components intact, or their composers kept master tapes in their own collections, so many of the glories of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s can come to us more or less in full, sometimes with astounding aural feshness (Kritzerland’s release of the Les Baxter Black Sunday is a good example.)

In the case of an entity such as United Artists, however, home-from-home for so many gifted screenwriters, directors, actors and composers during that time, the elements were sometimes scattered to the four winds when not destroyed outright. (Often, the LP masters, which can differ markedly from what’s heard in the movies, are all that remains.) Varèse Sarabande just barely caught Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent Hawaii in time, after nearly giving up hope, and Quartet recently performed a miracle resuscitation on Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale. Jose Luis Crespo has done a remarkable job with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and deserves the praise and thanks of so many who love Rózsa, and revere this movie, and its score. But the facts behind this release are intolerable. The London studio where the score was recorded in 1970 was since demolished. Fair enough. These things happen. But much of its holdings were destroyed in the process. That is damn near unforgivable. It’s very much akin to Warner Bros. quite literally bulldozing decades’ worth of its animation department’s irreplaceable history just to make more room for its publicity department.

Wilder and Diamond envisioned, and shot, Holmes as a three-hour “roadshow” presentation, with four distinct segments. By the time the picture was edited the Mirisch Brothers of U.A., leery of the shellacking Hollywood studios had been taking on so many big-budget flops, demanded Wilder cut the picture by an hour. Not that it mattered; the movie, a comic/melancholy exercise of rare beauty and rue, died anyway. Of the two trimmed episodes, one is extant only without sound while the other exists solely as soundtrack, the filmed footage having disappeared decades ago. If what exists were not, like Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim’s Greed, so exceptional, it might not hurt so much to know that the possibility of a true restoration is, in all likelihood, nothing more than a pretty but ultimately foolish dream. And so the loss of Rózsa’s achingly beautiful score in its optimal presentation somehow just feels like the perfect capper to the entire, doomed project.

Wilder asked Rózsa to base the score on his alternately plaintive and exhilarating Violin Concerto, cannily equating both its moods and its primary instrument with Holmes. The result is one of the finest scores, not merely of the composer’s own impressive oeuvre, but in the annals of movie scoring. It should be said that Crespo & Co. have done wizard’s work, given what they had to work with, and that their sheer determination to present The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in anything like Rózsa original earns them a special seat in Paradise.

Still. The losses to music history, and to its future, are incalculable. So you’ll forgive me if I’m still angry.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Script: If you didn’t order this one fast, I’m afraid it’s already too late; as with so many limited edition soundtrack releases, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is already sold out. But you can at least sample some of the music on the Quartet website.

http://www.quartetrecords.com/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes.html

Advertisements

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Standard

By Scott Ross

One of Billy Wilder’s loveliest movies, cut drastically before its premiere. Worse, over time the sound has gone missing from at least one sequence and the picture from another, so barring a minor miracle no true reconstruction is possible. A genuine pity, since this autumnal masterwork deserves a much wider following.

Wilder and his compatriot, I.A.L. Diamond, conceived their Holmes (Robert Stephens) as a melancholy, acerbic misanthrope, both amused by and irritated at the fictions of Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Wilder and Diamond caught the ire of Sherlockians everywhere by implying that their Holmes might be homosexual (“You mean you and Dr. Watson — he is your glass of tea?” “If you want to be picturesque about it.”) but the matter is more or less settled when the consulting detective becomes entranced by a duplicitous double-agent (Geneviève Page.)

Also around to upset traditionalists is Christopher Lee as a very gaunt Mycroft Holmes and Irene Handl’s less-than-enchanting Mrs. Hudson. Lee later credited Wilder’s casting with lifting him out of the horror ghetto typecasting he’d been subjected to, although the filmmaker could not resit, on seeing a bat flying near Loch Lomand at dusk, remarking to Lee, “You should feel right at home here.”

Stanley Holloway also shows up as a gravedigger (a nod perhaps to his famous turn in Hamlet?) The exquisite cinematography is by Christopher Challis, the marvelously detailed production design is Alexandre Trauner’s, and Miklós Rózsa provides the sumptuous, haunting score; at wilder’s request he adapted his own Violin Concerto, a canny move that dovetails beautifully with Holmes’ plangent choice of musical instrument.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond began their razor-sharp collaboration with this utterly charming adaptation of the Claude Anet novel Ariane. Along with the team’s later, rueful 1971 movie of the Samuel Taylor farce Avanti!, Love in the Afternoon constitutes the most thoroughly Lubitschean of Wilder’s comic romances. The set-up (or as Wilder would call it, the “Wienie”) is a honey: Maurice Chevalier is a private detective specializing in marital infidelity, assiduously — and vainly — trying to guard his virginal daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn) from too much knowledge of the seamier aspects of his avocation. Naturally enough, the girl becomes involved with her father’s primary bete noir, a dissipated American roué (Gary Cooper) whom she begins meeting in the Parisian afternoons.

The “love” of the title is, bracingly for the movie’s period, really sex, and as long as it remains that way, Cooper is happy. Hepburn, of course, falls hard for her coeval, while maintaining a false soignée attitude that causes her intense emotional pain. While the movie holds the contour of a boulevard farce, that ache is its central concern; Love in the Afternoon may be the funniest romantic drama Billy Wilder ever made, a warm-up for Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.

Cooper, long past his sensual prime, still manages to conjure wispy echoes of his own history as the beautiful icon of 1930s stoicism, and the long sequence in which he listens to Hepburn’s voice on a recorder recounting her (wholly fictional) amorous past with an initial delight that turns into almost violent brooding is one of Wilder’s most memorable comic coups. Hepburn is her usual luminous self, veering from adolescent absorption (the old tune “Fascination” is the movie’s recurring melodic motif) to erotic and emotional enthrall with a delicacy and charm that can break your heart. Chevalier has his best-ever role as her solicitous father, and the supporting cast includes the peerless John McGavin as the adenoidal cuckold whose obsession with his wife’s unfaithfulness starts the whole ball of wax rolling.

The Wilder-Diamond screenplay is delicious, and includes one of their finest exchanges, when Chevalier asserts his need to keep the sexual excesses in his files from his daughter and Hepburn protests that her late mother knew what was in them:

Chevalier: Ariane! Your mother was a married woman!

Hepburn (Smiling ingenuously): I’m so glad!

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Double Indemnity (1944)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s third movie as writer-director is one of his finest. With John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, it also helped set the tone and look for what would later be called film noir. (Although, technically, noir thrived due to the photographic tricks required to work around restrictive, post-War B-movie budgets, and these two studio products were definitely A-movies.)

This is the movie to point to when some critical ignoramus claims that Billy Wilder, for all his verbal acuity, was not a visual director. Despite its California setting, the movie has the look of an industrialized vision of Hell: shadows predominate, and machinery itself takes on the menacing aspect of deadly inexorability: an automobile makes the murder itself possible, a train helps disguise the act, and the often repeated motto of the sexually insatiable killers (Fred MacMurray and, especially, Barbara Stanwyck, who when kissing MacMurray looks positively carnivorous — she appears about to devour the man) is “Straight down the line.” MacMurray, cast against type, is revelatory. This was the first of his two great movie roles, both courtesy of Wilder (c.f., The Apartment) and he more than rose to the occasion.

Edward G. Robinson, also playing against his by-then accepted criminal persona, is the indomitable insurance investigator, unaware that he’s pursuing the man he regards as a kind of unofficial son — although you might argue his feelings for MacMurray are more akin to romantic love. Raymond Chandler, against his will, co-wrote the superb screenplay with Wilder from a James Cain novella he loathed. Miklos Rozsa composed the pluperfect score.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Irma La Douce (1963)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond followed The Apartment with the riotous One, Two, Three. That one was no blockbuster, but this wild adaptation of the Paris, London and Broadway success (sans musical numbers) was a huge hit — the last the pair would ever have. Wilder later admitted that the movie isn’t nearly French enough, and it does feel like an American comedy with the occasional bit of Gallic street patois and European attitude tossed in. Of course, the Parisian milieu of mecs and poulles couldn’t work in any other social setting, particularly an American one, and part of the fun of this slightly overlong but immensely enjoyable farce is the matter-of-fact way prostitution is woven into the economic fabric of Les Halles, where the story is set. In brief, it involves an honest cop called Nestor (Jack Lemmon) who falls in with the sweet-natured whore of the title (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. The joke is that he grows insanely jealous of her customers. To keep them both going — and himself from the loony bin — Nestor enacts a charade in which he pretends to be an impotent nitwit of a British lord (concocted from parts of all the English movies he’s ever seen) who becomes Irma’s sole client, while working himself to shreds at night in a variety of menial jobs. The trouble is, Nestor eventually becomes inflamed with jealousy against his own doppelganger!

Note Lemmon in three keys: As flic Patou, mec Nestor and Monsieur X.

The movie is a racy variation on the old Molnar comedy The Guardsman, and a fine example of Wilder’s self-appraisal of his work as a mix of Lubitsch and Von Stroheim. Lemmon and MacLaine are dead perfect, as is Lou Jacobi as the story’s compere (a role Wilder originally intended for Charles Laughton.) Alexander Trauner’s main set is a superb evocation of Les Halles, and Marguerite Monnot’s songs were beautifully adapted (and enlarged upon) in Andre Previn’s exquisite score. Irma was Wilder’s first color movie since The Spirit of St. Louis, and it’s exquisitely photographed (by longtime Wilder confederate Joseph La Shelle), the pastels cheerfully offsetting the narrative’s essential sordidness.

The combined TV viewing of this and The Great Race (made a year later) when I was 11 introduced me to Jack Lemmon and started a one-way love affair with that absolutely essential American actor that will likely continue the rest of my life.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s savage, yet deeply felt, black mass on the Hollywood he both loved and — on the basis of this one — must have loathed a bit as well.

Few talking pictures crammed in so many quotable lines, but John Seitz’s visuals are equally striking: William Holden, face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool; the celebrated monkey funeral; Swanson standing up amid a projector’s beam and swirling cigarette smoke like some demented harpy direct from Hell; and that long descent down her mansion’s rococo staircase at the finale. (Wilder to Seitz on the set: “Just your standard monkey funeral shot, Johnny.”)

Holden’s performance as the doomed, tawdry screenwriter was his breakout, and 55 years later it’s still riveting. This was the movie that finally put an end to Wilder’s fertile partnership with co-scenarist Charles Brackett; D.M. Marshman Jr. shares a screenwriting credit, largely on the basis of having helped Wilder over a narrative hurdle by observing, “What if the old dame shoots the boy?”

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Apartment (1960)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s successor to Some Like it Hot is an excoriating expose of dirty little American business practices that was itself, amazingly (and rather hysterically) labeled smutty.

Jack Lemmon has seldom been better than he is here, playing a nebbish who loans out the key to his apartment to his firm’s executive staff in hopes of bettering himself at the office. Shirley MacLaine is almost impossibly adorable as the elevator girl he pines for, in the performance that should have won her the Oscar she had to wait a quarter-century to receive. And Fred MacMurray is used to unprecedentedly smarmy effect as the big boss who’s stringing them both along.

The Wilder/Diamond screenplay contains a plethora of memorable lines, most of them for MacLaine as Fran Kubelik and including one (“Why do people have to love people anyway?”) that came straight from the actress herself.

MacLaine: Some people take, some people get took. And they know they’re getting took, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

*****************************************************************

MacLaine: That’s the way it crumbles… cookie-wise.

MacMurray: What are you talking about?

MacLaine: I’d spell it out for you, only I can’t spell.

****************************************************************

Lemmon: I love you, Miss Kubelik. Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.

MacLaine: Shut up and deal.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross