For my first post after an extended break, I’m taking a quick look at two new essential Blu-ray releases from my favorite director, Billy Wilder.
In July, Kino released its first wave of titles from the MGM/UA library. These included two underrated titles from Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Both of these films show two very different sides of Wilder, but both are quintessential films in his canon.
Witness is based on the play by Agatha Christie and shows that Wilder could handle suspense as well as Alfred Hitchcock. The best way to watch this film is to see after going years without seeing it. That way, you can completely forget what the twist is. Then you see it and can just marvel at how well Wilder directs it.
The cast of the film is surprisingly strong. These are all men and women who have been on the stage and screen so long that you can’t imagine the world of film without them. Where would we be without Charles Laughton? How could we have gotten on without Marlene Dietrich? Then there’s that performance from Tyrone Power, coming as a revelation. He could act and if his string of successful films at Fox earlier in his career didn’t prove it, Witness does.
Kino’s Blu-ray release is really gorgeous, even if it is only a single-layer disc. The only extra beyond the ingenious trailer is a short excerpt from Billy Wilder Speaks that covers the film.
Holmes comes from a different era of Wilder’s career, when he was stuck in the rut with I.A.L. Diamond, as he would remain for the rest of his career. While the partnership did yield The Apartment, many of his films after that received lukewarm responses for good reason. But Holmes was much different, thanks in part to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of course. Robert Stephenson, along with Colin Blakely as Watson, is a joy to watch as Holmes. This is the most fun you’ll have with the character outside of the BBC’s Sherlock.
Sadly, the film is in rough shape. For whatever reason, even though it was made in 1970, it looks awful. It doesn’t help that the 125-minute film has to share a single-layered disc with some standard-def extras that run over an hour. They probably don’t take up much space, but a dual-layered disc would have helped.
Anyway, the extras are very interesting, particularly the 50-minute reel of deleted material. Apparently, Wilder and Diamond had a very long film in mind, but these sequences are more or less self-contained. So, you can cut any of these and they wouldn’t affect the larger mystery. It would have been cool to see Wilder and Diamond put together these cut scenes for a sequel, but Holmes wasn’t that big a hit to even consider that.
I can’t wait for more Wilder films from MGM/UA to hit Blu-ray. It’s sad that Kino appears to be more interested in them than Criterion, but it’s better than nothing. Bring on One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce and The Fortune Cookie please!