This little moment, from Billy Wilder’s late-period movie, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, has entered into legend amongst a few friends of mine.
When I showed the film to screenwriter Colin McLaren (ROUNDING UP DONKEYS) some years ago, he was transfixed by this moment and insisted I wind the tape back, so he could enjoy it again, his face illuminated with infantile glee.
A year or so after, I ran the movie again in the company of special effects makeup artist Stephen Murphy (SLEUTH), the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED, and at the same moment.
The mesmerising and unique feature of this scene is the strange, mannered performance of the “actor” playing the policeman. The gag is nothing much, and acts as a slightly unwelcome hiccup in the narrative progression, but the copper’s stylised movements lift it into a new stratosphere of crumminess. It’s a “comedic” performance rather than a funny one – every step the man takes seems to be in quotation marks.
It turns out there’s a story behind this scene, and I found it in Knight Errant, the autobiography of Wilder’s Holmes, Sir Robert Stephens. Comedy actor Bob Todd was supposed to play the part. As part of Benny Hill’s troupe of clowns, and Richard Lester’s informal stock company of bit-part comedians, Todd was a logical choice. Not a terribly strong actor, he was nevertheless inherently amusing.
But due to Wilder’s exacting methods, filming overran on the previous scene of the day, so that by the time cinematographer Christopher Challis was ready to turn his camera on the Scotland Yard bobby, Bob had to leave to appear in a play he was performing in the West End. Robert Stephens volunteered his chauffeur for the part, and drilled him in the appropriate comedy movements. That accounts for the cop’s exaggerated mannerisms, which, however, lack the precision of the true clown.
Visual comedy is a very delicate thing! My own brief adventures in the field have only served to show me how much I still need to learn. Wilder himself, an extremely clever visual storyteller in the Hitchcock mode when he felt like it, only dabbled in slapstick, but admired those, like Chaplin and Keaton, who excelled at it. In the ’80s, he would say that the only contemporary film-makers who could do visual gags were Richard Lester and Blake Edwards.
“It’s on the ninth second. If you watch his truncheon hand, there’s many an inforced WAGGLE to that wrist, as if cranking himself up to fully register the horror of the (some way off) comic soaking. It looks like he’s working the crowd, drawing out applause. It really is terrible. The wrongness is everywhere. The lack of extras and precision of shot make if feel indoors and airless, a bit like MARNIE. And the sombre music hardly aides us in our froth. If you want funny Victorian policemen (and who doesn’t) plump for The Phantom Raspberry Blower. If you want crap, it’s all in the wrist.”
More on my outsized love for this film soon.