No one wrote and directed a more impressive roster of hits than Billy Wilder. His enduring achievement includes Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot. And with time, it’s been evident that Wilder’s “flops” are of greater interest than a number of other directors’ successes—Ace in the Hole and Kiss Me, Stupid, big-time failures when released, look better with every revival. Arguably, some of Wilder’s finest work is to be found in three late-career flops: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Avanti! (1972), and Fedora (1978). These singular films, more overtly romantic than anything he had done before, form a loose trilogy. All were made in Europe—it’s as if the Austrian-born director, for many years a relentless chronicler of the postwar American scene, felt the need to return to the continental culture he had abandoned in favor of Hollywood.
Private Life, Wilder’s valentine to Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythical detective, is an odd blend of comedy and melancholy, pairing Robert Stephens as a foppish and surprisingly vulnerable Holmes with Colin Blakely’s lovable Dr. Watson. When an alluring client (Geneviéve Page) asks Holmes to find her missing husband, the trail leads to Loch Ness, where he encounters an almost surreal assemblage of oddities. An unacknowledged passion grows between Holmes and the lady, but in the end, he returns to Baker Street, his cocaine, and Dr. Watson. Although Wilder was usually more concerned with story than imagery, this autumnal work, with its lush location shooting by Michael Powell’s cinematographer Christopher Challis, turned out the best-looking picture of his career.
The vein of tenderness evident in Private Life recurs in Avanti!, which has aged beautifully. This dark comedy concerns a stodgy American (Jack Lemmon) who gets involved with a pudgy Englishwoman (Juliet Mills) in Italy, where they have gone to claim the bodies of their deceased parents, who they discover had been lovers. Lemmon’s performance as the right-wing executive who undergoes a transformation is as good as anything he has ever done for Wilder.
Fedora, an elaborate Gothic melodrama, reads a tad like Sunset Boulevard revisited. It too stars William Holden—here he’s a down-on-his-luck producer who travels to Corfu in an attempt to jump-start his career by signing up a legendary, ageless screen beauty who had retired at the height of her stardom. The mystery diva is surrounded by a sinister entourage bent on guarding the secret of her miraculous youthfulness. Although Fedora suffers from the casting of a merely serviceable Marthe Keller in a role that called for the charisma of a young Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, it remains a florid and haunting speculation on the nature of art, legend, and celebrity, and one of Wilder’s most personal films.