With a 260-page script and a budget of $10 million, this was set to be a 165-minute Road Show picture with an intermission for comfort. It was to be the "Big One" for Billy Wilder. The shooting schedule ran for six months and resulted in a rough-cut that came in at three 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. and 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 execs ordered the film to be cut to fill a regular theatrical running time, whittling it 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.
Originally, the scenes featuring the Loch Ness Monster were intended to be filmed in the actual Loch. A life-size prop was built which had several Nessie-like humps used to disguise flotation devices. The humps were removed, however, at Billy Wilder's request. Unfortunately, during a test run in Loch Ness, the Monster-prop sank and was never recovered. A second prop, a miniature with just the head and neck, was built, but was only filmed inside a studio tank. Actress Geneviève Page said of this in the biography "Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder" by Charlotte Chandler): "When we lost our Loch Ness monster, he [Wilder] wasn't too concerned, even though he was also the producer. He was more concerned about how the man who made it felt when all his work sank to the bottom of the Loch Ness. He went over and comforted him". The original monster prop was located on the bottom of Loch Ness in April 2016 during a survey of the loch by an underwater robot.
Christopher Lee comes the role of Mycroft with considerable experience in the Sherlock Holmes universe: he previously played Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville. It's been said that Lee is the only, or at least one of few actors, to portray onscreen both Mycroft Holmes and Sherlock Holmes.
Billy Wilder said of this film in the book 'Conversations with Wilder' by Cameron Crowe, "... when I came back [from Paris], it was an absolute disaster, the way it was cut. The whole prologue was cut, a half-sequence was cut. I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing...It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot."
By the time of filming, Christopher Lee had become famous as Count Dracula; when he and Billy Wilder walked on the shores of Loch Ness at dusk, with bats circling overhead, Wilder said to him, 'You must feel quite at home here.'
The following have commented on the film's original intended long length and massive editing cut down --- Virgin Film Guide: "The Film was cut by more than thirty minutes by United Artists"; Leonard Maltin: The film was "intended as a 3½ hour film"; Allmovie: "Heavily re-edited and rearranged both before and after its release"; Halliwells: "What started as four stories is reduced to two"; Empire: "Originally a three-hour epic, this 1970 movie was taken from its creator and mutilated by the wholesale lopping of entire episodes".
One of the picture's main movie posters featured a long text preamble that read: "What you don't know about Sherlock Holmes has made a great motion picture. Everyone knows about the lightning-quick mind, the dazzling wit, the magnifying glass. But what about the little glass vials he so cunningly kept hidden. And what about the security blunder that almost cost the British Empire its navy. And what about the woman who spent the night with him".
According to Billy Wilder, since because of schedule conflicts he couldn't himself supervise the bowdlerization of the picture demanded by the Studios, he entrusted the task to the editor, Ernest Walter. Nevertheless, Wilder supposedly strongly disliked the cuts made by Walter, and couldn't re-edit the movie because all the deleted scenes were lost or thrown away. Some of those scenes are available today, but never with both the audio and the video intact.
The sub-plot in which Sherlock Holmes is approached by a famous ballerina who wishes him to father a child on her is inspired by a real-life incident. George Bernard Shaw was once approached by the notorious dancer Isadora Duncan, who told him that, if they had a child together, it would have "my beauty and your brains"; Shaw rebuffed her quickly, saying, "Ah, yes, dear lady, but what if it has my beauty and your brains instead?" In this film, Sherlock Holmes uses a rather different method of putting the lady off.
Around this time, there were also plans to film the Leslie Bricusse musical "Baker Street" which debuted on Broadway in 1965. Fritz Weaver had played Holmes on stage, and Peter Sallis was his Watson. Christopher Walken had played one of the villains. Due to its poor performance on Broadway (it played over 300 shows but had been hugely expensive to mount ) and the worry that it would cover much of the same ground as the Billy Wilder project, it never materialised.
The film's opening shot of the "Cox & Co." bank and the opening line "Somewhere in the vaults of a bank in London, there is a tin dispatch box with my name on it" come from Conan Doyle's "The Problem of Thor Bridge" where the actual line is: "Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid."
The New York Times reported on 13th April 2016 in an article by Daniel Victor: "Loch Ness Monster Is Found! (Kind of. Not Really.)". The thirty foot prop of the Loch Ness Monster, which was discovered at the bottom of the famed Loch Ness Scottish lake in April 2016, was found "180 meters down on the bed of the lake in April. It had sunk during production in 1969 and a new Nessie was created for the film."
The BBC News, in an article by BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter Steven McKenzie, reported on 13th April 2016 with the headline: "Film's lost Nessie monster prop found in Loch Ness". The article stated a "30 ft (9m) model of the Loch Ness Monster built in 1969 for a Sherlock Holmes movie has been found almost 50 years after it sank in the loch...It has been seen for the first time in images captured by an underwater robot. Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine said the shape, measurements and location pointed to the object being the prop." He continued: "We have found a monster, but not the one many people might have expected. The model was built with a neck and two humps and taken alongside a pier for filming of portions of the film in 1969. The director [Billy Wilder] did not want the humps and asked that they be removed, despite warnings I suspect from the rest of the production that this would affect its buoyancy. And the inevitable happened. The model sank. We can confidently say that this is the model because of where it was found, the shape - there is the neck and no humps - and from the measurements." The piece states that during production the model "sank while being towed behind a boat. Wilder is said to have comforted Veevers [Wally Veevers] after watching his creation disappear beneath the waves. The director, who had also been dogged with problems lighting scenes at Loch Ness, had a new monster made - but just its head and neck - and moved the filming to a large water tank in a film studio."
The film's DVD sleeve notes report the following piece of trivia: "This was not the only time Robert Stephens portrayed the world-famous detective. He also portrayed Holmes in the famous William Gillette stage play about the private eye on Broadway!".
Film critic Leonard Maltin reported that a cut twelve minute sequence, entitled 'The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners', was "restored to laserdisc". This unreleased footage premiered in 1994 for that LD release.
Colin Blakely was cast quite late in pre-production and was hired by Billy Wilder on the strong recommendation of Robert Stephens, a friend and colleague of Blakely's in his work with the National Theatre, and his co-star in the original stage production of "The Royal Hunt Of The Sun" by Peter Shaffer in 1964. In that, Blakely played Pizarro and Stephens played Atahuallpa; both had been lavishly praised for their performances.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the film's opening sequence, the music score retrieved from Dr. Watson's dispatch box displays the header "Sherlock Holmes, comp." and the dedication "for Ilse von H.". The latter refers to Ilse von Hoffmanstal, alias Gabrielle Valladon.