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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Murder By Decree (1979)

December 3rd, 2010

After watching Time After Time, the 1979 film in which H.G. Welles matches wits with Jack the Ripper (read my review here), I decided to move on to another film in which a towering literary figure confronts Jack the Ripper.  I’m speaking of Murder by Decree, which interestingly enough was also released in 1979.  In this case, the hero is not H.G. Welles (real-life author of fiction) but rather (famous fictional creation) Sherlock Holmes.

Whereas Time After Time had a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, Murder By Decree is deadly serious.  As a result, I think the film has aged far better than did Time After Time.  I know I certainly found it to be far more engaging.

It helps that the film stars Christopher Plummer — one of the finest actors of this generation — in the lead role of Sherlock Holmes.  Mr. Plummer is positively spectacular.  He brings tremendous intelligence and dignity to the role of Holmes.  But he also brings a lot of humor and easy humanity to the character.  Plummer’s Holmes is a relaxed figure, confident in his abilities without becoming arrogant, and without losing any of his joie de vivre.  We can see that this Holmes truly enjoys life, whether he’s being challenged by a tough case or just teasing his partner Watson about the way he eats his peas.  Speaking of Watson, James Mason is equally wonderful in that supporting role.  This Watson is no bumbling idiot.  While he might be no match, intellectually, for Holmes, Mason’s Watson clearly is able to hold his own in the partnership.  The two old men (and it’s interesting to see the characters both presented as such almost elderly gentlemen, particularly after the recent successful film version with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law — read my review here) have a tight bond and an easy friendship.  I’m sorry that this film is the two actors’ only pairing in these roles!  I would have loved to have seen Plummer and Mason continue as these characters for a series of films.

In this Holmes pastiche, a group of frightened merchants beg Holmes to investigate the series of brutal murders that have been happening in the Whitechapel district of London.  For some reason the police, usually eager to partner with the intelligent investigator, have been reluctant to involve Holmes in the cases.  But as the murders continue, Holmes quickly becomes wrapped up in the quest to stop the man nicknamed Jack the Ripper.

Murder By Decree has a very literate, intelligent script.  I am not an expert in the Jack the Ripper murders, but I was impressed by the degree to which the filmmakers stuck to the historical record in depicting the murders and the various clues found at the scenes (such as the grape stem found at one murder, and the scrawled warning about the “Juwes” at another).  Indeed, I was fascinated to see the film lay out, as the story proceeds, the intriguing notion that the murders had a connection to a conspiracy that lead all the way up to the monarchy.  This is the theory that was presented in intricate detail in, among other works, Alan Moore’s graphic novel masterpiece From Hell.  (Please don’t confuse that with the half-baked film adaptation starring Johnny Depp.)  It’s a really juicy conspiracy theory, and the film does an excellent job at presenting all the intricate pieces of the theory for the audience.  It’s a lot of fun to see Holmes put the pieces together.  Would that there really had been an investigator such as Holmes in London at the time!!

The supporting cast is filled out with such notable actors as Donald Sutherland (MASH, Klute, Animal House, and so many more great films) as Robert Lees, a man who claims to have important insight into the murders; Genevieve Bujold (Coma, Dead Ringers) as Annie Crook, a young woman in an insane asylum who just might be a central figure in the case; Anthony Quayle (The Guns of Navarone, Lawrence of Arabia) as Sir Charles Warren; and Sir John Gielgud (the great Shakespearean actor who also appeared in films such as The Elephant Man, Gandhi, Murder on the Orient Express, and more) as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.  All of those characters were actual people.  Then there’s also Frank Finlay who seemed to be having a lot of fun as Inspector Lestrade, a recurring character in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  (It’s really clever the way the filmmakers have woven the Holmes mythos into the Jack the Ripper events!)

As I commented above, the film as aged well.  There are a few moments of action that are a little dodgy (a sequence in which Holmes and an unfortunate woman are being run down by a carriage looks particularly weak to modern eyes), but for the most part this film is a drama rather than an action film which, I think, helps the film play well even three decades later. The bulk of of the film consists of characters talking to one another, and the drama is wrung from Holmes’ intellectual processes and his and Watson’s race-against-the-clock to identify the murder.  Those scenes maintain much of the same tension and suspense as they most likely did when the film was released.

I must say that I think Murder By Decree contains one of my favorite screen depictions of Holmes and Watson.  Even though it’s not an adaptation of an Arthur Conan Doyle story, this film feels like a classic Holmes tale.  It’s a fairly forgotten film today, but it’s well-worth your time to check out.

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