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Murder By Decree (1979)

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 … [continued]