I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes films. However, strange though it may seem, the stories and novels which inspired them never grabbed me in the same way. This may be due in part to the fact that I was first exposed to the screen Holmes rather than the literary Holmes, or it may be that my subsequent reading of Doyle’s stories left me a little underwhelmed. My earliest memories of the great detective and Dr. Watson were the films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the years I’ve seen many more actors take on the role, from Peter Cushing and Andre Morell through to Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. However, Rathbone and Bruce have remained the definitive screen incarnations – seems to bear out the old saying about first impressions. Murder By Decree (1978) offers Christopher Plummer in the role of Holmes and James Mason as Watson. I found them to be probably my second favorite pairing although the Cushing/Morell combination would run them pretty close.
This film has nothing to do with the Doyle stories (not always a bad thing) but simply takes his characters and transplants them into the Jack the Ripper mystery. This wasn’t the first time Holmes had been called upon to attempt to crack the famous unsolved murders on screen; that distinction belongs to A Study in Terror, made a decade before. While the earlier film was made on a more modest budget, Murder By Decree was an expensive production filled with big names. The plot has Holmes called into the case in its latter stages as a result of an anonymous tip-off. He is met with open hostility from the authorities in the form of Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle). The mysterious informants later turn out to be members of a citizens’ committee (in reality anarchist agitators) who have taken a special interest in the murders. Holmes investigation takes him through the seedy and foggy backstreets of Victorian Whitechapel, where his and Watson’s conversations with the friends of the murdered women draw him closer to an unpalatable conclusion. When he finally visits an asylum to meet an inmate called Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), the talk he has not only confirms his suspicion but also leads that monument to logical reasoning to break down and weep. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I will say that it will scarcely come as a surprise as it involves a fanciful theory that has been frequently expounded.
Christopher Plummer gives a performance as Holmes which brings out the humanity of the man better than anyone else I’ve seen. I’m not going to claim that this is Holmes as Doyle wrote him; by all accounts, Jeremy Brett managed to nail that one. Instead of the aloof character of literature we get a more rounded man and it is genuinely affecting to see him display honest emotion in the scene with Genevieve Bujold. He also gives a fine speech at the end when rails against Lord Salisbury (John Gielgud) and the hypocrisy of the powers that be. James Mason’s Watson is closer to the spirit of Doyle and not the bumbling, yet engaging, buffoon that Nigel Bruce made famous. Having said that, he does have his moments – the “You squashed my pea!” business never fails to raise a smile with me. The film is a very starry one with many good character turns: Anthony Quayle gives a wonderfully distasteful portrait of upper-class arrogance, David Hemmings is a policeman with his own private agenda, Donald Sutherland’s frightened psychic haunted by his own visions, and no Holmes film would be complete without Lestrade (Frank Finlay).
Murder By Decree is out on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the R2 from Momentum and it has a pretty good anamorphic transfer and includes the theatrical trailer. I’m not sure if the R1 from Anchor Bay tops it but I’m happy enough with what I have. All in all, I think this is a very entertaining Holmes film which positively drips atmosphere. It features some great photography and excellent acting, and successfully blends the characters into a set of real historical circumstances. The resolution doesn’t particularly convince but, given the nature of the events, that’s always going to be the case. Unless you’re expecting a movie that sticks rigidly to Doyle’s characters you shouldn’t be disappointed.