Holmes on Film: Murder by Decree (1979)

Recently I started a new series of posts in which I look at film and television works that use the character of Sherlock Holmes, either directly or indirectly. I kicked the series off with a look at two very early shorts – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) and A Canine Sherlock (1912), each of which I would describe as Holmes-adjacent works, using the idea of Holmes but little else about the character.

The subject of today’s post, while also not an adaptation of a canonical Holmes story, sees the character – and Dr. Watson – fully represented. I watched it for the first time in preparation for this post and found it interesting enough that I decided to give it a second viewing later that day. Indeed, I think it may well feature my favorite rendering of one of Doyle’s characters.

Now, on with the movie…

Murder by Decree Blu Ray cover

Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree was not the Great Detective’s first run-in with Jack the Ripper. A little more than a decade earlier James Hill had made A Study in Terror which had starred John Neville as Sherlock Holmes which I have seen but am yet to review on this blog. Interestingly two actors from that production also appear in this – Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay, the latter reprising the same role as Inspector Lestrade.

The first thing to note about Murder by Decree is the intensity of violence represented on screen. Each of the murders that we see feel vicious, with that sense being enhanced by the repeated use of steady-cam sequences in which we seem to be seeing those scenes as the killer. This is where watching the film for a second time however gave me a little extra clarity – that choice helps to imply violence that we do not directly see, adding to the sense of horror while also allowing the director to hold back a little.

On the topic of the violence, let’s also take a moment to reflect on how this (and other works that use the Whitechapel Murders) treats the fact that it is using some real historical figures. There is a school of thought, actually voiced here by Watson in one scene, that the victims can just be turned into props and their worth as individuals can be lost.

The popular conception of the Ripper is examined and explored. We are reminded that class insulated some from the panic that was a part of people’s daily lives for a while. For example, one character comments on how the wealthy seem to revel in exploring the back alleys of the East End where the murders have taken place.

I also appreciate that the film tries to emphasize that the five women murdered were people rather than just victims. The poverty in the East End is represented very effectively, helping to demonstrate the difficulty of the lives of many in the area, and there is an effort to explore their individual circumstances and give at least a couple of them more proactive roles in the story. Yet it’s hard to escape that this is still ultimately fictionalizing real people and that our focus is still ultimately on the question of who the Ripper was. I think it is more tastefully handled than some other fictional explorations of the murders but I can understand those who have trouble with the idea.

Let’s turn then to the characters tasked with solving this mystery – Holmes and Watson. Christopher Plummer had appeared as Sherlock Holmes a short while earlier in a production of Silver Blaze but this is not a continuation of that portrayal which the actor had been less than satisfied with.

I really like a lot about Plummer’s performance here. His Holmes has moments where he appears detached or reluctant to engage, most notably in a scene near the start where he engages with a group of men seeking to hire him. Once the case begins in earnest however it is striking how emotional he becomes, working himself in a fury at several points in the story. Since watching the film I have read a fair bit of criticism of this aspect of his portrayal and I can certainly understand that what we see here isn’t often reflected in the Holmes canon. I think though it is not in itself inconsistent – Holmes’ reluctance to ally himself with the rich and powerful is an undercurrent in several stories and so, by extension, is the idea that he might be appalled by the injustices that he witnesses in this adventure. Those moments and, at points, tears feel earned by the extremity of the situation that he has become involved in and later, by his feeling of culpability in at least a couple of the women’s fates.

There is perhaps a little more truth to the suggestion that his Holmes intuits more than he detects. Like many of the Holmes stories, this is structured more as an adventure than a detective story – at least as far as Holmes is concerned. Many of his actions here are directly following up on ideas of leads suggested to him and the few scenes in which we see our heroes thinking through the case, the ideas being discussed belong to Watson. Holmes it turns out is thinking things through internally rather than voicing them to the viewer. Still, for the viewer however there is an opportunity to play detective as they are provided clues as to the motives behind everything in good time before Holmes reveals the solution (and some unseen legwork he has done to prove the things the viewer could only suspect).

I also really enjoyed the lighter moments Plummer gets, whether demonstrating that he is not completely defenseless when rejecting a revolver from Watson or sharing a carriage ride with him. While the tone of this story does not allow for many overtly humorous scenes, when we do get one it helps provide a bit of tonal balance and reminds us that Holmes is invigorated by the act of investigation. What I like most about the performance though is the sense of affection for Watson that is present throughout the picture.

James Mason’s take on the character of Watson is of an inherently noble, if somewhat stuffy, figure. That stuffiness is not necessarily intended to be ridiculous however, rather perhaps a little naïve. Several of the situations and conclusions reached in this story, for instance, defy his imagination and appall him. At one point in the story he puts himself in trouble, in part because he does not perceive the danger someone might pose to him. Yet while he may err at points or suggest a painfully straightforward solution to a complex problem, he is no buffoon. Instead he is a moral champion, urging Holmes to get involved in the case in the first place, and a good friend – throwing himself into danger to save him.

It is a splendid rendering of the character that I think may well be my favorite take on the part I have come across so far (which is all the more impressive given some of the others to have played the role). I found myself wishing that there had been further films with Plummer and Mason given how well the pair worked together.

As for the rest of the cast, quality abounds. This is a strikingly starry picture with familiar faces throughout. From the stars like Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings, and Genevieve Bujold to even the smaller parts such as June Brown’s appearance as Annie Chapman. While some performances attract the attention more than others (Bujold is superb and while the material doesn’t do much to test John Gielgud, he is dazzling in his brief appearance), I felt there was no weak link or obviously miscast character.

Where I do have complaints is with some aspects of the direction and editing. To be clear, there are some wonderful moments that I think show skill and imagination in how they are constructed. I already referenced the effectiveness of the steady-cam photography and there are similarly effective shots in the lengthy carriage ride Holmes and Watson take and in the dockland scenes (particularly one in which Holmes talks with an unseen informant). There are also some really effective attempts to recreate some locations, most notably the location of the final murder.

Yet there are some moments that feel very awkward. Sudden cuts in the sound as one scene feeds into another such as the lead into the first murder we witness or the choice to shoot some scenes in such a way that we get a very good look at a shadowy individual’s very distinctive features. This coupled with some curiously relaxed pacing, particularly in its talky denouement, soft and smeary cinematography, and the gallery of stars post-credits sequence (admittedly a very unimportant feature of the film), often makes it feel more TV than movie in its style and scope.

While I think the pace of the piece could have been a bit sharper at points, when the film is working it goes marvelously. The performances from the two leads are terrific, their chemistry among the best of any Holmes and Watson, and the solution can be reasoned out – even if it takes some unseen evidence gathered by Holmes to prove his case. It certainly ranks among the better Holmes films I have seen and I am glad that taking on this project prompted me to go ahead and finally watch my copy.

Holmes on Film: Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) & A Canine Sherlock – Movie (1912)

In early January 2021 I started work on preparing a series of posts in which I would explore some Holmes-related and Holmes-adjacent films. Over the course of about five days I binge-watched close to a dozen movies, making some loose notes. Before I actually got around to doing the hard part (the writing of blog posts) the political events of that moment had grabbed my attention. By the time I could turn my attention back to the project my vacation time was over and the movies had all merged together in my memory. I would have to begin from scratch.

Whoops.

Rather than picking a full-length feature to start with, I decided to pick on some of the very short works I haven’t seen before. Both of the short films I will be writing about today can be found in the US on the Flicker Alley Blu Ray release of the 1916 William Gillette movie (of which more at a later date).

So, with that preamble out of the way – let’s talk movies!


Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)

Why didn’t this film get its own post? Well, it’s less than a minute long and it is clearly intended to be just a novelty that has some fun with some trick photography.

Still, while it may not be a substantial work it is nevertheless an important film because it represents the earliest known appearance of a character called Sherlock Holmes on screen. I do use that wording deliberately – the name is used to convey intelligence so the viewer will be even more astonished at the visual trickery but that is the extent of the characterization.

The story, such as it is, is that Holmes is in his flat when a burglar appears to take his silver. This figure is able to suddenly appear and then vanish with the aid of some stop tricks, then a very recent development in film, producing the titular bafflement in the Great Detective.

It’s cute enough, if obviously very slight, but what interested me was that it uses Holmes in the first place. This was an American production, made a year before Doyle returned to the character with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I think that the use of the name illustrates how widely known the character was. Of course that popularity, and the character’s association with film, would only increase in the years to come…

A Canine Sherlock (1912)

The first thing to note is that A Canine Sherlock is not really a Sherlock Holmes film as the name is really being used as a synonym for a master detective. It is about fifteen minutes long and offers something of a plot as the detective will have to find and capture a gang of villains who have robbed a bank. As the title suggests, the gag in this lightly comic adventure is that it is the dog rather than his master, the detective Hawkshaw, who will ultimately solve the case and save the day.

In an opening scene we learn that their plan hinges on the use of a poisoned coin that will render the person who touches it unconscious. It’s not a bad trick and it suits the generally silly tone of the piece, though it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. The poisoning, while dramatic, does absolutely nothing to advance their scheme which hinges on them producing guns and threatening to blow up the bank if anyone tries to stop them.

After getting away Hawkshaw arrives with his canine helper in tow who sets about investigating while his master mostly just stands there. Getting the scent, he then sets off to track down the villains at their lair, finds evidence, and then brings his master to pull off the arrest. It’s all pretty silly but it can be very entertaining, particularly as the dog pulls a trick to get admission to the house and then riffles through some papers. I suggest that you don’t think about it too hard or look for credibility and instead just enjoy the cuteness.

It is, as noted, still a slight work and there’s no detection really worth speaking of but it’s cute nonetheless. Are there any actual Holmesian touches? Not really, beyond the trickery used to gain admission to the house in the first place and the detective’s expertise at fighting. The latter is actually the most ludicrous part of the film as we see the detective holding a hardened criminal in place by crossing his ankles, but in the build-up we do see him anticipate the villain’s moves, dodging attacks even when his back is turned.

Still, I was entertained and pleasantly surprised at how quickly the fifteen minutes passed. What’s more, it looks pretty amazing as presented on the Blu Ray release with a very sharp image. Of course that’s not always to the film’s benefit – the set paintings in the bank look pretty dodgy when seen in high definition – but while its staginess is evident, the rather cartoonish approach to the fireplace in the villain’s lair looks pretty striking and added a little interest for me.

As Holmes-adjacent works go, this is pretty cute and while I wouldn’t buy the Gillette movie Blu Ray for it alone, I was very pleased that it was available as an extra.


The plan for this occasional series is to for it to be an occasional effort, like my Detection Club project, rather than a weekly endeavor (there will be more Columbo soon, honest!). There will be more whenever I have the time and inclination but be prepared for me to jump around rather than to try to watch things in any sort of structure or order!

A Study in Crimson by Robert J. Harris

Originally published in 2020
Sherlock Holmes 1942 #1

London, 1942.

A killer going by the name of “Crimson Jack” is stalking the wartime streets of London, murdering women on the exact dates of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings of 1888. Has the Ripper somehow returned from the grave? Is the self-styled Crimson Jack a descendant of the original Jack—or merely a madman obsessed with those notorious killings?

In desperation Scotland Yard turn to Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective. Surely he is the one man who can sift fact from legend to track down Crimson Jack before he completes his tally of death. As Holmes and the faithful Watson tread the blacked out streets of London, death waits just around the corner.

I have previously revealed the role that the animated movie The Great Mouse Detective played in my becoming a mystery fan. It was not just an entertaining adventure in itself, it also introduced me to some of the story beats and ideas of mystery storytelling and specifically to the character of Holmes. It did this well enough that when I happened upon one of the Rathbone Holmes movies a few years later I couldn’t resist watching with the series quickly becoming appointment viewing for me whenever they were repeated on weekends or during school holidays.

For me, at least during my early childhood, Holmes was not a Victorian gentleman who travelled by hansom cab but someone pitching into Britain’s war effort, matching his wits against the Nazis. I loved those movies because of, not in spite of, the setting and pulpy style and I determined I would watch them all. In those pre-internet days I had little idea just how many there were so whenever I spotted a new one listed as showing in the Radio Times it was particularly exciting. Not that it stopped me rewatching those ones I had already seen.

Little wonder then that when I discovered A Study in Crimson, the first novel to my knowledge that specifically features that wartime Holmes incarnation, I set everything else aside and immediately started reading…

The novel opens with a short adventure in which Holmes and Watson are summoned to a scientific research installation to investigate the disappearance of a scientist from within her locked bedroom. This is actually one of two short impossible crimes within the novel and I was entertained but neither case is substantial enough on their own to justify fans of that form seeking it out. Both cases do serve an important role in demonstrating Holmes’ gifts are methods before we delve deeper into the central mystery.

That case concerns the murder of several young women in the streets of London. The first two murders occurred on the anniversaries of the corresponding murders committed by Jack the Ripper and there are some other similarities in the crimes that seems to suggest that there may be a copycat. That is particularly worrying given, as Holmes points out in the quote above, it seems to suggest that further murders will follow on the anniversaries of the subsequent murders.

The idea of taking Holmes and having him come face-to-face with the Ripper, or someone deliberately emulating him, is not exactly unprecedented. I remember playing a PC game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes in the mid-90s which featured a murder that Lestrade wants to attribute to the Ripper (spoiler: it isn’t) and there have been plenty of other stories such as Big Finish’s Holmes and the Ripper or the movies A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. Still, while it may have some familiar elements, I think there is enough novelty introduced here with the time gap between the original crimes and those being investigated that it avoids feeling derivative.

One of the reasons that I think this works is that the period setting contributes to the sense of fear surrounding the killer being at large. This was the era of the blackout meaning those who cannot help but be out at night will feel all the more at risk. This also helps build a sense of tension later in the book as our heroes attempt to patrol the streets in the dark in the hopes of preventing subsequent murders.

I think this is just one example of how the novel uses its historical setting well, drawing on elements of the period such as radio broadcasts, American GIs and air raid patrols to create a strong sense of place and time. It was this sort of material I most hoped to find in this book so I was happy to see that Harris made effective use of it and made the setting important to the story.

Harris’ Holmes similarly feels like a pretty solid evocation of the Rathbone portrayal of Holmes. He has the familiar moments of prickliness and brilliance but there are some moments of patriotism and advocacy of his principles that make him feel like that more conspicuously heroic version from the movie series. Similarly the language this Holmes uses reminds us that he is a mid-twentieth century man rather than a Victorian (or Edwardian) one.

Watson on the other hand has been presented with some slight differences from the Nigel Bruce portrayals in those movies. Harris’ Watson is still a little old-fashioned and formal in some social interactions but he never appears to be foolish or an overtly comedic creation which is, I feel, to be welcomed. He is however the warmth and the heart of the novel – something I feel he has in common with the Bruce portrayal of the character.

Several other familiar characters from the Holmes universe make their appearances with different degrees of attention. These include Mycroft, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, all of whom struck me as not dissimilar from their traditional roles. I was far more interested in learning about the members of the Baker Street Irregulars, particularly their leader Wiggins who remains in London. This once again tied nicely into the novel’s historical setting but I also appreciated hearing how he felt about Holmes and the enormous sense of respect he feels for his hero.

These elements, combined with the novel’s setting, go a great way toward evoking that sense of the original movie series. This story offers some lighter moments, including a sort of awkward romance for Watson, as well as a solid hook in the idea of the copycat Ripper killer. As much as I enjoyed those elements however and the sense of nostalgia I felt, I did think that the novel was a little disappointing in the way it presents the investigative portion of the novel itself.

I know from my own readings (and re-readings) of the Doyle canon that Holmes’ stories often feel like they would be better labelled as adventures than mysteries. This is not much different. While there are some clues dotted around as to what has been happening, I feel much of the crucial work happens when we are not following Holmes and that we learn about some elements after the fact which can be unsatisfying at times.

I would also add that I found the solution to be a little disappointing, in part because the case ends up feeling quite simple with limited suspects and surprisingly few clues. While there are a few interesting applications of logic to make some deductions, the case felt over a little too quickly and seemed to be begging for another twist for its resolution. That being said, I was not unhappy with the pulpiness of the resolution which did at least seem to fit the general tone Harris was clearly aiming for.

In spite of those disappointments, I still enjoyed much of what this book had to offer. The central concept of writing more stories for this incarnation of Holmes is a great one and based on the evidence here and Harris’ confident handling of the character, I think it could easily sustain a series and I would certainly be interested in checking out any subsequent installments.

The Verdict: An entertaining, if rather light, read with a solid handle on its version of Holmes and the era he lives in.

Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Junk Affair by Roy Templeman

Originally published in 1998

In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country. 

Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.

As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.

Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?

This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.

I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.

As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.

Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair

A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.

On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.

The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.

One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.

The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.

Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.

So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.

I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.

Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.

Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man

In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.

This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.

Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room

The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.

As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.

Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.

Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.

Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.

The Verdict: A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.