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 na├»ve. 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.