Murder By Decree

Director: Bob Clark
Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings

In my early years of life, up to the point when I reached teenage status, my family didn't have a VCR. Also, we had a limited number of television channels that only showed movies occasionally. Since those circumstances made movie watching quite difficult, I had to find other ways to amuse myself in the long periods between watching movies. One of those ways that I passed the time was with reading. Yes, today's children, there was such a thing as books back in my day. And when it came to reading material, I was often open to a wide range of topics, from history books to comics. One particular kind of book that I liked to read were mysteries. Though I somehow got through my childhood without reading one of the official Hardy Boys books (though I read some of the "Casefiles" series, which were jazzed up with enough violence and modern technology to make Franklin W. Dixon choke), there were other mystery books that I did read. There was the Einstein Anderson series, which taught me many scientific facts as it posed various mysteries to solve. There were the Can You Solve The Mystery? books with youthful sleuths Hawkeye Collins and Amy Adams, which contained illustrated clues that were sometimes so poorly drawn that I was unable to solve the mysteries. Much better were the Encyclopedia Brown books. Not only were the mysteries often written with a sense of humor, even as a kid I could tell that author Donald J. Sobol was not dumbing his mysteries down for kids. Many of the mysteries depended on having learned about various things before reading the books, and even though many of the mysteries I could not solve because I didn't have Encyclopedia Brown's vast knowledge, I did learn a lot of interesting things.

Not long ago, when I flipped through a recent Encyclopedia Brown book during a boring day when I was at a book store, I was delighted to find that I was able to solve the bulk of the mysteries I read. No doubt about it, all the mysteries I read as a child had paid off. Anyway, you may be wondering with all the mysteries I read when I was young, if I ever read the mysteries that really started the mystery genre going - the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Well, yes, I did... sort of. One day, my mother bought me several books filled with Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Though these stories had been abridged for younger readers. I didn't know that fact the first time I read the stories, but I have to admit that I did enjoy the stories very much, and I enjoyed subsequent rereading of them - even though part of me did wonder at that point what had been cut out in the abridgements. Why did I enjoy these stories so much? Well, it's mainly due to the character of Sherlock Holmes. So much over the years has been written about the character that I wonder if my thoughts will make any new perspective. But I'll try. One obvious interesting detail about Holmes is how smart he is - not only showing off a lot of knowledge he has gathered over the years, but able to use his mind to think of something in new ways that would never occur to us to do. But he also has interesting perspectives on many things. For example, in a number of cases when he has found the culprit, he hasn't turned them over to the police, instead letting them go. Also, he treats other people around him with respect. While his sidekick Watson, for example, may not always see where Holmes is going on during a case, Holmes has let him known on more that one occasion that he considers Watson to be an intelligent man.

With Holmes such a colorful character, it can't be any surprise that this character has been featured in a number of movies over the decades. There have been a number of interesting cinematic interpretations over the years - silent films, movies taking place in modern times (such as the series with Basil Rathbone as the character), and period pieces that have been jazzed up, specifically the Murder By DecreeRobert Downey Jr. movies. Murder By Decree, the Sherlock Holmes movie I'm reviewing here, is another interesting interpretation, mainly because it qualified for Canadian content rules, with its lead (Christopher Plummer), director (Bob Clark), and one of its producers being Canadian. Before you are frightened off, let me assure you that the movie was a co-production with England, with the screenwriter, three other producers, and many of the supporting players being English - so the movie had enough foreign support to make it a real movie. Anyway, there is another factor that makes this Holmes movie interesting, and that is that it ties real life events with the fictional Holmes, the events being the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in London in 1888. The movie starts off with the third murder committed by the mysterious Jack in the Whitechapel district. For some reason, Holmes (Plummer, Shadow Dancing) and his reliable partner Watson (Mason, The Boys From Brazil) have not been called in by the authorities to assist in the investigation. But when a citizens committee from the district pleads with Holmes to help, Holmes eventually decides to take on the case. As you probably know, that's a good thing, because Jack the Ripper was known to kill at least two more prostitutes in real life. As the murders start to add up, Holmes and Watson intensify their investigation, coming across various eccentrics ranging from a prostitute (Mary Clark, Webster) who might know something, to a weird psychic (Donald Sutherland, Dan Candy's Law). More "normal" people coming into play in the investigation include police inspector Foxborough (David Hemmings, Unman, Wittering, and Zigo), the head of Scotland Yard (Anthony Quayle, The Tamarind Seed) and the country's Prime Minister (John Gielgud, Arthur).  Eventually, Holmes and Watson after piecing together the evidence they have gathered discover that it may not just be a mere serial killer they are pursuing, but a huge conspiracy that could shake the entire country if exposed.

Doing some research on the movie, I uncovered that the producers of Murder By Decree originally cast Peter O'Toole as Holmes, and Laurence Olivier as Watson, but that the roles had to be recast when it became clear each actor was extremely hostile towards the other from past experience. We'll never know how good O'Toole or Olivier would have been in these iconic roles, but in this case, the second choices by the producers turn out to be good enough that it's hard to picture just about anyone else as Holmes and Watson. Plummer interprets his role in one of the best ways  in all of the screen Sherlock Holmes movies I've managed to see. For the most part, Plummer gives Holmes the attributes that the character had in the original stories. As the events of the movie unfold, Holmes' tone in his words and actions suggest he is a little ahead of the game, or just about to catch up. Holmes is not only smart as he investigates, he is very enthusiastic, and you sense the passion for his investigations. He may be a little arrogant, but you sense at the same time he wants to do the right thing and is concerned about the welfare of Watson as well as many of the people he meets. But Plummer also gives Holmes a sense of humor. For example, several times he needles Watson about Watson's supposed womanizing and the "outraged husbands" this is producing as a result. Another actor might have made this poking fun annoying and arrogant. But Plummer makes this teasing light-hearted and not to be taken seriously. You can tell that Holmes isn't trying to hurt Watson, just instead trying to make the moment the two are sharing a little lighter in nature, because what the world needs is more laughter.

As for Mason's portrayal of Holmes' sidekick Watson, it was a relief to see that it didn't fall for the kind of portrayal other Sherlock Holmes movies have fallen in. Other movies have portrayed Watson as a kind of dope, kind of unsure of what's going on at any moment. But Mason gives Watson a good deal of intelligence. Maybe not as much as Holmes has, but when Mason speaks, his tone clearly shows that Watson has a reasonable idea of what needs to be done or how things stand. Also, Mason gives his words a gentleness that shows Watson cares about the people he interacts with, from lowly prostitutes to Holmes himself. And in those scenes where Mason and Plummer are together, the two actors generate genuine chemistry, showing a loyal partnership and friendship. You really sense that their characters have known each other for years, and know how the other works or feels about various things. Some credit for this chemistry does have to go to screenwriter John Hopkins (The Offence), who gives Holmes and Watson colorful dialogue throughout. But Hopkins also excels in a number of other aspects with his writing here. Doing a little research on the Jack the Ripper case after watching the movie, I discovered that Hopkins clearly did his own research on the case. A number of real-life individuals surrounding the case at the time are brought to the movie, for example. Even some trivial details, like the time of year the real-life murders took place, are accurately recreated here. Even viewers who don't know about the extreme accuracy the movie follows will be struck by how authentic the investigation plays out, and will be wondering if the movie's theory about who was being it all (and why) may have some basis in fact.

Hopkins' screenplay gains another merit when it comes to illustrating the mystery portion of Murder By Decree. I've stated in the past that I find a number of mystery movies hard to follow. But even amateur sleuths like me will find this particular mystery easy to follow. Each new clue or revelation that comes up is introduced one by one at a leisurely pace that prevents a lot of confusion. And if you do eventually get lost trying to keep everything in place in your head, Holmes near the end of the movie has a long monologue that explains everything in reasonable detail and makes sense. There is admittedly a flaw in this easy-to-follow-mystery portion of the movie, and that is that the leisurely pace of the movie eventually makes the movie somewhat long; the running time ends up being 121 minutes. While the overlong story may get you to squirm in your seat a little at times, there are some other compensations not previously mentioned that do distract you from being too annoyed at the movie's length. The production values are pretty good, for one thing. Period detail looks fine, from the costumes and props to the real life London locations chosen to shoot on. And while you may not associate director Bob Clark (who also did Breaking Point and Porky's) with serious and high class product like this, I have to admit his direction here is pretty solid. He generates some genuine mood and atmosphere, like portraying the filth and poverty of Whitechapel, or giving a dream-like feeling to portions of the movie involving activities such as murder or recollections. And there were touches of his that made me smile, such as dressing Holmes up in his classic deerstalker hat and Inverness cape for much of the movie. Clark's touches, as well as the touches given by Hopkins, Plummer, and Mason show that everyone behind Murder By Decree had great love and passion for this project. Even if you are not a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, chances are that you'll get caught up in the movie's enthusiasm and find the viewing experience a compelling romp.

(Posted July 13, 2016)

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See also: Brigham City, New York Cop, Shadow Dancing