We've unmasked madmen, Watson, wielding sceptres. Reason run riot. Justice howling at the moon.
Considered to be one the best Sherlock Holmes films ever made, Murder By Decree finally makes its appearance on DVD. It may not be the feature laden extravaganza all its fans have wished for, but it does boast a nice transfer and an informative commentary from director Bob Clark.
Facts of the Case
A vicious killer is slicing up the prostitutes of London's Whitechapel area, but as is often the case, there is more going on than meets the eye. So who better than the world's most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer, The Insider) and his comrade-in-arms Dr. John Watson (James Mason, Lolita) to investigate the case? Becoming involved in a most personal fashion, Holmes soon finds there are powerful forces at work in Whitechapel, hidden forces that seek to hide the truth from the light and forces that would just as soon see Holmes disappear from the scene. Permanently.
Director Bob Clark has certainly had a varied career. The man behind Porky's, Black Christmas, and A Christmas Story may seem like an unlikely candidate to bring to life the world of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character, but with 1979's Murder By Decree, that is exactly what he did. Taking some popular theories of the time as they related to who Jack the Ripper was and why he was able to get way with the horrors he committed, Clark and writer John Hopkins (The Offence) tell a tale of two Londons, one of the rich and privileged and one of the poor and the forgotten masses. Weaving historical figures and events seamlessly with their fictional characters, Clark and Hopkins speak to the horrors and class struggles of the period. It's to their credit that it is difficult to tell when the movie is playing with fact or tossing out well dressed fiction.
Behind the camera, Clark shows an excellent sense of pace and structure. The atmosphere is laid on thick, but it never overpowers the story, instead giving it weight and breadth. Add into the mix the excellent work of production designer Harry Pottle and cinematographer Reginald Morris, and we can believe we are looking at the London of the 1880s.
Originally intended as a vehicle for Peter O'Toole and Laurence Olivier, the two were unable to overcome their intense dislike for one another and Clark had to "settle" for Christopher Plummer and James Mason in the leading roles. While other actors may have borne a stronger resemblance to Doyle's classic detective, few have captured the Sherlock Holmes of the written page better than Christopher Plummer. I'd go as far to say that only Jeremy Brett's portrayal as Holmes stands above Plummer's. As for Mason, well, for me no one has played a better John Watson than James Mason.
Both Plummer and Mason choose the road least traveled when creating their characters. For Plummer's part, he brings a rare humanist warmth to Holmes. Certainly it's easy to see the gears hard at work inside of Holmes' head, but Plummer allows us to also see a man enraged by the crimes that are being committed and moving with a steely determination to punish the guilty parties. His Holmes is graceful, yet manly. Brilliant, but not sterile and detached. Too often actors take a superior tone when playing Holmes, to the point where it's almost a time honored tradition to be smug and self satisfied. This approach allows the viewer to hold Holmes' intellect in awe while leaving the man as an afterthought. The fact that Holmes is a genius is of equal importance to the fact that he is still just a man. It's an approach that works and makes the viewer an equal partner in the proceedings. I'm sure some purists would complain of Plummer's choices, but for me if you look below the surface of Doyle's writing, you can find the inspiration for Plummer's version of Holmes.
To look at James Mason is to see Dr. John Watson personified. Unwilling to play the doltish sidekick, in Mason's hand Watson is the equal partner. If Plummer tempers Holmes' genius with a healthy dose of humanity, then Mason balances his comrade's intellect with humility and humor. Mason's Watson has the wonderful ability to look at Holmes' brilliance with amusement and wonder instead of confusion and bluster. It's a not a small distinction and one that elevates Holmes' abilities without denigrating Watson's skills.
Together, the pair make quite the team. It's easy to know who was originally thought of for the roles and wonder what might have been, but what the film ended up with is quite remarkable. Plummer and Mason play off each other beautifully, and there is a simple elegance to their work together. It's so nice to just sit back and watch two actors play off on another with the give and take of seasoned professionals. Watching these men work their way from matters of the gravest importance to the silliest bits of business involving a pea is to know you are watching two masters at work. There is great humor between the two actors as well as respect, affection, and love.
I suppose it should be noted that similar themes and plot lines were examined in a 1965 film called A Study in Terror, but with Murder By Decree, director Clark surrounds his central players with a supporting cast full of star power and vastly superior production values. Since this was an English/Canadian co-production, the cast had to be 50/50 from each country, thus with the leads you had Canadians Plummer, Susan Clark (Night Moves) in the pivotal role of Mary Kelly, Genevieve Bujold (Star Trek: Voyager) as Annie Crook, and Donald Sutherland (Panic) as psychic Robert Lees. On the British side, you had Mason, David Hemmings (Spy Game) as Inspector Foxborough, Anthony Quayle (Masada) as Sir Charles Warren, John Gielgud (Becket) as Prime Minister Salisbury, and in the same role he played in A Study in Terror, Frank Finlay (The Three Musketeers) as Inspector Lestrade. All have their moments and all contribute mightily to the proceedings.
I probably sound like a broken record, but once more Anchor Bay has done everyone a favor and rescued a beloved cult movie from film purgatory.
One of the biggest nightmares when working on a film of this kind is excessive fog, and there is lots of fog throughout Murder By Decree. Well, hats off to the firm that handled this transfer because there is hardly a compression artifact to be found. The picture is remarkably solid on all counts, with the barest hint of edge enhancement visible. Plaids remain firm, flesh tones appear natural, and the colors are true. Blacks remain consistent, with shadow detail being a strength. It almost goes without saying that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film is given anamorphic enhancement, but there you have it, there it is.
Sound is not quite so happy a tale. It's of the 1.0 Mono variety, and it is pretty limited. Dialogue is clearly heard but sounds thin, while Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza's weak score is not heard to good effect. The mix is quite closed off with little room to breathe, while there is more audible background distortion than I'm used to. It all adds up to a listening experience that is rather rough. It's certainly not one of Anchor Bay's better efforts.
On the extras front, the center attraction is a scene specific commentary by director Bob Clark. Clark seems a pleasant fellow and he is not afraid to go into detail with how this film was made. He does confirm the O'Toole and Olivier factor and then goes on to explain how he sold Mason on the project. He is justifiably proud of his work all these years later, but he never comes off as cocky or arrogant. Be aware there are gaps in his commentary, but they are well timed and never go on for so long that I lost interest. In addition to the commentary, there is also a couple of still galleries that show behind-the-scenes activities, some fairly extensive talent bios, a trailer for the film in anamorphic widescreen, and a DVD-ROM feature that allows access to the film's complete script. All you need is a computer with a DVD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat Reader, and you are good to go.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For those going in looking for a Jack the Ripper tale featuring plenty of blood and guts a la From Hell, don't look here. The blood and terror is hinted at but never really shown. I find this restraint admirable. Also, for purebred fans of Sherlock Holmes who hold fast to one style of interpretation may be quite put out by Christopher Plummer's most human detective. Go in with an open mind, and I think you will find the same joys I did.
Otherwise, I have few reservations about either the film or the disc. As noted, the sound is less than ideal, but given Anchor Bay's track record one has to wonder if the problems lie with the source materials and not Anchor Bay's production team.
Murder By Decree is an excellent addition to both the lore of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. It's entertaining, warm, and creepy. That, and its always fun to watch so many wonderful actors do their thing in high style.
Anchor Bay offers up a solid presentation of the movie at a price commonly found for under $16.00. I found it a solid purchase, and like-minded fans will probably feel the same.
The jury has spoken and Murder By Decree is acquitted of all charges. Time may have disproved the theories at the center of its story, but that hasn't dulled its power.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Director Bob Clark
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