Monday, December 2, 2013

A review - Murder by Decree

During this lull in Sherlockian movie or TV viewing (Elementary had a rerun over Thanksgiving) I am trying to catch up on Sherlock Holmes films I have either not seen at all, or it has been a while since I viewed them.
These last few days I have been able to watch Murder by Decree.
I was inspired to watch this one at this time from a positive review I read on another blog.

Murder by Decree came out at the end of an era when it seemed the only Sherlockian films or shows being offered were those done from original screenplays or novels or pastiches written by others, and not really being very Canonical. Sure, all the things the public has come to expect in habit and appearance in Holmes would be present, but most of the stories would have nothing but a vaguest nod to Doyle.

Murder by Decree is commonly linked or compared to Seven Percent Solution and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Where I had not expected to like either of those two films, but came away liking both of them, I went into Murder by Decree expecting to like it, but came away disappointed.

Murder by Decree has Sherlock Holmes getting involved with the murders perpetrated by Jack the Ripper.
He is not asked to participate in the investigation by the police but rather by seemingly concerned citizens of White Chapel. Most of it takes place at night, or in dark buildings or foggy streets.

I liked the sets for the interiors of Baker St. and several of the other location interiors.
Baker St. as shown in the movie could represent most Sherlockians image of that fabled dwelling.
Where the movie went inside for other scenes, the locations or sets were well chosen.

However, too much of the movie took place in foggy streets and narrow alleys. While it is probably true that most of the crimes took place in those settings, I doubt if most of the investigation did.

The film was full of very notable actors, but unfortunately they were not used to the best of their abilities.

The wonderful Christopher Plummer played an at times overly jocular Holmes who would just as quickly become too introspective and melancholy. I think Plummer had  the ability and the presence to make a great Holmes. His looks were good, as was his stature, but he was asked to play a rather to emotional Holmes.
As he was probably directed to do, he unfortunately only had one set of clothes to wear in just about the entire movie and if the film had been made as the Hound it would have been OK. But set in London, the iverness and deerstalker were well out of place. Probably done out of the need to convince the viewers that it was a Sherlock Holmes film.

Plummer's Holmes, when lost in thought, seemed more to be thinking how dismal things seemed, rather than concentrating on the case.
When Sherlock was needed, at the end of the film, to deliver his case before the high authorities his character no longer had the presence to seem commanding or compelling.

Now, James Mason is one of my favorite actors of the period, and I expected him to make a great Watson.
If we were to just go by appearances for an older Watson, he really did fit the bill.
But in many ways the Dr. Watson he was asked to play almost out 'Nigeled', Nigel Bruce's Watson.
He often seemed slow witted and bored and mismatched for the great detective, seeming to be uninterested in the cases and reluctant to have to follow Holmes again.
One reviewer praised his performance for, at first seeming to be slow and dim witted but coming through in the end. Well, we expect that from Watson, and Nigel Bruce's Watson did very much the same thing. (He showed no reluctance to pursue Seldon in HOUN). Although Bruce's performance is often criticized, his Watson was also never a coward. If anything Mason's Watson may have been even more expressionless than Bruce's.

Donald Sutherland for the most part played a lethargic mystic who's involvement in the story was very unnecessary, delivering his lines as if about to fall asleep.

Susan Clark was unnecessary, and her part was also over acted. (My goodness woman! Tell Holmes what he wants to know.)  (The scenes where her character was murdered were appalling, not because of the graphic nature of the crime, but the cinematography.)

The lovely Genevieve Bujold was underused and her part was also over acted. (no wonder Plummer wanted to strangle someone at the end of it.)

David Hemming probably gave the best performance as Insp. Foxborough.

The film had a very overly dramatic feel of an early BBC production, with out needing to be. (Look at the scene where Plummer and Clark are chased through the alley by a coach that is only a few dozen feet away, all the while going full out to catch Plummer and Clark, yet takes ages to do so. And we can't forget when a coach was called a hansom.)

The gathering of clues and deductions where almost nonexistent and how Holmes got from 'A' to 'Z' was never clearly outlined.

Mostly we were just given the stereotypical caricatures of Holmes and Watson with no Canonical substance.
Where I can see myself watching Seven Percent Solution and Private Life of Sherlock Holmes again, I can not say that for Murder by Decree.

I don't think Plummer or Mason where necessarily miscast as much as misdirected.

And, of course, this is just my opinion and just for fun and to keep us 'Playing the Game'.

What do you think?


  1. To each their own I suppose...

    I can certainly see where you come from with your thoughts. Holmes is certainly played against type , and normally I'd be uncomfortable with that, but I think Plummer did an outstanding job. I don't know if this story could be told with the cold, calculating Holmes. Big Finish Audio's production of "Holmes and the Ripper" (which has a very similar plot to the movie) also features a more down-to-Earth, compassionate detective. I also really like James Mason's Watson. I wouldn't say he's slow-witted or bored at all. His chemistry on screen with Christopher Plummer was excellent, including the now rather infamous "plea scene."

    As for the rest of the cast - David Hemmings was spectacular as Foxborough, and I really liked Genevieve Bujold. Maybe I'm a little too emotional, but my heart breaks for her every time I watch the film.

    And that fog you mentioned. You certainly cannot say that "Murder by Decree" doesn't have atmosphere. Overall, I'm pretty surprised by your verdict, but I guess it's not for everyone.

    1. You are correct about lots of atmospher. And I agree that both Plummer and Mason could be good Holmes and Watson's, they just were not what I was expecting. What are your thoughts on the other two movies?
      Thanks for stopping by.

    2. I agree with John about Murder By Decree. It was a missed opportunity with some very talented actors. I may have my chronology wrong, but my sense from the final scene was that it was making a (post-Watergate?) comment on government corruption. Who better than Holmes to challenge rot in the establishment?

      I saw The Seven Percent Solution when it came out, and am going to watch it again as soon as possible. My recollection is that it was very entertaining. But also not one that focused on the sleuthing we associate with Holmes.

      I did recently watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and was very unsatisfied. It seemed like it was meant to be a send up of homophobia and sexual repression. In it's time it was probably on target, but it just looks dated to me now. If you are looking for a traditional Holmesian (a la Wontner) experience, it's not going to deliver.


    3. Unknown, you are right on the mark, in my opinion,. . . for the most part. I think I did enjoy TPLSH a little more than you did. I agree it did get away from the traditional, but I also think it measured up in other areas. I found Watson a little to comical, but ended up enjoying Holmes.