Posted March 29, 2012 by Paula Hammond - Features Editor in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

Murder By Decree


In the history of fiction, few characters have proved to be as enduring or as malleable as Sherlock Holmes.

In
the history of fiction, few characters have proved to be as enduring or as
malleable as Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, with Sherlock flying high in the TV ratings
and Guy Richie’s Holmes doing big
business on the big screen, Conan Doyle’s
creation has never been so popular. Which makes StudioCanal’s decision to
re-release this much-neglected movie, a very sound move.

Murder
By Decree
(1979), was an Anglo-Canadian production,
adapted from Stephen Knight’s novel Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.
Knight’s best-selling story made no reference to Holmes, but the idea of
turning the Ripper murders in Holmesian fiction had already been test driven in
1965 with A Study in Terror. Since
then, there’s been an alarming glut of Holmes versus Ripper tales. Alarming,
because many of them cast the real life Ripper as nothing more than a comic
book villain. “Zap, pow, biff”, reads the movie poster for A Study in Terror…
“Here comes the original caped crusader!”

Thanks to sensitive direction and clever
casting, Murder By Decree is a very different beast to A Study In Terror.

Director, Bob
Clark
, is probably better remembered, today, for his autographical comedy, Porky’s (1982) but he began his career
in schlock-horror B movies. An experience which clearly stood him in good stead
when it came to bringing Whitechapel’s sleazy, smog laden streets to life. Although
there’s something oddly North American-guide book about Clark’s vision of
Victorian London, the overall effect is eerily atmospheric.

As Holmes fans will appreciate, the Sherlock
portrayed on film rarely resembles Conan Doyle’s creation. After all, Holmes starts out as a man in his mid 20s – a vigorous,
eccentric, bohemian, with a healthy disregard for pomp and social conventions.
He’s also a man with “a great heart as well as a great brain” (The Three Garridebs) As such, he has
much more in common with Guy Richie’s ‘reimagining’, than the stiff, stuffy
Sherlocks which so often clog up afternoon TV schedules. Fortunately, despite
being decked out in cape and deerstalker, Christopher
Plummer
’s manages to step out of
stereotype and create a believably well-rounded Holmes. His Great Detective
doesn’t have the visceral energy of Jeremy
Brett
’s or the old world charm of Basil
Rathbone
’s. His creation is a man of compassion rather than a simple
“detecting machine”, and it’s that which makes the horror of the Ripper murders
are all the more powerful.

Watson is played, with evident relish, by James Mason who always brings grace
and gravitas to any role. Donald
Sutherland
puts in a haunting turn as the real-life psychic Robert Lees. While Geneviève Bujold acts her socks off with a performance which won
her a Canadian Cinema & TV Genie Award for Best Supporting Actress.
(Plummer won Best Actor).

125 years after he made his first appearance,
the Great Detective still inspires a level of fandom usually reserved for the
likes of Dr Who. Murder By Decree is certain, therefore,
to be viewed with critical, but hopefully appreciative eyes, as a welcome
addition to the ever-expanding Holmes back catalogue.


Paula Hammond - Features Editor

 
Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email: writerpaula@icloud.com