Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “Murder by Decree” (1979)

"In this script John Hopkins has brought out a lot of unforeseen passion in Holmes. 'Murder by Decree' gives Holmes the opportunity to be human. It's easy to play him as supercilious and rather snobbish but that's not what I intend to do. I'm trying very hard not to be influenced by other actors' performances. I'm trying to be myself. I think I can trust myself to look like him. I had my hair streaked to make him warmer, more human. In the original Sidney Paget drawings in the 'Strand Magazine,' Holmes had slicked down hair, which looked very sinister." (Christopher Plummer)

If you want to pit the Great Detective against Jack the Ripper, then you really don’t have to look very far. For starters, there is a list of pastiches that often seems about a mile long, featuring works of varying degrees of quality and readability. There is even a recent video game that pulls Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (and the player who commands them) into a series of complex and varied puzzles and adventures.  And the 1979 film, Murder by Decree, is one of several attempts to bring the conflict between Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper to the screen, and have the Great Detective endeavor to solve one of history’s most notorious, mysterious, and apparently unsolvable crimes. 
Murder by Decree features Christopher Plummer (notably a cousin of Nigel Bruce) as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason as Dr. Watson. The film opens with Holmes and Watson at the Royal Opera House, waiting for the performance to begin, which has been delayed as they anticipate the arrival of the Prince of Wales. The Prince finally arrives, only to be met by loud and violent jeers from the crowd. Appalled, Watson urges the crowd to shout, “God save His Royal Highness,” instead – eventually winning the audience over. Holmes, looking proud and pleased with his companion, says, “Well done, old fellow. You have saved the day.” Indeed, Murder by Decree benefits a lot from the warmth and depth of affection with which Plummer and Mason chose to portray their roles. As screenwriter John Hopkins said,
There is that British tradition of male friendship which Billy Wilder made such happy fun of in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes… But I feel that the relationship was much deeper than that. I wanted to go through the traditional reserve of Holmes. It’s only an image; it’s not the real thing… So when I started work on Murder by Decree, the relationship between the two men appealed to me deeply. I wanted to make my interpretation both passionate and caring” (Davies 109).

Indeed, in taking on the role of Dr. Watson, James Mason had a very clear idea of how he wanted to approach it:
“I see Watson as someone, who in the army, would have passed for an intelligent man. In civilian life, he would be accepted as a good sort as well as an indomitable friend. He was not a buffoon. Holmes on the other hand was rather weird. Watson needed sterling qualities to be with him. Holmes’s daily behavioral pattern was that of a rather strange individual…” (108).

Mason’s version of Dr. Watson succeeds at conveying the Doctor’s more sterling qualities that he mentions, but he also comes across as a likewise rather strange individual, with odd notions about personal and public property, which will be mentioned later. However, James Mason’s portrayal of Dr. Watson suffers slightly from the mere fact of his being James Mason. His distinctive voice somewhat prevents the audience from becoming fully immersed in his take on Watson – each word spoken reminding the viewer of the iconic personage in the role. In addition, Mason is nearly two decades older than Plummer, and so occasionally his expressions come across as more paternal than companionable, but they are always affectionate. For example, Holmes demonstrates to Watson the concealed weapon that he has devised – lead weights in the ends of his scarf – by tossing it about the room and breaking nearly every fragile thing in sight. Watson merely sighs, reveals that he is familiar with the device, and says nothing as Holmes leaves the room, dragging his scarf behind him, broken glass and porcelain continuing to tinkle humorously. The film is filled with similarly charming scenes – the movie even ending with Holmes assuring Watson that the Doctor is what reminds him that there is decency left in the world that has so sorely tried him over the last 120 minutes.
Likewise, Plummer’s version of the Great Detective can do nothing but laugh boisterously as he retrieves Dr. Watson from a jail cell after a misunderstanding with the police, and makes a rather cheeky comment to the Doctor about the possibility of upset husbands paying a visit to Baker Street of an evening. He even helps Watson corner the last pea on his dinner plate by squishing it with his fork – much to Watson’s consternation: “Yes, but squashing a fellow’s pea!” According to David Stuart Davies in Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “This amusing, inconsequential exchange underlines with brilliant economy both the comfortable friendship and the different natures of the two men” (109).
But Plummer’s version of Sherlock Holmes is also much more sensitive, much more emotive than which most fans are familiar. His emotions are much closer to the surface. Plummer’s Holmes is gentle with women, concerned foremost with Dr. Watson’s well-being, and feels deeps and unrelenting guilt over what he perceives to be his own failings. Perhaps most surprising, the Detective sheds passionate, angry tears over the unjust treatment of a young woman in one scene, and in another, cringes at the sight of Buckingham Palace as he considers the depth of corruption that he has experienced over the course of the case. This Sherlock Holmes is no subtly tortured spirit, resolutely confining his own demons in a shadowed corner of his “brain attic.” By contrast, Plummer’s version of the Great Detective is practically ablaze with emotion, out of control, and unable to contain himself.

In terms of plot, those familiar with Alan Moore’s From Hell (or its theatrical adaptation), or really any of the more popular Jack the Ripper theories will find no surprises here. Those looking for a fresh Ripper theory will probably walk away disappointed. But as with most things concerning the Great Detective, this film succeeds largely in part due to the depiction of Holmes’s methods as he rushes towards solution, how he interacts with Dr. Watson, and of course, how all these elements add up to Sherlock Holmes’s own sort of brilliant madness.
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  1. Wonderful, an article on one of my favourite films. This is my go to film when I need a proper dose of Victorian creepiness and peasouper fogs.

    I have watched it countless times but still love it. I think it capture the seediness and squalor of the time much better than a more recent film such as 'From Hell' which is just so clean (I do love the graphic novel though).

    Thanks again for such an interesting and thoughtful post


  2. Very interesting review! Very much about walking the fine line between making a famous character one's own and making him unrecognizable. These are both able actors, more than able-award winning. However, Mason is too distinctive to be the complementary companion for Holmes, as you say, and Plummer is too emotive to BE that Holmes. Emotional control needs to be dominant in Sherlock's demeanor, with signs of the tender emotions seeping through the cracks only rarely. But it sounds like the film has many virtues nonetheless.