The 1979 Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson film Murder by Decree comes to DVD on the 9th of April 2012 from Studio Canal, and stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason as the famous detective duo, Holmes and Watson. The film is a British-Canadian project and is directed by Bob Clark, who is best remembered for American seasonal favourite A Christmas story, the juvenile yet entertaining Porky’s films, and for pioneering the stalk and slash genre of Horror movies with Black Christmas, a film which would go on to inspire John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, which itself was the catalyst for a host of great and terrible 80’s horror movies.
The character of Sherlock Holmes has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years. The Arthur Conan Doyle characters of Holmes and Watson have been brought back into the social conscience with Guy Ritchie’s Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starring films, and the BBC update on the characters Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. However Bob Clark’s film is not actually about Holmes and Watson though (well actually it is a bit), it’s about Jack the Ripper, and uses Holmes and Watson as the investigating officers.
The film follows the much explored ideas that Jack the Ripper was working on behalf of a secret organisation that he himself belonged to called the Freemasons. The Freemasons and their practices is a separate point of interest and i urge you to have a read up on them, as their history is a fascinating subject. One of the best know tellings of this theory is Alam Moore’s graphic novel masterpiece From Hell, which of course was made into a film by the Hughes Brothers, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. The film was much maligned and fun was poked at Johnny Depp’s cockney accent, but I actually like From Hell. I think its an entertaining and interesting version of Moore’s much better book, but it still entertained me.
Murder by Decree is a better telling of a similar theory, using popular fictional characters to help tell the story and to soften the harsh realities of what was one of Britain’s most gruesome serial killers.
Christopher Plummer is pitch perfect as Sherlock Holmes. He is the right mixture of arrogance and charm, and his obvious affection for his companion Dr. Watson is well managed. Plummer however adds an emotional depth to Holmes that personally I’ve often found lacking in other adaptations, he seems more affected by the events in this story than he is often portrayed in previous and subsequent incarnations.
James Mason is the real star of the show though, and there could be an argument made for this being more about Watson than it is about Holmes. Laurence Olivier was orginally cast as Dr. Watson, but he dropped out because of his dislike for Peter O’Toole, who was originally cast as Holmes. Mason insisted that the character of Watson be played more serious, and less of the bumbling fool that he is often made out to be. Mason chooses to play Watson as more gentleman like, his appearance and mannerisms are born of his breading and stature, not of any level of incompetence. The scene where Watson struggles with the last remaining pea on his plate is a perfect example of this, and made me laugh, smile and even clap its subtle brilliance.
Bob Clark directs this film like a horror film, and that’s what it feels like. The levels of gore and brutality of the killings took me by surprise, for some reason I was expecting a softer edge to this film, but it’s anything but. Jack the Ripper’s stalking of his prays is very reminiscent of Black Christmas and Clark’s use of the camera as eyes is prominent throughout. Its amazing how Clark fell from grace so dramatically, with the TV movie Karate Dog being one of his last films. A director of this skill and control should have made many more better films than he would go on to make.
With an excellent supporting cast of Donald Sutherland,Susan Clark, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings and Geneviève Bujold, Murder By Decree is a fantastic detective-horror-thriller that entertained me so much more than I expected it to. Its always nice to be surprised by a film, but in hindsight I’ve no idea why I’m surprised, all the ingredients are there for a great film and it does not fail to impress.
Murder by Decree is released on DVD 9th of April 2012 from Studio Canal RRP: £15.99 Best price found £10.99 http://www.amazon.co.uk
Anyway peace out suckers!