Like most cinema buffs, I was saddened by the recent passing of the great Christopher Plummer. Mr. Plummer was an extraordinary actor with a long and varied career. While most identified with the classic musical The Sound of Music (one of my childhood favorites), he demonstrated considerable range as everything from a Klingon to Mike Wallace to J. Paul Getty. And in director Bob Clark’s 1979 film Murder by Decree, Plummer made a fine Sherlock Holmes.
Though Murder by Decree featured characters made famous by the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the film itself is not based on any of the original stories and actually uses a real historical crime as the mystery to be solved.
Much like Without a Clue, the Sherlock Holmes film recently recommended on this site by JaceSon Barrus (and I agree with him), Murder by Decree is not directly based on any of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But where that film was a comedy, Murder by Decree is a mystery/thriller/drama with a touch of horror. I’ve been a fan of Doyle’s original stories since I was about 11 years old, and I greatly appreciate adaptations that prioritize faithfulness to the source material (the early years of the BBC series starring Jeremy Brett are as close to definitive a Holmes as we’ll ever get, in my opinion.) At the same time, I recognize that Doyle himself famously resented what he saw as the popularity of commercial creation detracting from his more serious writing, and told the writers of a stage version that they were free to do anything they liked with the character. As such, I’m fairly open-minded to artistic license in portraying Holmes and his adventures, as long as I feel that on some basic level the spirit of the characters of Holmes and Watson are respected.
Certainly in this case the characters are done justice by the casting, as Plummer’s Holmes is joined by the equally distinguished James Mason as Dr. John Watson. The legendary detectives are inserted into a historical event as they are implored by a group of concerned Londoners to solve the mystery of the Whitechapel murders, and discover the identity of the killer known as “Jack The Ripper”.
Christopher Plummer enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood. Many recognize him from his performance as Captain von Trapp in the 1965 film The Sound of Music, but Mr. Plummer’s personal opinion of that movie was one of disdain.
Director Clark later became best known in the 1980s for comedies, such as the now classic A Christmas Story, the popular but poorly reviewed Porky’s, and the critical and box office bomb Rhinestone. But in the ’70s, his breakthrough had been the cult classic horror film Black Christmas, and no doubt that was the inspiration for choosing him to direct the screenplay by playwright John Hopkins. The film has definite horror elements, though it generates more creepy atmosphere and suspense than genuine scares. Those well versed in Ripper lore will easily see the solution coming, as it’s based on a popular if not particularly credible theory that has since gone on to be the basis of several other speculative works. But historical accuracy matters less in this case than simply telling a good story. While Murder by Decree is far from a perfect film, it’s a highly compelling and engaging story that makes for enjoyable viewing. And while we don’t see a lot of classic Sherlockian leaps of deductive reasoning, both the story and it’s solution feel comfortably within the vein of one of Doyle’s novel length works.
While script and the direction are solid (if not spectacular), the biggest assets of the film are the performances of Plummer and Mason, and the strong chemistry between them. Part of the fan in me is a little annoyed that Mason was clearly considerably older the Plummer (a full 20 years). While the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce popularized the idea of Watson as Holmes’ buffoonish older sidekicks, Doyle’s Holmes and Watson were much closer in age. Mason is given a few comic relief moments that resemble the Nigel Bruce version a little too much for my taste. But Watson also has plenty of moments that display the character’s intelligence and resourcefulness. And he and Plummer are so well matched as actors that it’s a pleasure to watch them together.
The Sherlock Holmes of Murder by Decree is very different from the one that fans would recognize in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels, the Basil Rathbone films or even the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series.
The portrayal of Holmes in this film has received some criticism from Sherlockians as being too emotional and caring. It’s a legitimate point, as Hopkins and Clark deliberately ignored some of the great detective’s less likeable qualifies and chose to make him nicer. But in my opinion, they haven’t gone so far as to betray the character. And Plummer’s acting and sheer screen presence are strong enough to overcome any reservations on my part. The scene where Holmes explains the solution to the mystery is one of my favorite Plummer moments, and that’s one of the biggest reasons I chose this film. My biggest complaint is actually that the filmmakers chose to costume Holmes in the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape in London. These items originally appeared only in illustrations where investigations took Holmes to the countryside. They seem out of place on a respectable gentleman in London, even one as eccentric as Holmes. Oh well.
The supporting cast is generally good as well, and features such mainstay British actors as Frank Finlay, Anthony Quayle (an actor I feel never got quite the respect or recognition he deserved), and even an appearance by the great John Gielgud. But for me two Canadian actresses make some of the biggest impressions: Genevieve Bujold is memorable and compelling in a brief but meaty role that is only slightly marred by her out of place French-Canadian accent. And Susan Clark has surprised me both times I’ve seen the film. I tend to associate Clark with her performances on the 1980s sitcom Webster and the Disney comedy western The Apple Dumpling Gang. Her performance as Mary Kelly, a troubled and frightened woman who may hold the key to solving the mystery, is miles away from that. Both her dramatic acting and her lower class London accent are far more convincing than I expected.
The excellent supporting cast of Murder by Decree includes James Mason as Dr. Watson as well as Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold, Susan Clark and Anthony Quayle in supporting roles.
Murder by Decree is rated PG for violence and adult themes (there was no PG-13 rating in 1979, but if there was I believe the film would fall into that category). While the gore of the gruesome murders is much more implied than seen, the subject matter will like be a bit dark and disturbing for some viewers, while others will probably wish it had gone darker and grittier. Above all else, I’m recommending this as a showcase for a great actor who has just left us. It’s a showcase for a performer who was something special as both a movie star and a serious actor. I encourage Plummer fans who haven’t seen Murder by Decree to give it a look and enjoy him commanding the screen.
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