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April 12, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #171 - Murder By Decree

A few months back I covered the other movie from 1979 in which a famous literary name tracked Jack the Ripper (that would be Time After Time, of course), so it's only fair that I let Sherlock Holmes follow in H.G. Wells' steps and track Whitechapel's most infamous knifeman too. Which brings us to Murder By Decree, a grimy and serious attempt to investigate the Ripper with Holmes and Watson leading the charge.
Directed by Bob Clark, whose versatility as a filmmaker is a thing of legend, Murder By Decree exists in a London where the sun never seems to shine, the fog never seems to lift, and the prostitutes don't at all look like Hollywood actresses. I'm serious on that last point too. Heather Graham isn't walking through that door. Instead, we're left realizing that Jack the Ripper was a seriously disturbed fella - and also wondering why anyone back in the day would pay a few quid for some of those old hags.  Sorry, did I get off track? Yeah, I think I did.
Or maybe I didn't, because I think the grimy prostitute issue makes a point. While the film is on the surface a Sherlock Holmes mystery, the script also unabashedly digs into the political and social climate of less fortunate districts of London in the late 1800s. The Jack the Ripper era has been romanticized so often on screen, and Murder By Decree counteracts these portrayals by refusing to make the situation look more glamorous than it is. Clark's previous work on films like Black Christmas and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things showed a similar talent for keeping death ugly, but the tone of Murder by Decree doesn't offer near as many moments of levity or humor as those films did.
Thanks to this unrelenting tone, Murder By Decree functions kind of like Alfred Hitchcock's masterful Vertigo did more than twenty years earlier, because the winding plot keeps our eyes fixated on the screen and our mind wondering about what it all means.  Neither film really ever takes a break to let us really collect our thoughts, it just keeps moving at its own seductive pace. As is the case with any good mystery - and any Sherlock Holmes story - any missed detail might be the one that trips the case. This isn't a Scooby Doo style mystery either, and Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins don't provide many easy clues to solving the enigma that is Jack the Ripper.  Historians will no doubt notice some connections to the real case and some conspiracy theories that have become popular in some circles, but also offers some unique perspective on the infamous killer.
Of course, none of this would be interesting if the cast involved couldn't handle the film, so it's delightful to see that the casting is so darn fantastic here. Christopher Plummer and James Mason star as Holmes and Watson, respectively, and each is an inspired choice for their role. It's weird to watch the two actors - who I relate to much different eras in film - play off each other, but they have a natural chemistry. The once suave Mason is probably the film's biggest asset as Watson, balancing the character's gruff exterior with the astute wit instilled upon him by Holmes. He does seem to imitate Nigel Bruce - my favorite Watson by FAR - a bit, but doesn't go too far that the role doesn't feel like his own.
Plummer, on the other hand, seems to transition smoothly into the role of Holmes. It's a perfect casting idea and Plummer seems to relish one of his few chances to be the lead performer in a picture. He manages to hit on many of the trademarks of the Holmes character but he, like Mason, never seems to be just going through the motions. And when it is time for him to relate his findings in the final act, there is not a wasted word - it's one of the most well-delivered segments I've ever seen wrap up a murder mystery. It's also worth noting that these stars are assisted by a dynamite supporting cast, with folks like David Hemmings, Donald Sutherland and Sir John Gielgud adding respectability to the story.

Murder By Decree is not for everyone, and it's still kind of surprising to me that such a humorless film came from the director who would soon be directing Porky's and A Christmas Story. It works as a Holmes movie and it works as a Ripper film and it even works as a commentary on poverty in London near the turn of the century. Most impressively, it never loses its grasp on any of these major themes, keeping everything together for over two hours. When you consider it all together, Murder by Decree holds up as one of the most well-constructed mysteries on film.

1 comment:

Christine Hadden said...

I bought this film a few months ago on a friend's advice and still have yet to watch it. I'm such a massive Christopher Plummer fan that I just can't go wrong by the sounds of it!
Looking forward to checking it out now more than ever! Perhaps this weekend! Thanks!