Sherlock Holmes is, arguably, the most famous literary detective in history. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made fourteen Holmes films for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, Robert Downey Jr starred as the gentleman sleuth twice, the BBC made a very successful series that modernised the character, and that’s not even mentioning the numerous radio adaptations, and versions in other languages and cultural settings. There have been prequels, sequels and continuation novels, written by imminent authors like Anthony Horowitz. Not to mention films that feature Holme’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as a lead character. Suffice it to say, Sherlock Holmes has gone well beyond his origins in Doyle’s short stories and handful of novels.
And that brings us to the 1979 film, Murder by Decree, in which Holmes sets out to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery: that of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders.
Before I discuss the film, I must make it very clear that this film does not try very hard to be historically accurate in terms of the actual murders. In case having a famous fictional detective at the centre of the plot didn’t already give that away, the fact that Inspector Abeline (who was very involved in the Ripper investigation) is totally missing from the story, instead replaced by the fictitious Inspector Foxbourough (played by David Hemmings.) Sir Charles Warren (played by Anthony Quail) is also portrayed as a blustering, pompous windbag, whilst in real life he was very reserved and disciplined, due to a military background. It also purports that he was a Free Mason (I want a ring like that. Must be a great conversation starter.)
The film is largely based on Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution by Stephen Knight, which has been almost entirely discredited now, and was met with enormous scepticism at the time of its release in 1976.
Thankfully the film is very aware of the fact that it cannot, and should not, try to solve this (almost by the time of the film’s release) century old murder. What it does achieve is heaps of atmosphere, supported by Bob Clark’s very competent direction, a stellar score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zitter, and a fabulous ensemble cast, including James Mason, Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, John Gielgud, and our man of the main titles, Christopher Plummer as the gentleman sleuth.
The film begins with Holmes and Watson (played by James Mason) at the theatre. The performance has not yet begun due to the late arrival of the Prince of Wales. The Prince is unpopular due to not conducting his affairs in a private manner, as Holmes puts it, and Watson counters boos directed at the Prince with applause, which is heartily supported by the aristocracy. Holmes gives him a playful jibe about “saving the day,” but when the performance is over, Watson and Holmes depart home, and discuss the recent murders in Whitechapel.
A group of men ominously approach the pair’s residence on Baker Street, but it is revealed that they are a citizen’s committee, who want Holmes’ help in solving the recent murders. Holmes is seemingly non-committal, but he is soon drawn into the layers of subterfuge surrounding the killings when Annie Chapman is found dead. The danger ratchets up as Holmes goes deeper into the web, and discovers that the highest echelons of British society may well be involved.
What makes this film so akin to the series of films starring Rathbone and Bruce, is its incredibly successful combination of drama, atmosphere and humour. Streets are laden with thick, bluish-grey fog, the murder stalks about with close-ups on his unnaturally black eyes. The women who are murdered are given far more depth and character than many other adaptations of the story (although there is, unsurprisingly, still a generic feel to most of the victims), and the pace of the film never dithers, leaping from one scene to the next, the realisation and discovery from one clue to another.
Reginald H. Morris’ cinematography makes Victorian London feel real, rather than just a set with some cobbled streets and old buildings. The dock where Holme’s and Watson speak to the disembodied voice of an “informer”, is claustrophobic, smog slowly enveloping the scene, as the blackness of the Thames stretches beyond the dock, and the muted lights of the city flicker beyond. There is a feeling of dread when our duo are out on the narrow, slick lanes. But this is balanced by the coziness of the Baker Street Lodgings, with its leather upholstered furniture, Holmes’ laboratory behind the dining room, and the dark wood of the window frames. Every set has an enormous amount of detail, and the set dressing is incredibly authentic, as well as the lighting cast by gas lamps.
The script by John Hopkins (who co-wrote the screenplay for Thunderball) is an absolute masterclass in the balancing of tone and dialogue. One of my favourite scenes is when Holmes is pondering (yet again) on how all the victims are connected, and Watson is endeavouring to eat his final pea, which is evading him as it rolls about on his dinner plate. Holmes, seemingly frustrated by Watson’s preoccupation with something so trivial, squashes the pea, leaving Watson rather distraught. It is a perfect comedic moment that releases some of the tension from the film.
Watson, what are you doing?
I’m trying to corner the last pea on my plate.
squashes said pea
You squashed my pea.
Well, now you’ve got it cornered.
Yes… but…squashing a fellow’s pea…
Just trying to help.
I didn’t want it squashed, I don’t like it that way – I like it whole so that you can feel it pop when you bite down on it.
Sorry, I wasn’t thinkingIMDB
The chemistry between Plummer and Mason is absolutely brilliant. Although a furore will probably come about due to me saying this, but I think their Holmes and Watson combination is just as good as Rathbone and Bruce’s. They are able to match each other in every scene they share, with neither of them missing a beat. They come across as being genuine, long time friends, and Watson’s mild irritation with Holmes, and the latter’s good natured ribbing of the former, is perfectly balanced. Having Watson be considerably older than Holmes also works very well, almost as if they met each other later in life, but were destined to be crime solving companions. The “micro-moments” between them are probably my favourite part of their dynamic, like when Holmes looks at Watson with true fondness as his friend explains the connection between the women; and when Watson mumbles grumpily about Holmes always trotting off without him and not telling him where he’s going. They truly are the core that holds the whole film together, and Watson is a real support for Holmes throughout, much like Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke in the Granada television series. It is interesting to think that Mason was the last to be cast, because I don’t think the film would have been the same without him.
The film also cleverly explores the obsession with spiritualism that Victorian society had, with the inclusion of Donald Sutherland as the clairvoyant, Robert Lees. Lees did claim to know the identity of Jack the Ripper, but his claims were entirely disregarded in his lifetime, and still are.
But the inclusion of this real life medium does highlight that Victorians were struggling with their religious beliefs, their attempts to understand what was beyond the veil, and the increasingly secular and scientific explanations for things that had long been “answered” by religion. All these things are bound up in the juxtaposition of the rational Sherlock Holmes and the otherworldly Robert Lees.
I won’t spoil the end of the film, but I will share my thoughts about it briefly, before I finally talk about Christopher Plummer’s turn as Sherlock Holmes.
I have never believed that the Whitechapel murders were part of some elaborate Masonic plot, or that Royalty was somehow involved. I think that these explanations are the usual conspiratorial ones that try to make the reasons for crimes such as these more “exciting” or “salacious”, rather than facing the far more likely, but “mundane” reason: the women who were murdered in 1888 lived in a society where women and the poor were ignored at best and despised at worst. They had no social or economic support, and therefore were victims of this lack of protection.
But, rightly or wrongly, the denouement of the story is extremely entertaining. And there is not a moment in the film where one feels bored, or that the combination of Sherlock Holmes and this infamous series of murders are badly done.
Whilst I very much agree that Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone are the absolute benchmark in terms of Sherlock Holmes portrayals, I must, nay I dare, to go so far that Christopher Plummer should be held in as high regard. Although he only appeared as the private detective once, he is still utterly superb in every way. And like Brett, he brings so much complexity of emotion to the role, elevating the character beyond merely a brilliant mind, but a man who is driven by obsession, and the need for justice. Not always likeable, often arrogant and vain, but always fascinating and compelling.
Although his entire performance is splendid, two of my favourite parts are when he speaks to Genevieve Bujold, and his face relays an array of emotions from compassion, anger, fear and melancholy. Not for a moment does any of this look stilted or strange, it is merely the varied reaction of a man presented with a situation that he cannot countenance.
And the film’s denouement, when he confronts those powerful players who were complicit in the deaths of these five, invisible women. It is in this scene that we can see that Plummer was a classically trained stage actor, who took on many classical roles, such as Henry V and Macbeth. The fact that he manages to entirely own a scene that features John Gielgud and Anthony Quail is truly something.
I think Murder by Decree is the perfect film to encapsulate what made Christopher Plummer such an incredible actor. It was the fact that he never just played himself, and when he played a character that was well known, he interpreted it in such a way that made it feel fresh and multilayered. I think that if they had made a series of films starring Plummer as Holmes, it would not have been remiss.
This is my contribution to my and Gil’s Blogathon dedicated to the wonderful Christopher Plummer.
10 thoughts on “A Royal Conspiracy: Murder by Decree (1979)”
Thanks again for another successful blogathon, I do love Holmes and Watson’s rapport in this movie. Its a fab cast too, I remember reading that book back in the late 1980s and was disillusioned that it really wasn’t The Final Solution,
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Right back at you, cohost 🙂
Ya it’s a great story, but totally bogus. Made a great film, though.
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Wonderful review of a thoroughly entertaining movie! I’m a sucker for What if? movies that mix historical events and people with fictional characters and speculative plots. Murder by Decree is one of the best, with a great cast and atmosphere in spades, as you point out. The pea business is absolutely hilarious!
Thanks so much for co-hosting this great blogathon!
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So glad you liked my thoughts on it, Brian 🙂
You’re most welcome and thank you for reading my post!
Great review of a brilliant film, Gabriela. You’re right that Christopher Plummer and James Mason are up there with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce and Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. I wish they’d made another Holmes film together.
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Thanks Maddy. So glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Oh well, we can dream!
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I think this is my favorite Holmes movie. Neither particularly ambitious (like Billy Wilder’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) nor particularly ingenious (like Herbert Ross’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), Murder by Decree is a delight nevertheless. It’s an elegantly crated and superbly acted whodunit that holds up after repeat viewings. And Plummer is great as Holmes — he projects moral indignation beautifully.
Well, I wanted to see this movie before, but after this spectacular recommendation? It’s a MUST SEE now. You’ve likened this Holmes/Watson duo to Brett/Hardwicke, and I adore them, so I am absolutely excited to watch this as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. Maybe by this coming weekend, if the internet is merciful 😉