This week sees the DVD rerelease of Bob Clark’s hugely enjoyable 1979 Sherlock Holmes crime drama Murder By Decree courtesy of StudioCanal, and starring recent Oscar winner Christopher Plummer and the magnificent James Mason. The film lifts Conan Doyle’s world famous crime fighting duo straight of the page, pitting Holmes (Plummer) and Watson (Mason) against one of history’s most notorious criminals – Jack the Ripper.
Undoubtedly the most enjoyable element of Murder By Decree is in the pairing of Plummer and Mason, who work well in an incredibly watchable on-screen double act. The ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ himself has been played by over 75 actors since Arthur Marvin’s 1900 touch paper Sherlock Holmes Baffled, yet Plummer’s performance has to be one of the finest. Admittedly, Clark’s film takes some liberties with Conan Doyle’s iconic creation, but the changes are all for the better.
There are elements in Clark’s interpretation that will be familiar to those who have seen both the recent TV adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as well as the recent Guy Ritchie movies – specifically in the treatment of gender, with Holmes and Watson behaving like a married couple. However, the performances of Plummer and Mason are stripped of any homosexual undertones, instead presenting a more amiable friendship between two bickering bachelors.
Aside from the fine central performances (including an appearance by Donald Sutherland), Murder By Decree has one of the best narratives seen in any Holmes adaptation. The blending of history and literature is extremely well-executed – the Ripper myth is oft-traversed territory, but Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins do a good job of breathing fresh life into both legendary figures..
There are certainly moments where Murder By Decree feels dated – particularly in its special effects – yet the quality of the cinematography and editing have stood the test of time, especially in the tracking shots utilised to depict the Ripper’s perspective as he stalks his victims. Clark’s film is a must-see for all lovers of Sherlock Holmes, and even those less well-versed in the detective’s adventures should still come away thoroughly entertained.