27 July 2010 | Coventry
Not your typical type of Sherlock
Several sources, including a loud and proud quotation on the DVD-cover itself, claim that "Murder by Decree" is the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. Like most opinions are, this is highly debatable. Me personally, for example, I'm a big fan of the 1940's Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone as the superiorly intelligent detective and Nigel Bruce as his goofy sidekick Dr. Watson. Some of the entries in that franchise, like "The Scarlet Claw" and "House of Fear" to name just two, are near-brilliant and, in my humble opinion, even better than this film. One fact that remains inarguable, however, is that "Murder by Decree" is the most special and unclassifiable Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. The script actually takes the fictional characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle and places them amidst all the convoluted speculations and grotesque conspiracy theories surrounding the mystery of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders. "A Study in Terror" was the first attempt to blend the characters of Holmes and Jack the Ripper, nearly fifteen years earlier in 1965, but Bob Clark's film digs a whole lot deeper and makes a lot more efforts to come across as plausible and convincing. "Murder by Decree" is a unique Sherlock Holmes film for yet another reason, namely the depiction of our heroic protagonists. Christopher Plummer portrays the most humane Holmes in history, with a regular sense of humor instead of witty remarks that ooze with superiority as well as feelings sadness and compassion. He even wipes away an emotional teardrop at one point! On the other hand, there's James Mason illustrating the most anti-stereotypical Watson ever, as his lines and contributions are sharp and savvy instead of silly. Sherlock Holmes is called in for help by the Whitechapel store owners after the third Jack the Ripper murder. The crimes are despicable and the locals fear that the police aren't making enough efforts to capture the killer since the victims are "only" prostitutes working in a poor London neighborhood. Thanks to his amazing investigating talents, careful observing senses and stupendous deductive skills, Holmes gradually uncovers a complex conspiracy that almost solely involves elite culprits like politicians, Freemasons and even British royals. He has to operate with extreme caution, though, as his investigation might lead the Ripper to more targeted victims. The script of "Murder by Decree" is clever. Too clever, in fact, as I presume you're not even supposed to guess along for the Ripper's identity. Holmes is always several steps ahead of you and the film ends with a long monologue in which the detective explains the entire murderous scheme – in great detail – to a trio of eminent conspirators. Although puzzling, the story remains fascinating and absorbing the whole time. Bob Clark, a multi-talented genre director especially in the seventies, also masterfully captures the exact right Victorian ambiance. The film is literally filled with dark and foggy London alleys, uncanny old taverns and marvelous horse carriages. I only detected a couple of minor details, actually, and they're mainly personal opinions. The film doesn't properly epitomize the "horror" of the Jack the Ripper case (hardly any nasty images or sinister moments) and the sub plot revolving on Donald Sutherland as a paranormally gifted witness affects the credibility in a negative sort of way.