Film Reviews

Murder by Decree (1979) – Blu-ray Review

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous fictional detective of all time. Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most famous real murderer of all time. Having the two go head to head has been a favourite of writers for a long time, spawning a whole sub-genre.

Though dated, Murder by Decree is brilliantly atmospheric, at times verging on the unsettling. Christopher Plummer and James Mason have an absolute whale of a time playing Holmes and Watson. Though technically a tad too old for this time in their career, they manage to bring to life a believable pair of sleuths, perhaps the best pairing since Rathbone and Bruce. Plummer’s Holmes – his second outing in the role – is more human, and Mason’s Watson less bumbling, but their friendship and characters are believable, likeable, and more than watchable. The pair are backed up by an absolute powerhouse of a supporting cast, including John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold and Donald Sutherland. Throw in enough swivel-eyed conspiracy theory to make Dan Brown blush and this should be a thoroughly enjoyable piece.

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Yet this is a film that is less than the sum of its parts, mostly because of the script. It takes far too long to tell us… not much at all. Twists and turns are fine, but doubling back and retreading the same path as this film does quickly grows dull. The pacing is also spotty throughout. On the plus side the dialogue itself is excellent: believable, witty and well observed. That, coupled with the other excellent qualities of this film, should be enough to make this film more than enjoyable for most.

A quick note about the score. Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza manage to deliver an understated yet haunting work that finishes with a haunting melody played on woodwinds that closes the movie with a winsome, almost folky lilt. The transfer is crisp, allowing the viewer to really enjoy the skillfully crafted sets and well chosen location filming which combine to create a fully realised Holmesian London.

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The special features are underwhelming in quantity, but enjoyable. In a 19-minute talking head documentary, film journalist Kim Newman talks us through the background of the origins of the movie. He also examines a few of the other fictional films that have tackled the subject of Jack the Ripper, as well as Holmes himself. Newman is likeable enough, with a twinkle in his eye and an obvious enjoyment of his subject, which is useful as, along with crime fiction historian Barry Forshaw, he delivers the commentary for this Blu-ray.

This commentary is an absolute treat for Holmes enthusiasts as well as film fans. Those who consider themselves both will find that they will want to continually join in as the pair jump from thought to thought in a way that, if they were less likable, would be thoroughly annoying. However, because the two watching are having so much fun together, it is more than forgivable.

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Murder by Decree is a film where the perceived weaknesses – the long and meandering plot – might appeal to many Holmes fans. Rather than dull and drawn out, for those who love these characters that extra time gives room for Homes and Watson to grow and be fully explored by the actors playing them. Because of that, it’s likely to be purchased by fans of the pair, and this is a special release that does just enough to keep its target audience happy.

If you’re a Holmes fan who hasn’t seen this, get it. It may not be a canonical story, and Plummer’s interpretation may be somewhat radical, but this is a film well worth your time; one that doesn’t just stand up to repeated viewings, but even grows on you each time, making it far more likely that you’ll take the time to enjoy the commentary it comes with.

Murder by Decree is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital from Studiocanal.

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