During the seventies, fans of Sherlock Holmes were treated to a few theatrical adventures where the iconic character and his trusty colleague, Dr. Watson, were given slightly new spins, either in characterizations – bawdiness and substance usage in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Homes (1970) – or by having the sleuths meet and interact with historical figures. Nicholas Meyer had Holmes treated by Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution (1976), and Bob Clark had the master sleuths expose a Freemason plot wherein Jack the Ripper was used to obfuscate some royal improprieties in Murder by Decree (1979).
The progression of having a fictional and real-life historical figures interact is wholly natural, because on one level, it showed the need for Holmes’ growth after the atmosphere of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales had been so delightfully captured by Basil Rathbone in the late thirties/forties B-movies. Secondly, enough time had passed for Holmes to be portrayed by a new spate of actors, and the seventies films were perhaps the first sign of filmmakers, who grew up reading the books and/or watching the Rathbone films, getting their shot at making their own Holmes adventure.
As Bob Clark explains in the DVD commentary, Decree was his shot at crafting a stately and nuanced Holmes mystery, while exploiting then-new theories that Jack the Ripper and all that excessive filleting were part of a plot to hide the behaviour of a royal bad boy. John Hopkins’ script, inspired by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd’s book The Ripper File, basically drops Holmes into the chaos as the police are confounded by the latest grisly killing of a local prostitute. Clark and writer Hopkins also made sure Dr. Watson wasn’t going to be portrayed as a lovable bumbler, as done by Nigel Green in the Rathbone stream.
Working within a $4 million budget, this British-Canadian co-production was shot in London, and made use of an astonishingly good cast whose roles are meaty enough to ensure the actors don’t distract us from the mystery like sudden, smash-edited cameos. John Gielgud has one scene in the final act, but the initial sense of novelty dissipates because his performance and role as a conflicted high-ranking official is vital to the plot.
The film was to have starred Peter O’Toole and Sir Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson, respectively, but apparently an epic distaste for the other couldn’t be settled for the sake of the film, but that loss gave Christopher Plummer and James Mason an ideal opportunity to play off each other’s skills and create some fine chemistry. (The two actors had actually co-starred in Anthony Mann's bombastic Fall of the Roman Empire 15 years earlier, along with Anthony Quayle, who in Decree, plays the facially fuzzy Sir Charles Warren.)
Clark provides some brief casting anecdotes in his commentary, as well as production details, and he readily admits Decree was perhaps the classiest production of his career, working with icons of British cinema who literally bumped into each other throughout the film’s scenes. Whereas some international co-productions tended to take advantage of aging icons, Decree gave its substantive cast room to create somewhat deeper characterizations, even though it’s clear that, among the supporting cast, David Hemmings, Quayle, Frank Finlay, and Susan Clark are present to advance the plot through their actions, rather than any pivotal character arcs.
From a production standpoint, Decree is gorgeous, and arguably as visually arresting as Billy Wilder’s far pricier Holmes film, but it’s also a bit long in the final act, and the last fifteen minutes are pretty much there for characters to stand in defence as Holmes explains their roles in the murders of several prostitutes. Clark adds longer-than necessary flashback footage, and the lengthy moments of contemplation in earlier scenes that give the film its substance also offset the pacing of the final act.
Holmes is also presented as a more emotionally involved character – quite a difference from Rathbone’s steely interpretation – but that’s not necessarily a drawback, because the film’s finest scenes, as well as Plummer’s acting, lie in a pair where Clark focuses entirely on capturing reactions on long takes. The first example is Holmes visiting Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold) in a sanitarium, and the Big Explanation scene at the end with Gieldgud, playing the Prime Minister.
Bujold has only one scene in the film, but it gives Holmes the drive for justice, and breaks the Rathbone mold by presenting Holmes as a human being filled with moral outrage at an institution both he, and more so Watson, held in high esteem; bad royal and federal-level behaviour on innocent women are part of what drives Holmes to expose the layers of corruption, and the payoff is when he presents his evidence to a chilly yet practical minded Prime Minister.
Decree is extremely well-directed, and Clark admits his awareness of critics being baffled when he went from major career stepping stones like Decree and Tribute (1980) to the crude teen comedy Porky’s (1982). The autobiographical comedy, as he explains, was a project he’d wanted to get off the ground for 10 years, but that hugely profitable film made it hard for Hollywood to see Clark as director of anything except comedies. His final films show a decline in qualitative subject matter, as well as a director trying to remain independent of the Hollywood system, yet ignored by his financiers for the serious dramas and thrillers he ably directed.
The new DVD from Critical Mass/Anchor Bay is a straight reissue of the prior Anchor Bay-branded 2003 release, and contains the same extras and very crisp anamorphic transfer. The mono mix is a bit low (one has to crank the volume a bit more), but it shows off the excellent sound effects and decent, albeit increasingly repetitive score by Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza. (Note: while the DVD sleeve says there are Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, there’s only the original mono mix.)
Clark’s commentary is very spotty, though, with regular silent gaps and long chunks of silence between otherwise informative reflections on the film. It's a dilemma where the director just doesn’t have that much to say, and what should’ve been done is either edited the comments into specially indexed scene commentaries, or fill in the dead spots with related comments from secondary or tertiary contributors (like cast and crew members, and/or a Holmes historian).
Murder by Decree is undoubtedly a classic mystery, and a worthy companion to Clark’s other best-known thriller, Black Christmas (1974), also reissued on DVD.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan