Sunday, April 14, 2013

In-Class Movie: Murder By Decree (1979)

“Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson. You see that even a villain and murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when he learns that his neck is forfeited.”
Sherlock Holmes, “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”

Austin: It wasn't until I started Murder by Decree did I realize that we have been in a bit of a rough patch, quality wise. A couple of oddball stories and a lousy TV movie has not made for the most satisfying of Holmes tales. Then this started and we have a nice sense of spooky style, shadows, the costume and I was drawn back in. 

We reviewed Christopher Plummer's first filmed attempt at playing Sherlock in the TV short film "Silver Blaze" and I really liked him even though it seemed like he had split performances. I really wanted to see him tackle this character again and I'm happy to report this is a much more consistent performance. In Murder by Decree he has darker material to cover, but he handles it with a cool reserve reminiscent of Basil Rathbone but with some true anger boiling underneath that we don't see until the final act. I wish he did another film because this was an interesting combination.

I am a Sherlock with such confidence that nobody questions why I'm wearing this silly hat.

Ultimately this is a movie that wants to be very dark and sophisticated and doesn't always nail that gravitas. Which is shocking considering this is the director who would go on to make Porky's and Baby Geniuses 2 and without being sarcastic, he did make the masterpiece A Christmas Story. Yet everything about this movie remained very curious as it tried to tie in Jack the Ripper with Sherlock Holmes and those damned Freemasons.

Before we look more at this cast and how the movie functioned, I want to know if this broke our streak of "okay" Sherlock stories for you?

Leigh: First can we all agree that this scene is the best scene in movie history?

Second can we all agree that while Eddie Izzard can't do many impressions well, his James Mason one is spot on? Seriously.  The only experience I have of James Mason before this movie is Eddie Izzard's impressions of God as James Mason. 


Yeah, the streak of mediocre stories has been broken. The story isn't the greatest or most unique BUT HOLY CRAP THAT ACTING. I knew that this movie was going to be yards better than "Silver Blaze" in the first scene. Holmes and Watson are at a theater waiting for something to start, probably an opera. The banter between Plummer and Mason was fantastic. You can believe that these two men are not only friends but companions. This might be my second favorite Watson/Holmes pairing because I love Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch together. (#radbromance) The supporting actors were fantastic as well. Donald Sutherland is a kooky medium and David Hemmings plays a new character, Inspector Foxborough. These characters weren't on screen very long but you believe them when they are on screen. Something about Hemmings made me watch him in every scene he was in. Maybe it was those sideburns...

And aside from the scene that I've claimed to be the best scene in movie history, I felt that the movie kept that feeling of deep, dark and scary the whole time. You get a sense of the underbelly of dingy Victorian London in every scene, especially the final scene I think. 

But what about that mystery? I've read a lot about Jack the Ripper so this theory isn't new to me. I've also seen it in a few period mysteries, not necessarily with Holmes and of course I can't remember any of them at the moment.

Austin: You have never seen James Mason in a movie before?! That's crazy. I've seen North By Northwest too many times and I'm a big fan of The Verdict, Lolita and A Star is Born and Bigger Than Life. I'm not even sure if he's that great of a villain in Northwest but that voice made him so freakin' awesome.

Why don't you want to hear a bedtime story?

It's awesome that you liked this pairing so much. I'm still undecided on James Mason as Watson. He's a great actor and when he was younger he had a bit of a dominating personality; he essentially plays a God like figure in Heaven Can Wait. In this he goes in a completely different direction and he is very quiet in this movie. He never tries to steal the show, in fact this is a very tired Watson. It felt like Watson in the bookends in that book a few weeks ago The House of Silk. It was a different dynamic than I've seen in Sherlock and Watson, which I appreciated.

Now I know that tying together Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes is a very popular storyline but this was my first time seeing one play out. I've never been that compelled by Jack the Ripper. I think that Patricia Cornwell ruined any sort of interest I've had in it. Although I still find it difficult to believe the conspiracy aspects of Jack the Ripper in real life, that is the type of solution I want from a Sherlock Holmes story. It can't just be an easy "He did it!" because any detective could do that. 

Any doubts I had in the plotting was circumvented by how just how great the acting was. I chastised Rupert Everett last week for being too moody and yet Christopher Plummer literally cries on screen in this. But somehow he's better! This story landed those scenes more and Plummer never made it feel too melodramatic. 

Now that you've seen both of Plummer's performances as Holmes how does he rank amongst the other actors we've seen? Also what else about this movie worked for you so much?

Leigh: I've seen a lot of TV shows but not a whole lot of movies comparatively. I like to blame the fact that my family lived in Germany for a few years and we only had one English station. We moved back to the US when I was four so it can't be fully blamed but the habit of watching movies we already owned over and over again developed and I still haven't broken it twenty years later. (Go ahead. Ask me how many times I've seen Moulin Rouge. Hint: Probably more times than any one person should ever watch it.) 

"It's Jack the Ripper! Oh no, never mind it's just that annoying Duke. Carry on singing."

Because I've read a lot about Jack the Ripper from all aspects and know the various conspiracy theories, the plot was very predictable and there wasn't really a mystery for me. Hell, even Johnny Depp's Jack the Ripper movie From Hell uses all of these same plot points minus Sherlock Holmes and even then his detective character shares a habit or two with Holmes. Aside from knowing every step, my only other complaint about the plot is the addition of a medium and that supernatural aspect. Again, ACD wouldn't mind the addition but I feel that Holmes is so based on truth or "truth" that the stories seem real, they seem like they could happen to real people. Adding the supernatural to it just makes it less believable, which for me is problematic. 

The difference between Plummer and Everett is that Everett showed one emotion the whole time: melancholy. Plummer showed a range of emotions and was genuine. I didn't mind the crying on screen because I believed him, I believed that his version of Holmes would be that upset about the unjustified murders of innocent women. Would ACD's Holmes be that moved? Probably not but Plummer brought a bit more realism to a story that was perhaps a little farfetched. I would've loved to see any other Sherlock Holmes movies with Plummer and Mason. They were wonderful together.

Next time Watson sits back as Holmes tells him a story about a boat. 

And now Austin with the final word!

Austin: Peas!

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