A Blind Buy: You’re rummaging through the stacks at your physical media store of choice. Something catches your eye. Maybe you’ve heard about it, maybe you haven’t. You read the cover and realize you gotta have it. This column is dedicated to those movies you just take a chance on.
Murder By Decree (1979)
Where I bought it: Barnes & Noble
Why I bought it: I had a vague memory of reading something, maybe on Twitter, about the film around the time that Shout! Factory released their new edition of The Seven Percent Solution (which I still need to pick up.) Didn’t think too much about it a the time but a 15% off coupon from the big box outlet was burning a hole in my pocket so when I came across it while browsing the horror/thriller section I took a closer look. I realized it was indeed a Sherlock Holmes mystery which was an immediate draw. Then, I saw the cast listed on the front of the case: Christopher Plummer, James Mason and Donald Sutherland. I checked out the credits on the back and realized it was directed by the late, great Bob Clark who was responsible for two of my all-time favorite X-mas movies, A Christmas Story and Black Christmas. Finally, I read the synopsis. It basically promised Sherlock Holmes versus Jack The Ripper. I was sold.
What it’s about: It’s a rare Holmes movie that is not at all based on Doyle source material. After The Ripper’s latest brutal slaying, a citizens committee tasks the master detective and his stalwart companion, Dr. Holmes, with putting an end to Jack’s dirty work. The duo sets about this nasty business encountering obstacles all the way ultimately uncovering a terrible web of lies and secrets that just might trace all the way back to the Royal Family. Anyone familiar with Ripper lore will know the story, taken in part from Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, and many of the story beats will be familiar to anyone who has seen or read Alan Moore’s From Hell.
What I thought: I love a good mystery and Sherlock is the king of good mysteries. I’m fascinated by the Jack the Ripper case and the countless theories that have sprung up since the murders. The pairing of these two was genius so I was naturally inclined to like this flick. That it was directed by Clark was a bonus. It’s a real shame he’s gone having died in a car accident a few years ago. He was a true journeyman director, serving up everything from classic slasher pics to earnest family fare (like the previously mentioned Christmas flicks) to sex comedies like Porky’s. Like every true director of his type, he also delivered a few turds like Rhinestone and the Baby Geniuses atrocities. Hey, no one’s perfect.
The true gems here were the performances of Christopher Plummer and James Mason as one of the best bromance pairings in history. Mason’s Watson is great. He has a wry sense of humor and is a bit of a smart ass. He’s less bumbling here and more of an equal to Holmes, a character trait also used in the recent Downey Holmes flicks. He’s absolutely perfect playing off of Plummer’s Holmes and the interplay between the two is delightful. Now usually, Holmes is cold, detached and at times a bit robotic (not too dissimilar from Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character in the masterful BBC Sherlock series.) He’s the smartest guy in any room and he knows it. Plummer certainly conveys that intelligence but brings with it emotion we rarely see in the role. And all that emotion bubbling under the surface of the character pays off in the film’s final scene.
Called before the men he feels are responsible for Jack’s reign of violence, Holmes gives the viewer their “a-ha!” reveal. If you know mysteries, you know the trope. The detective reveals everything they’ve discovered and identifies the guilty parties. Every good detective does it from Miss Marple and Poirot to Jessica Fletcher and Colombo. But the circumstances are a bit different here. Holmes delivers the facts, his rage growing, knowing full well the truths he discovered will not and must not ever be revealed to the general public for fear of toppling a monarchy and destroying a country. It’s a truly great moment and Plummer nails it.
So, yeah, I liked this movie. Liked it a lot. Great cast. Great director. I’ve absolutely nothing bad to say about it. You should definitely check it out.
Where You Can Get It: The film is currently available on Netflix Instant and is available uber-cheap (less than $6) on Amazon.