Sherlock Holmes is famously the most adapted literary character of all time, appearing in more different film and TV incarnations than anyone else. Nowadays we have Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch representing two different but rather 21st Century Sherlocks (whether set in the modern day or not), but in 1979 Christopher Plummer donned the deerstalker, with James Mason as his Watson.
Rather than being based on any of Arthur Conan Doyle#s original stories, Murder By Decree tries to raise some extra interest by getting Sherlock involved in the Jack the Ripper killings. When the gruesome Whitechapel murders begin, Holmes expects to be called in by the police, but they’re rather deliberately keeping him at arms-length. Instead it’s a rather unstable psychic (Donald Sutherland) who encourages Sherlock to start looking into things. While the cops are busy trying to stop the murders, Holmes begins to uncover a conspiracy surrounding the case, which reaches the heights of British society and the hypocrisies on the class system.
While we never got any more of Plummer and Mason as Holmes And Watson, there’s a definite sense of this being a movie designed to set up a franchise. It wasn’t a huge success, as even in 1979 it felt a little too dusty to be a breakout hit, but it is very entertaining. Plummer plays Holmes with real verve and excitement, while Mason is a rather serious Watson, helping to anchor Sherlock’s exuberance. However while Sherlock is famously clever, Murder By Decree doesn’t present him as being the genius as you’d expect. In fact he has a tendency to miss the blatantly obvious, which is an issue. Instead he and Watson almost becoming tour guides to a real conspiracy theory surrounding the Ripper murders, based on Stephen Knight’s non-fiction book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. In that respect, it’s oddly like The Da Vinci Code – a way to present alternate-history in story form.
It doesn’t work 100% and some of the film seems a tad cheap, but everyone seems to be having a good time and they ensure it’s an entertaining ride. Murder By Decree isn’t the first or last time someone has tried to pit Sherlock against Jack The Ripper – indeed Frank Finlay has played Lestrade in two completely different ones, Murder By Decree and 1965’s A Study In Terror – but it’s definitely the most memorable and a fun watch.
Overall Verdict: Not the greatest Sherlock Holmes tale ever committed to celluloid, but Plummer has fun with the role, taking us deep into the Jack The Ripper conspiracies.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac