Monday, November 28, 2011


Sherlock Holmes – Murder By Decree

Last Saturday night, ITV3 showed Murder By Decree, the 1979 film pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper (not to be confused with Hammer’s earlier variation on the theme, A Study in Terror). Of all the many films that tried to make a serious attempt at defining Holmes between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, this is perhaps the most critically acclaimed and certainly the one that takes itself the most seriously. Yet though I rather like Christopher Plummer’s soulful Sherlock, the film’s achingly fashionable – for 1979 – Ripperology and conspiracy theories in general just test my patience. Spoilers follow…
“He seems to take a delight in keeping his subjects waiting. I suppose, since after all he is only the Prince of Wales, we should not expect the same degree of courtesy.”
“And since you are only the prince of detectives, Holmes, I don’t think you should presume to criticise a man who one day will be the King of England!”
My Puritan Streak

There are many reasons why this film gets on my wick, despite several fine actors, one or two of whom even give fine acting, and it’s to do with both style and substance. The narrative feel of the thing is a mess, not aided by a thoroughly unsatisfying excuse for an ending, nor in aiming for ‘realism’ by shooting almost the whole film in the dark until the last twenty minutes, making the picture even murkier than the script. But it’s the script that’s my main problem (just as it’s the reason many others praise it).

Essentially, the reason the narrative is a muddle, the reason the ending is an anti-climax, and the reason it takes itself so appallingly seriously all come down to the same central conceit: this purports to be an undiscovered adventure of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, but in fact he’s merely grafted on as a framing device for a very expensive docudrama of the trendy Jack the Ripper theory of the time.

My prejudices are showing here a little; I’m not one of nature’s great Puritans, but such a Puritanical streak as I have tends to come out about ‘true crime’. It’s probably not very logical to delight in many fictional murder mysteries and crime capers while sniffing at the tasteless exploitativeness of anything like the same plots if based on real criminals with real victims, but it’s my instinctive reaction. So while I can understand the idea behind this sort of film – hey! Let’s mash up the two biggest ‘popular legends’ of Victorian London to make big box-office! – I can’t help being a little biased against it from the start. A fictionalised stand-in for the Ripper, with a different name and in a work which promises nothing more than fiction, has nothing like the same effect on me, but if it’s purporting to be the real horrible misogynist murderer as ‘glamorous history’, I don’t like it. And so without the most extraordinary brilliance driving it, and it hasn’t, this film is almost precisely calculated by its po-faced presentation of both Sherlock Holmes and Stephen Knight’s schlock history book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (tasteful title, there) as ‘true’ to fall between two stools. It’s at the same time too serious, and not serious enough.

The Hairpiece From Hell

As well as being made to cash in on ‘ninety years of the Ripper’, this was the end of the ’70s, and glum conspiracy ‘thrillers’ in which the establishment is riddled with nasty murderers and the hero never wins and is lucky not to end up dead in a ditch at the end were very much in vogue. So it’s not surprising that the decade ended with a big conspiracy movie ‘exposing’ the entire British nobility as behind a Masonic conspiracy over the Jack the Ripper murders (the only surprise being that, unlike the book it’s based on and several later Holmes-less dramatisations, this film bottles it and changes the names of the aristocrats they claim committed the murders, while happy to slander openly various public servants of the time they name as the Ripper’s friends in slightly less high places. Surely not forelock-tugging by the producers?).

The problem, on its own terms, of making The Parallax View for the previous century is that they decide to put Sherlock Holmes in it so people will flock to the cinemas to see it. And Sherlock Holmes is in complete conflict with a grim, ’70s-style conspiracy movie. Those have to end up bleak, despairing and insoluble; he has to end up victorious by means of his brilliant brain, and not end up floating face-down in the Thames or framed for murder and blamed for it all in the end (he is, of course, arrested for murder at one point here, but it’s such a lacklustre attempt that the charge slides off him in the very same scene). Well, at least seeing as it’s not one of those books in which Holmes turns out secretly to be Jack the Ripper, Moriarty and Queen Victoria, or any other of those dreary ‘twists’ telegraphed from the cover. Shove these two immovable narrative forces up against each other, and what do you get? One of the most rambling, pointless and unintentionally hilarious scenes ever committed in a Sherlock Holmes film, as the film’s excuse for an ending shifts from briefly bloody to protractedly preachy against the “madmen wielding sceptres.”

Unable publicly to bring the Ripper to justice (just a bloody end in the dark that no-one can mention) or even to name him, but equally unable to have Holmes fail, the film’s ‘climax’ is twenty minutes of a handful of haughty men declaiming quite bad but very long dialogue at each other in a vast Masonic hall deep within the Palace of Westminster. No, seriously. Christopher Plummer is the only one who comes out of it with any dignity, and probably an award for being able to deliver this tosh with a straight face. His Holmes is compassionate, socially concerned, and thankfully clean-shaven; the Prime Minister, of course, is a stiff, cold liar who refuses to take any responsibility for having in effect said ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome woman?’; but even his ludicrous whiskers (concealing John Gielgud, and I bet he wished it was a full face-mask) can’t compete with Anthony Quayle’s giant curlicues of pubic hair arranged at random all over his head. In Hammer’s ‘Holmes versus the Ripper’ film A Study in Terror, Mr Quayle had played the decent, dependable moral heart of it; here, the difference in his part and performance are so blatantly mirrored in his appalling wig that I wonder whether the hamming was playing up to the hairpiece or vice versa. Along the way to this meandering shouting match, David Hemmings’ scheming closet Radical is almost as bad – and almost as ludicrously coiffured – as those he wants to bring down, while Donald Sutherland’s goggling psychic tries hard to be worse.

The decent, dependable moral heart of this film is, of course, Holmes, with Christopher Plummer giving rather more sides than the usual cold fish or hyper aesthete, actually carrying off a Holmes who weeps over Geneviève Bujold’s sad fate rather than making us go, ‘Oh, come on’. James Mason’s older, stiffer Dr Watson isn’t so lucky; contractual obligations for every Watson of the second half of the last century make them all ‘an attempt to move on from bumbling Nigel Bruce’ (though I rather liked him), but the elderly Mr Mason seems so weary that he gives the impression, once removing the shadow of Mr Bruce, of having nothing to put in his place. The only excuse I can think of is that with Watson usually taking the part of Holmes’ narrator, he’s the one ‘watching’ the whole thing on the part of the viewer and so is postmodernly as fed up with it as we are. Between them, they have one quite endearing scene with a pea, but it’s thin pickings in a very long two hours.

A Study In Terror and More

In all, it’s not a patch on Hammer’s more lurid but much more entertaining A Study In Terror from 1965, despite sharing the same case, murderous aristocrats and even some of the same cast (notably, not just the Jekyll and Hyde performances of Mr Quayle and his stylist but Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade). James Hill’s direction gives a much more lively and colourful film – and it’s a good half-hour shorter – while its utter disregard for historical accuracy and open desire just to tell a thrilling story means that it’s not just free of the later film’s visual sludge but its turgid narrative sludge, too, and is as a result far less offensive. The film has far more satisfying twists, details (despite the ludicrous title “the Duke of Shires”) and an exciting climax, none of them purporting to be true, and the actors are given much more interesting things to do than strike a pose and recite indigestible chunks of bad history at each other. The late John Neville’s Sherlock is quite sparky and energetic, if without Mr Plummer’s depth, while Donald Houston’s Dr Watson is, by contrast to Mr Mason, awake. John Fraser gives one of his most striking performances; Adrienne Corri is terrific; Robert Morley does the sort of enjoyable schtick he was always asked to do; and viewers who’ve come to this movie second may be surprised to find Anthony Quayle acting in this one.

Or, from the same sort of between-the-definitive-Holmeses period, there’s Robert Stephens’s languid detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which hopefully will be released on Region 2 one day with some of the mutilated bits restored, or Peter Cushing’s various and interestingly different takes – I do wish they’d release The Masks of Death, an eerie and little-known mystery that’s always stuck with me despite its jingoism. Or, if you must, From Hell, which nicks from the same Ripperology as Murder By Decree but doesn’t throw in Holmes to try and glamorise it (though Alan Moore and Johnny Depp going several rounds in the same sort of glum conspiracy thriller isn’t going to have anyone rise to the surface at the end).

On the bright side, if you want to compare legendary British icons of a particular sort of period that never really was but which we can all picture, then Holmes and history both got off lightly in Murder By Decree. Channel 4 this afternoon showed Siege of the Saxons, surely the worst King Arthur movie ever made that doesn’t have Clive Owen in it. It’s a pale shadow of The Black Knight, and it’s difficult to think of greater damnation than that.

If you want ‘canonical’ Sherlock Holmes, incidentally, I’m still rather proud of my piece on The Valley of Fear’s Visit From Porlock

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Nice post. One thing, though - the film From Hell has absolutely nothing to do with the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel other than taking its title from it. The Moore/Campbell work is mostly motivated by anger at the glamourising of true crime, and while it does present the conspiracy theory as its 'truth', it deliberately doesn't claim it to be *really* true, and uses it instead to hang a lot of far more interesting stuff on. It's not a detective story - we know from the start exactly what's going on - and it does everything it can to make the Ripper seem as far from being glamorous as possible (though it doesn't *quite* succeed).
If you've not read it, you really should.
Thank you! Though you've caught me. I was trying to imply that the film was unlikely to be a faithful rendering, going by the standard rule of Alan Moore film adaptation, but I have to admit I didn't actually know: it's the only one of the 'Moore' films that I've seen without having read the original. So I might have to have a look at it now...
It's actually the least faithful by quite a long way - which is saying something. The book itself is one of Moore's very best works.
Blimey! Well, I might give it a go, then, despite the subject matter (and sorry Blogger keeps catching you in the spam trap).
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