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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/5/03

Murder by Decree
1979 (2003) - Avco Embassy/Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Murder by Decree Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/C

Specs and Features

124 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 72:36, between chapters 14 & 15), audio commentary (with director/co-producer Bob Clark), original theatrical trailer, poster and still gallery, behind-the-scenes still gallery, talent bios, DVD-ROM features (original screenplay in PDF format), 10-page booklet, film-themed menus with music, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (Dolby Digital mono), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

Ah, the crossover. What is it about this peculiar subgenre that makes so many of us fritter away our time contemplating such burning issues as who would win in a fight, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kreuger. For most of us, this kind of trivia is simply a pointless way to kill time in a bar. But for a select group of writers, filmmakers, and comic book artists, it's an inspiration.

Take the case of Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective. Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's death, other hands have pitted Holmes against everyone from Dracula to Batman. Then there's Jack the Ripper, the world's greatest unsolved serial killer case. He's matched wits with everyone from H.G. Wells to... well, also Batman. So it was only a matter of time before some enterprising creator sicked these two contemporaries at each other's throats.

The first such match-up (on film, anyway) was 1965's A Study in Terror, starring John Neville (later to be Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen) as Holmes. Over a decade later, director Bob Clark took a stab at the same idea with Murder by Decree. Christopher Plummer and James Mason lead a most distinguished cast as Holmes and Watson, respectively. As the story opens, Holmes is more than a little concerned that Scotland Yard has not asked for his aid in solving the brutal Whitechapel slayings. After a particularly bloody evening, Holmes is retained by a group of concerned citizens, fed up with the Yard's seeming disinterest in protecting the poor. The investigation leads Holmes and Watson into a deep conspiracy, involving the police, the government, and even the Queen herself.

No discussion of any Ripper tale past or present can avoid drawing comparisons with Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's definitive graphic novel From Hell. If you're familiar with the book, you'll have fun recognizing situations and historical figures also employed by Moore and Campbell. Indeed, some shots of the horseman and carriage trolling Whitechapel for victims are extremely reminiscent of Campbell's artwork, leading one to suspect that Murder by Decree was at least one tiny part of Campbell's voluminous research. But whether or not you've read or seen From Hell, there's much to be enjoyed in this version. The tale is told in classic Holmes style, with disguises, secret midnight meetings, and fog-shrouded streets all playing a part. The supporting cast is top-notch. David Hemmings is terrific as the duplicitous Inspector Foxborough. Genevieve Bujold is surprisingly touching as the institutionalized Annie Crook. And Donald Sutherland shows up in full oddball mode, all eyes and mustache, as psychic Robert Lees.

But any Holmes film falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors playing Holmes and Watson. Plummer is more than up to the task, bringing Holmes' trademark quirks to new life. But it's Mason who's the real revelation here. This may well be the best portrayal of Dr. Watson the movies have to offer. Not content to merely be a comic foil, Mason's Watson is protective, courageous, intelligent, and fiercely loyal to his companion and the throne. Plummer and Mason add subtle off-hand moments and looks that bring a richness and depth to this famous relationship. They make a great team and it's a shame they never reprised the roles in further adventures.

Anchor Bay's presentation of Murder by Decree should help rescue the movie from obscurity. Visually, the picture is fairly clean. It's a soft looking transfer, but this is a dark, foggy movie, so any artificial sharpening would have been a visual disaster. The sound is flat and rather hollow but at least it's consistent. I did have to crank the volume a bit to understand Sutherland's dialogue, but that may just be a result of his muttering and no knock against the mix. Unfortunately, the film is interrupted by an amazingly disruptive layer change that sent my player into fits.

The bonus features here are pretty average and certainly nothing to get excited over. Director Bob Clark contributes a rather unilluminating commentary track, mainly concerned with pointing out what was shot on location and what was a studio. Clark is one of the most schizophrenic directors in recent memory, having made two completely different holiday classics (the horror great Black Christmas and the TBS perennial A Christmas Story), not to mention the seminal 80's teen flick Porky's. It would have been nice to hear him talk more about his feelings toward the horror/suspense genre, which he turned his back on after this film, and about working with what was easily the most distinguished cast of his career.

In addition to the commentary, the disc includes a couple of still galleries with behind-the-scenes photos, posters, and ad copy. There's a pretty lousy trailer that almost certainly would not have got me into the theatre. The Bay's usual in-depth talent bios focus on Clark, Plummer and Mason. And if you pop the disc into your DVD-ROM drive, you can read John Hopkins' original screenplay in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.

Murder by Decree is a fun, entertaining romp through British fact and fiction. Mostly free of graphic violence, it reminded me of the sort of movie I might have seen on a weekend matinee when I was a kid. It's no classic but it is a nifty little piece of "what-if" cinema and an engaging treatment of an undeniably potent idea.

Adam Jahnke
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