(2003) - Avco Embassy/Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)
by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
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
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
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.