The world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer, never better) and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson (James Mason) attend a concerto performance by Lucrezia Borgia. While there, they are dismayed to witness the public’s negative response to the appearance of England’s future King. What’s all that about, they wonder? Hmm. Perhaps the viewer should dwell on this ...
Meanwhile, not so far away, another prostitute becomes the latest victim of a wild-eyed killer, strangling the yellow-teethed damsel to death.
Upon their arrival back at Holmes’ Baker Street home, our heroic duo are met by a group of West End ‘merchants’ who request the detective’s help in bringing the killer to justice. If only to make it easier for them to go about their own businesses, undisturbed by the police.
While Holmes mulls their offer over, it’s not long before another unfortunate wench has accepted a fateful ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Called to the scene of this latest crime, Holmes is given privileged access to a certain piece of graffiti found close to the victim. The scribing in question blames the "Juwes" (sic), and further fuels the great investigator’s imagination.
It’s best not to expand much further, in terms of synopsis. Chances are most readers are familiar with this extraordinary film already. If not, a great part of its enjoyment relies on your willingness to absorb yourself in a most satisfying and twisting mystery.
What I can comment upon is the film’s near-perfect balance of humour and drama. It’s a dark film, certainly, and never does it shy away from the borderline horror of London’s early 20th Century underbelly as traversed by the victims here. The film manages to be threatening and grisly, but never resorts to being gory.
However, the interaction between Holmes and Watson serves as a welcome counteraction against scene after scene of Freddie Francis-type set-pieces.
Mason and Plummer play it so well, though, that it makes you realise how broad Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law were in the 21st Century’s most high profile overhaul. These guys nail the roles with far more authenticity ... and we even get the likes of David Hemmings, Sir John Gielgud and Donald Sutherland (love the porno tash, Don) thrown in to further bolster the film’s classiness. As if it were in need of any bolstering.
Often touted as one of the best Holmes films ever made (the quote on the DVD’s cover suggests it is THE best), DECREE is indeed a great film and the frequent walks director Bob Clark (BLACK CHRISTMAS) leads us on down London’s fog-filled back alleys are extremely atmospheric. But, make no mistake; it’s the cast that afford it that ability to stand the test of time so well.
Plummer, Sutherland, Mason, Hemmings, Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, Frank Finlay, Genevieve Bujold ... it’s a cast any director would’ve killed for. And, what’s more, they’re all cooking on gas, revelling in such a classy period-set script (by John Hopkins, THUNDERBALL). Clark’s understanding of the era and the setting, and all of their collected nuances, is just the icing on a very appetising cake.
A clear fan of the "shadows and fog" school of filmmaking, Clark sets up each scene in misty darkness and makes MURDER BY DECREE resemble classic Hammer fare for the most part. Coupled with those great performances and fast-moving plot (which the Hughes brothers blatantly boned up on before making FROM HELL), this makes for a most enjoyable two hours’ viewing.
The UK DVD from Optimum/Studio Canal is an unfortunately barren one.
It does, however, boast a generally good transfer.
The opening Avco/Embassy logo looks rough and there is the odd speck to be witnessed during the opening credits, but everything soon settles down to offer a nicely textured, detailed and authentic-looking presentation of the film. The film does look a tad old and soft here, and a full restoration wouldn’t have gone amiss. But this isn’t – there’s subtle debris evident throughout, and it definitely could’ve looked better.
English 2.0 audio seemed fine to me for the duration of playback.
A static main menu page leads into a two-page static scene selection menu allowing access to the film via 8 chapters.
There are no extras. Nope, not even a trailer.
Clearly released to tie in with the DVD debut of Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS, this disc is something of a bittersweet proposition: while it’s great to finally see the film out on UK DVD, it’s galling to think that Ritchie’s lacklustre and overblown sequel gets an all bells ‘n’ whistles Special Edition, while this clearly superior effort suffers the indignity of a vanilla release.
Still, it’s the film you pay for. MURDER BY DECREE stands the test of time very well, and looks fine here.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by StudioCanal|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|