Most people (myself included in the past) think between the times of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett there were no really strong Sherlock Holmes movies or television outings. And that most of the films between those times lazily follow the formula created in the Rathbone/Bruce outings of the stiff and pragmatic Holmes with Meerschaum Pipe clenched firmly between his teeth and the inept and bumbling old duffer Watson who can't get out of his own way to save his life.
However, this is not entirely true. Yes, some of the films of that time did fall into some of those trappings. But that doesn't mean they are bad films. Some of them are quite good.
Which brings me to 1979's Murder By Decree. Which I must confess I do not enjoy as much as the previous Holmes vs. the Ripper offering A Study in Terror. But it is still a great film all the same.
And far more historically accurate with it's facts about the Jack the Ripper case than the previous film.
This time Sherlock Holmes comes in the form of Christopher Plummer. This is not his first outing having previously starred in a one off television movie based on the story The Silver Blaze.
Much like Robert Stephen's take on Holmes, Christopher Plummer gives us an entirely different approach to the character that was established by Basil Rathbone. We see a more emotional Holmes than we have seen in past films. There is more empathy and humanity than we've seen in the character. And it works really well in the context of this film given the gruesome nature of the historical case.
This film is also bloodier and the violence a bit more gristly than the previous Holmes/Ripper offering. Which, given the previous film had been produced in 1965, there was a great deal of things that they simply could not get away with at that time.
But given how violent films have gotten since 1979, the scenes in this film are actually tame by today's standards. I find many of the scenes a lot easier to get through compared to the film adaptation of From Hell.
The ironic thing about that is the fact even though Murder By Decree is using a character from classic literature at the center, it's still actually more historically accurate than the film version of From Hell.
There was a supposed psychic in the case, but it was a man by the name of Robert Lees and not Inspector Abberline as suggested in From Hell.
Although, I did find it slightly disappointing that both version of the Holmes/Ripper movies did omit Inspector Abberline from the narrative. I think it would have been interesting to have both men working side by side. Or at least acknowledging one another in passing.
This brings me to the cast of this movie.
Alongside Christopher Plummer's Holmes is veteren actor James Mason as the ever-faithful Doctor John Watson. Despite being a touch too old for the role, I really enjoyed James Mason's take on Watson.
Again, most people erroniously think that every Watson actor who has played him between Nigel Bruce and David Burke (from the Jeremy Brett series) all play him as the stumbling old fuddy duddy who just gets underfoot when Holmes is trying to solve a case.
I can think of several exceptions to that rule. James Mason is one of those. He plays Watson as a very level-headed man of medicine who is invaluable when Holmes for both his medical knowledge and scientific training.
My next blog post might be on some of the great film and television Watson.
We also have two actors from the previous Holmes/Ripper movie in this film. One of which is Frank Finlay once again marvelously playing the "rat-faced" Inspector Lestrade. I still believe him to be the very best on-screen Lestrade to date. The other is Anthony Quayle who had a role in the previous Ripper movie and returns in this one. This time as Sir Charles Warren.
The cast is rounded off by Donald Sutherland as the alleged psychic Robert Lees and theatre great Sir John Gielgud as the Prime Minister.
It should be mentioned this is not Sir John's first brush with Sherlock Holmes having played the part for radio alongside Ralph Richardson as Watson. The series is worth a listen. Especially for the fact the radio adaptation for The Final Problem stars Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty.
The result is an exceptional film. Not to mention a fairly historically accurate account of the Jack the Ripper murders. As much as I would love to tell you who they deem Springheeled Jack as, I think it would be best if you saw it for yourself.
Much like many of the Sherlock Holmes films I have mentioned, this one deserves more of an audience. I highly recommend you become part of that audience.