In the Shadow of Rathbone: Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree

In the Shadow of Rathbone

Apparently, the prospect of having Sherlock Holmes unravel the mystery of Jack the Ripper is too tempting to not film. The first try is A Study in Terror from 1965 (reviewed here). In 1979, screenwriter John Hopkins and director Bob Clark tried to do a better job with Murder by Decree. They succeeded in many respects. Casting, for one — especially the choice of actors for the two main leads. There are also atmospheric and believably Victorian sets created on a shoe-string budget.

The film’s success is more debatable, though, in its depiction of a very human Sherlock Holmes.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Christopher Plummer is perhaps a bit more handsome than we like our Sherlock, but he brings an easy charm to the role that helps us forgive his good looks. It seems that, by 1979, the shadow of Basil Rathbone had faded considerably, since there’s little similarity between the two actors.

Of course, Plummer is tall and thin. One mustn’t stray too far from expectations, you know. But he brings a noticeably more soft-spoken, less acerbic quality to the role than previous actors.

It was very wise — if not necessary — to cast a somewhat atypical actor for this somewhat atypical Holmes. And not every actor could have captured the shift in emphasis from “the most perfect reasoning machine that the world has ever seen” to a Holmes capable of empathy. Deep empathy. Plummer seems the very man for the job here. There’s enough of traditional Holmes to remind us who’s in charge — and enough variation on traditional Holmes to make the character fresh and interesting.


Watching Watson

And what a coup was casting James Mason as Watson! In the DVD director’s commentary, Clark mentions that he almost had Laurence Olivier as his Watson (and Peter O’Toole as his Holmes). Olivier had played Moriarty in The Seven-Percent Solution three years earlier, and to then see him as Watson would have been uncomfortable. More to the point, though, I wonder if I would have been able to forget that I was watching Olivier. Granted, I never forget I’m watching Mason here — his voice is simply too distinctive — but Mason’s own persona blends remarkably well with Watson’s.

His rapport with Plummer is as remarkable. From the first scene, the actors make Watson and Holmes old friends — not by being accustomed to one another’s habits — but by continuing to catch each other off guard in playful ways. I think it’s the little surprises and the teasing (never mockery!) that accounts for why these two men share company. Of course, that’s as much a matter of a well-written script, but it takes subtle actors to capture this genuine feeling of male friendship.

And, while this Watson does get a few laughs — I must not oversell the pea scene! — these laughs are not at the expense of the character. In fact, this Watson is no bumbler, especially when he suffers gravely while saving Holmes’s life.


Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

Here’s a passage from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” :

One realized the red-hot energy which underlay Holmes’s phlegmatic exterior when one saw the sudden change which came over him from the moment that he entered the fatal apartment. In an instant he was tense and alert, his eyes shining, his face set, his limbs quivering with eager activity.

Holmes, according to Doyle, may look emotionless at times — but it’s a mask. Murder by Decree explores this dimension of the great detective, especially in one scene. This scene brilliantly answers the question of what could make Holmes’s cool exterior crack? A helpless victim? The realization that loyalty to the Crown might be very much undeserved? The theft of what must be Holmes’s most valued possession: the human capacity for reason?

How about all three combined?

The logic-loving Holmes visits a place where mental reason is lost: an insane asylum

Perhaps to cushion this pivotal and highly dramatic moment in the film, Murder by Decree downplays the usual Holmes logical legerdemain (e.g., “I see from your left pinky that your cousin is a dentist who visited Nova Scotia four years ago”). There’s also no showing up Lestrade here. Still, Holmes does have his moments of contemplation, and there is the grand revelation of whodunit at the end. There’s a nice balance.

Even the viewer who isn’t a Holmes fan can enjoy the film’s thematic strands. The opening scene establishes one of the key ideas that will be explored: loyalty to royalty. As the story proceeds, it introduces a different kind of loyalty, one that supersedes justice. The film also examines the consequences of injustice toward the underclass. All of this is interwoven with an interesting theory on who Jack the Ripper was. It’s a smart and intricate movie.

And Sherlock Holmes is in it! Be aware, though, that he’s a Sherlock Holmes who might stray farther from the general expectations of the detective than from the detective presented in Doyle’s canon. But that is exactly what makes this one of the very best Holmes movies.

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