There I sat in Caffé Trieste on Vallejo Street in The City, attempting to channel the spirit of Francis Ford Coppola (he worked on the script for The Godfather in this very café) as I pored over my latest manuscript, but it just wasn’t working. Why, you may ask, was I suffering the slings and arrows of an angry and petulant muse?
Well, to be blunt, I was angry.
Angry because a grave injustice had been committed. Tor.com had published a blog post on the many faces of Sherlock Holmes. A wonderful read, and a very strong bit of work in all ways except one. The writer omitted one very important version of Holmes: Christopher Plummer’s turn as the great detective in the dark and wonderful Murder by Decree, an Anglo/Canadian thriller from 1979.
I found this mistake quite unfathomable, especially in light of the author including Robert Downy Jr’s cranked-out, quite forgetful version. I really couldn’t understand it. There are SO many things to love about Plummer’s version, and this movie in general. It’s truly a lost gem in the history of Sherlock Holmes movies. The script is a definite reflection of the post-Watergate era: the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in the Whitechapel district in London in 1888 were in fact a cover-up by the crown to kill all knowledge that the Prince of Wales had fathered a bastard by a prostitute named Annie Crook. (Um, can we all say together: HELLO, From Hell?) It’s the first time, on film, that Holmes deals with such darkness in the world. This is not the vast criminal ring of Moriarty, or even the Klu Klux Klan that Holmes goes up against in The Five Orange Pips. No, it is against the very crown itself that Holmes must engage.
Plummer’s Holmes is a bridge between the Basil Rathbone Holmes and Jeremy Brett’s later, iconic portrayal of the idiosyncratic detective. Plummer does a fantastic job playing up the disorganized and fragmented side of Holmes when he was not on a case, expertly balancing that side with the hound on the hunt once Holmes realizes he’s in what are very deep waters. (Or possibly, a retriever on the hunt since deep waters require swimming.)
Yes, he wears the hunter’s coat and cap made iconic by Rathbone (something rarely worn by Holmes in the original stories), and smokes that rather large pipe, but he does move beyond all those trappings as the case progresses. The story follows, expertly, one of the credos in all good fiction writing: the story that involves the hero is the greatest, most dangerous, most threatening event that’s ever happened in his life. This case puts Holmes on the ropes, time and time again. He’s shaken off the pedestal of his egotism, pushed beyond his usual boundaries.
An aside: also enjoyable is Holmes’s obvious affection for Dr. Watson, brilliantly portrayed by the legendary James Mason. The Holmes/Watson relationship in Murder by Decree is a joy to behold, with Plummer barely being able to hold back his desire to plant a huge wet one on Watson’s lips.
An aside, part II: Also a joy is director Bob Clark’s choice to shoot the murders in first-person POV, thus putting the audience in the head of the murderer. The only earlier instance when I think first person POV is used as effectively is in the great Humphrey Bogart film, Dark Passage. This was quite the cutting-edge of direction for 1979.
Can you say anything bad about this supporting cast? Genevieve Bujold playing a driven-mad Annie Crook wasting away in an asylum? Or John Gielgud as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury? Donald Sutherland playing the pale, wan, psychic Robert Lees? There’s even Frank Finnely, Porthos from Richard Lester’s oh-so-brilliant The Three Musketeers, playing Inspector Lestrade!
And don’t forget the camera work! Slowed-down shots of the enlarged, morphined eyes of the killer. The grisly murder scenes. First person POV shots of the labyrinthine alleyways of White Chapel. A brilliant director’s job by Bob Clark, all around. Yes, one could say that it’s all very Hammer-films regarding the interior shots, all very sound-stage, however, I would counter that Clark manages a careful balance, giving the movie a strong juxtaposition between the open, more “airy” London the upper classes enjoyed, and the dark, smoky, claustrophobic London the lower classes endured.
However, it’s Plummer that seals the deal. This is not Rathbone’s intellectualized Holmes. No, not at all. What we get in Plummer is Holmes humanized. Plummer brings out the class warrior, the heart that bleeds for the unrepresented. As example, during the scene where Holmes is visiting Mary Kelly in the insane asylum where she’s been hidden away, he weeps with the sadness of it all, attacking the cold and unfeeling head of the asylum. The only other man who has played Holmes and could’ve possibly gotten away with that scene is the late, great Jeremy Brett. Though Brett kept Holmes reserved, with sporadic outbursts of emotion, he always played Holmes as a man with a heart, a heart kept safely locked up and put away. Plummer’s Holmes, however, is more emotionally driven, again exampled by the almost paternal emotional depth he holds for Watson. In the original stories, Holmes had often times referred to himself as London’s caretaker, as the man who held the scales of justice. Plummer certainly plays to that side of Holmes. That legendary final scene, where Holmes, enraged at what he’s uncovered, yells at the Prime Minister in righteous indignation (well-earned, imo), is one of Plummer’s best scenes, ever.
Yes, I love this version of Holmes. Even though the movie won some accolades, (Plummer won for Best Actor in the Canadian Genie Awards), I feel he never received enough respect for Murder by Decree.
Find it, watch it, and give the man his just deserts!
Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.