Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree depicted a passionate and very human Holmes, rather than the usual desiccated figure.
After learning of mass murderer Jack the Ripper’s gruesome reign of terror, private detective Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) decides to investigate. The police are no help, withholding information about the case from Holmes. But the detective refuses to be deterred, seeking the crucial assistance of psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland), who sets him on the right path. Holmes, along with his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson (James Mason), descends into a shadowy underworld of crime.
Christopher Plummer took the role of the Great Detective, his second stab (sic) after the 1977 30-minute story The Silver Blaze (see below):
Before his great late blossoming, Plummer could occasionally ham it up, but in Murder by Decree he’s pitch perfect. James Mason plays Dr Watson, in a much more nuanced portrait than the usual dunderhead – and his relationship with Plummer’s Holmes is actually quite touching.
Witness the ‘pea-squashing’ scene:
In the film, Holmes hunts Jack The Ripper, echoing the earlier A Study in Terror (1965) and the later Johnny Depp starrer From Hell (2001, based on the Alan Moore graphic novel).
Sherlock is given free rein to exercise his anti-authoritarian instincts in the picture:
The supporting cast is especially impressive, including John Gielgud, David Hemmings, Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quayle, Frank Finlay and Geneviève Bujold.
The film has a vivid period touch, with plenty of clever staging and some off-kilter angles, and even a little dark humor (such as the scene above there Holmes helps Watson capture the last pea on his plate). But the real selling point of this movie is the villain: Jack the Ripper. An excellent cast helps round things out. For some reason, this terrific movie never seems to have risen above cult status.
Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD has gone out of print, but Kino Lorber re-issued it on Blu-ray in 2020, including Clark’s excellent commentary track (he passed away in 2007), plus a new commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell, and trailers for this and four other films.
Incidentally, you may notice the similarity between Sutherland’s bewhiskered medium Robert Lees in the movie and his pickpocket Agar in the previous year’s The First Great Train Robbery:
Perhaps surprisingly, Bob Clark went on to direct the first two Porky’s movies (1981 & 1983) and the Sly Stallone/Dolly Parton disaster Rhinestone (1984).