The sight of Sherlock Holmes flirting with a "defrocked" dominatrix or wrestling with his personalised ringtone has proved irresistible to fans of the BBC's Sherlock. Call me a boring old traditionalist, but I prefer the World's Greatest Consulting Detective to be solving mysteries in the pre-3G era of gas lamps, Queen Victoria and Jack the Ripper. Murder by Decree (1979), which pits Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation against 19th-century London's most infamous real-life killer, sounds like a winner -- not so much a mashup as a "slash-up". But something's not quite right here.
Christopher Plummer dons the deerstalker and cape for the role he'd previously played in the 1977 TV movie, Silver Blaze. Sharing those famous bachelor digs at 221b Baker Street is a (rather elderly) James Mason as the long-suffering Dr Watson. As in the Hughes brothers' From Hell (2001), the investigation into several gruesome murders of Whitechapel prostitutes leads to a conspiracy involving a randy Royal Prince, some malevolent Freemasons and a psychic (played here by Donald Sutherland).
Don't worry too much about the plot though. After a few minutes I stopped thinking about (seven per cent) solutions, and got lost in a maze of fog-shrouded back alleys. Murder by Decree has plenty of period atmosphere -- notably in the opening murder sequence and the climax in which Holmes and Watson catch a couple of assassins (literally) red-handed.
It also boasts an A-list cast, including a choleric Anthony Quayle as one of those shady Freemasons; John Gielgud as the prime minister; Geneviève Bujold as a "fallen woman"; and Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade. But Plummer and Mason are such an unconvincing and miscast pairing as Holmes and Watson, they almost had me pining for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
Their juvenile banter begins during a night at the opera, where Watson's "You're only the Prince of Detectives" jibe falls almost as flat as Holmes's later extravagant demonstration of an old "Thuggee" scarf trick. But the nadir is the utterly daft exchange surrounding Watson's futile attempt to spear the last pea on his dinner plate. "You've squashed my pea!" he complains, as Holmes neatly flattens the elusive vegetable. There's a lengthy debate about this nonsense on the IMDb message-boards, but it really isn't worthy of cult status and I imagine Conan Doyle would be turning in his grave.
Everyone has their own idea of the perfect actor to play Sherlock Holmes. I don't think you can go far wrong with cadaverous types like Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing. In Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Robert Stephens displays the ideal combination of irascibility, deep-seated melancholy and formidable detective skills. Christopher Plummer, fine actor though he is, just seems too mild-mannered and -- for want of a better word -- ordinary. I imagine Holmes as an intellectual giant, and nothing about Plummer's Sherlock fits that description.
Murder by Decree was directed by Bob Clark, who's better known for his distinguished work on Porky's and Black Christmas. Before you watch those "classics" again, I'd recommend A Study in Terror (1965) -- a lurid but much more enjoyable take on the Holmes versus the Ripper theme.
Murder by Decree is released on DVD by StudioCanal on 2 April 2012.
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