Monday, February 8, 2010

Murder By Decree

Sherlock Holmes ended up being one of the nicest surprises I had in the theater last year. Naturally I thought I’d check out some of the other Holmes films, even if I wasn’t particularly excited to revisit the Basil Rathbone versions. I saw Murder By Decree mentioned in a column and thought to check it out. After all Rex Reed called it the greatest Sherlock Holmes film of all time. And if you can’t trust Rex Reed who can you trust.

Bob Clark was one of those rewarding journeymen filmmakers whose career contains both modern classics (Christmas Story), genuinely subversive mainstream stuff (Death Dream) and some of the worst movies ever made (The Super Babies series). Though any attempt to do an auteurist study on Clark would most likely end in Lovecraftian like madness, he remains a vibrant interesting filmmaker. One who I’m always interested to watch, even as he like a filmmaking Forest Gump makes sure I never know what I’m going to get.

Murder By Death stands somewhere in the middle of the awesome/terrible Clark continuum. Though Clark has a great premise and cast, the film never fully capitalizes on either. Leaving a film that’s never quite as fun as it should be.

The premise is pretty gravy though. Featuring Sherlock Holmes pursuing Jack The Ripper. That’s the kind of premise that makes Anglophiles swoon for its sheer Wallace Beery wrestling pictures perfection. In an interesting twist the film finds the same solution to the crime as From Hell, with some of the same Masonic loir. Ironically you could argue that Murder By Decree makes the better adaption then the actual turgid film version of From Hell.

Adding to the pleasures of the film is the impeccable cast. Christopher Plummer as Holmes, James Mason as Watson, and Donald Sutherland as a weird ass psychic (it makes more sense in the movie). The veritable John Gielguld also makes the most of his role.

This is also where the first of the films problems comes in, Plummer makes a wily, lively, not to mention surprisingly soulful and haunted Holmes (I wouldn’t be surprised if Downey took a look at his performance in preparation for Holmes) though in the films strangest miss step, Mason , usually nothing less then a pleasure to watch, makes for a surprisingly Anemic Watson.

Still a film can’t be uneven without some truly great parts. And Clark puts together some great sequences, particularly a skin crawling one set in a Victorian Madhouse, one down on the London docks and a suitably exciting climax. Clark has always been a competent stylist too, and has many excellent shots in the film (Particularly the layers of shadow and windowpane that prevent us from clearly seeing Mary Kelly’s murder, but not from hearing it.)

Murder By Decree does the best with what it has. The sets are obviously reused, cheap, and sparsely populated (The budget was a mere 4 million). To the viewer used to the sumptuous design of modern day period pieces, Murder By Decree’s thrift store approach to the past and slow pace might be off putting.

But those with patience will find themselves rewarded with a well made, well acted, stylish little B picture. What more can you ask for?

(Your eyes do not deceive you, if you notice some changes down by my profile badge. Yes that’s my real picture down there, that’ll probably stay until I get bored of looking at it. But I’ve decided to retire [Here at least] the Evil Dead Junkie pseodymyn that I’ve written under for over ten years.

The reason is simple. Its just time. When I started using the pseudonym it was a lot more common to do so. Back in the early days of the internet it people like The Aborigines where afraid names and pictures would let the dark forces making the computer light up steal your soul.

So having just discovered the joy of Sam Raimi I came up with the EDJ handle. I carried the pseudonym into the forums. Which is where this blog eventually came out of so I brought it with me.

But I realized that I was just doing it by force of habit. Now that I have actual people reading the blog. And maybe have the faint delusion of it one day being taken some what seriously, and that’s easier to do when one is writing other their given name, rather then something cooked up by a fifteen year old cause it sounded awesome.

Still the name has been good to me, and I’m more then a little sorry to see it go. Fair well Evil Dead Junkie.

I’m Bryce Wilson. Nice to meet you.)


Chris Regan said...

I love Murder by Decree, although I agree it's flawed. Definitely better than the film of From Hell, although the Alan Moore comic is argubly better than both of them. Mostly I just like the scene with Watson eating peas - summed up the Holmes/Watson dynamic in that film perfectly.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah, but I guess Mason just felt so fussy.

But yes I'm definitely giving Moore the edge on this one. LOVE From Hell.

Anonymous said...

I saw some nits I wanted to pick as I read this, but then decided to leave them alone when I read the following from you:
"Murder By Decree does the best with what it has. The sets are obviously reused, cheap, and sparsely populated (The budget was a mere 4 million). To the viewer used to the sumptuous design of modern day period pieces, Murder By Decree’s thrift store approach to the past and slow pace might be off putting."
Now, let me quote from
"Not only is the cast of a high caliber, the production itself is remarkable. Elstree Studios was home to the construction of a vast complex of streets, cobbled alleyways, a square and a courtyard as well as the busy thoroughfare of Whitechapel’s main street. At the time, this was the largest set ever built, taking 100 men over 8 weeks to construct, in England on a studio sound stage. 4,000 square feet of cobblestones were laid in sheets each three feet by one and a half feet, made of reinforced concrete. 30 molds were made from which two batches were produced daily, taking 6 men 30 days to manufacture, using 20 tons of cement and 150 tons of sand. And finally, stale fruit and vegetables were blended with Fuller’s earth, combined with manure and then strewn along the cobbled streets. Three different types of brick were cast for the buildings and 5,000 sheets were made, each being 6 by 5 feet. 10 men spent eight weeks casting the 150, 000 square feet of bricks and tacking them to the walls. Responsible for the concept and execution of the set was Production Designer Harry Pottle, who ensured that every detail was authentic to the period, from unique tin match boxes to a lily decorated urn visible in an Undertakers window.
Meanwhile, at Shepperton Studios, on their largest sound stage, an authentic recreation of the London docks was erected, complete with a river Thames flowing by. This set took 50 men two months to construct. A 100-foot wharf was made from Victorian railway ties. To recreate the murky look of the Thames, a tank, 120’ wide by 90’ long was built requiring 36 hours to fill with half a million gallons of water. All because Bob Clark was insistent on total authenticity.
'We were trying to get a flavor of the London of Gustave Dore. But he was about 30 years to early for us, we studied his drawings and engravings then updated our interpretation.'
The effort appears worthwhile on screen when combined with actual location shooting. Along with the aforementioned Royal Academy and Wyndham’s Theater were locations which included Clink Street in the East End of London, the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for a recreation of Park Lane and finally the exterior of 221B Baker Street was actually a quiet backwater stretch of Barton Street. It is an impressive picture particularly as it was made on a total budget of $5, 000, 000."
I've also seen a "making-of" featurette at some point in my life that left my sufficiently impressed with the design & construction of the sets.
This is the first blog post I've ever read of yours, and will likely be the last.
So there!

Bryce Wilson said...

And yet the sleep I will lose over this will be remarkably minimal.

Anonymous said...

That's fine, but can you at least admit that you were WRONG about the sets?

Bryce Wilson said...

Listen brother, I don't know what kind of investment you have in Murder By Decree, but the sets looked like a highschool play.

I'm not saying this against Clark, I'm saying the guy had limited means. The Covent Gardens may have looked great, but the docks seemed made out of plywood. Sometimes it just doesn't matter how much effort you put in on it, can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.