Tools of the Imagination – Murder By Decree

So this is a bit of a departure. I generally try to isolate my ToI entries to toys and cartoons; things that stir the imagination. Not just inspire but exist as a means by which the imagination works and expands. Movies and television, I feel, direct the imagination. Not a bad thing at all, but definitely a different outcome of exposure all the same.

And yet, I feel compelled to talk about this movie, Murder by Decree.

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This is a tragically unremarkable Sherlock Holmes movie, starring the underrated Christopher Plummer and a very bored James Mason. Pitting Holmes against Jack the Ripper (sort of), it is a slow-burning film that captures the melancholy of the post-Rathbone years before House MD and the Guy Richie movies would reinvigorate the franchise.


The movie is adequate for a Holmes story and the idea of pitting the iconic detective against a real-world terror like Jack the Ripper is a fun concept. Sadly, the execution is a little slow. Relying on contrivances like an American medium (played by Donald Sutherland who seems like he’s out of his gourd on cough medicine) and a strict social order that is treated as absolute as the laws of physics, the movie has more than a few flaws. It also trades names and interchanges characters to the point that one feels compelled to draw up a flow chart just to keep track of who has done what and to whom.

The movie picks up in the middle however, and we start to see a real and complex crime at play. The build to the first round of reveals is impressive and while Holmes definitely pulls knowledge randomly out of nowhere, it’s in keeping with the classic stories. We’re also treated to some actual boots-on-the-ground detective work by Holmes and Watson, which is also a nice touch.

The film climaxes about midway through when Holmes visits a mental hospital to visit a possible suspect. It’s here that the film takes it’s most fascinating turn as a one-scene performance by actress Genevieve Bujold absolutely steals the show. It’s not easy to make Christopher Plummer look like a rank amateur but in this scene, he might as well not even exist. It’s a truly stellar performance that comes from absolutely out of nowhere.

And sadly, the movie devolves from there.

The third act flat-out makes no sense, revealing characters not previously seen or referenced, and ascribes events to motivations without any foreshadowing. The big reveal, done in the form of a court hearing with Prime Minister, defies all reason and mistakes complexity with absurdity. The character of the Prime Minister dismisses allegations as frivolous at best, and then in the next sentences, maintains that they would tear all of society apart. Holmes’ rambling reveal cites evidence not gathered or even referenced throughout the whole prior movie, and he ends up coming across as delusional when he acts relieved that the woman he meant to see set free has in fact committed suicide. Acting as though she has found some way to circumvent the control of those who have done her wrong, Holmes ends up seeming callous and out-of-touch.

It’s hard to recommend this movie. It’s build-up is slow but more than adequate and the middle segments are fun. Sadly, the last third of the film seems like a competition to see which scene can make the least sense. But again, it is this one compelling scene with Genevieve Bujold that is truly a sight to behold.

If you find yourself in a mood for some classic Holmes, you could do a lot worse than this movie.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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