review for Murder by Decree on AllMovie

Murder by Decree (1979)
by Derek Armstrong review

Murder by Decree is an unusual take on both a Sherlock Holmes movie and the Jack the Ripper murders. Unfortunately, unusual is not always good. What's strangest about Bob Clark's film is that it abandons everything viewers have come to expect from a portrayal of the world's most famous detective. Christopher Plummer is a fine actor, but his Holmes is everything the iconic version of the character is not -- emotional when he should be detached, impetuous when he should be rational, morally indignant when he should follow the evidentiary path with neutral disinterest. Instead of cerebral, this Holmes is a man of action, getting into numerous dust-ups and even lunging to strangle a character he considers unjust. When Murder by Decree is not taking itself too seriously, it's taking itself too lightly, framing the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson (a passive and ineffectual James Mason) as whimsical fodder for a weekly buddy television series, something like Magnum P.I. The film's small scale also mimics that of TV -- Clark's team floods his locations with fog, ostensibly creating an air of mystery, but actually trying to cloak the fact that his London is just three streets on a small set, shot from different angles. Excepting a few sudden action scenes, the film is basically two hours of turgidly paced talking-head sequences, capped by Holmes prancing around a courtroom, dramatically pointing the finger of blame at every British official short of the Queen of England. Since John Hopkins' script does a poor job generating sympathy for the victims or establishing any sense of London torn asunder, it's hard to understand why Holmes is so agitated.