Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper

Murder By Degree (1979)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, James Mason and David Hemmings
Director: Bob Clark
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a citizens committee hires Sherlock Holmes (Plummer) to apprehend Jack the Ripper, he and Watson (Mason) find themselves in the middle of deadly series of plots and conspiracies to either overthrow or protect the British monarchy.

"Murder By Degree" is a film that should appeal equally to lovers of some of the darker Basil Rathbone Holmes movies, the Ronald Howard-starring television series, and even the Holmes stories themselves. It might even appeal to those who enjoyed the most recent big screen Sherlock Holmes adventure directed by Guy Ritchie. It occupies a point somewhere between the original Doyle stories, the black-and-white Holmes adventures and the Ritchie film, bringing both humor and horror to the table while reminding us that Holmes was just as much a man of action as he was a man of intellect. Like the Ritchie film, Holmes shows here that he can hold his own in a fight if called upon to do so, but unlike the Ritchie film, he doesn't engage in idioctic activities such as entering boxing contests just because.

Christopher Plummer makes a good Holmes, playing the part with an equal mixture of charm and a curious sense of aloofness. The Holmes here is a character who is always slightly apart from those around him, always seeing both sides of an issue and usually expressing a near-equal appreciation for both--at least when there are two sides to an issue. Holmes is in no way a moral relativist and he refuses to accept social norms and attitudes when they are unfair or outright evil. This is also a film where Holmes is confronted with evil and twisted morality so severe that his shell crumbles and we witness him moved to tears. This film presents perhaps the most human version of Sherlock Holmes I've encountered while still maintaining his almost suprahuman powers of deduction and observation.

James Mason likewise makes a decent Watson, even if I feel like he is written as being a little too dense at times. In general, Watson here is the perfect image of a late 19th century British gentleman with all the strengths and weaknesses that infers.

The mystery of the film itself is engaging and the film remains focused on it. Unlike the recent Ritchie movie where all sorts of extraneous nonsense is crammed into the film, this movie tells a Holmes mystery as it should be told. It also delivers some very impressive twists, as Holmes and Watson are drawn so deep into the conspiracies surrounding the Ripper murders that they become targets themselves.

While it drags slightly in a few places, this is a fun and interesting take on Sherlock Holmes that has a little something for every Holmes fan.

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