Murder by Decree, starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson released OTD 1979.
The film’s premise of the plot behind the murders is influenced by the book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), by Stephen Knight, who presumed that the killings were part of a Masonic plot. The original script contained the names of the historical suspects, Sir William Gull and John Netley. In the actual film, they are represented by fictional analogues: Thomas Spivy (Gull) and William Slade (Netley). This plot device was later used in other Jack the Ripper-themed fiction, including the graphic novel From Hell.
After the Metropolitan Police fail to apprehend the serial killer Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes is approached to investigate the recent murders of prostitutes that happened in the Whitechapel district of London. Helped by Dr. Watson and the medium Robert Lees, Holmes discovers that all the victims were companions of Annie Crook, a woman locked in a mental institution.
Things get complicated as members of the police hierarchy and also several politicians, all Freemasons, seem to be protecting one of their own. Furthermore, Inspector Foxborough, the policeman who is in charge of the case, is in fact the secret leader of the radicals, a political movement waiting for the British government to fall because of its incapability to solve the Whitechapel murders. Holmes must rely on his skills to find and confront the murderer.
- Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes
- James Mason as Dr. John Watson
- David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough
- Susan Clark as Mary Kelly
- Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade
- Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren
- Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees
- Geneviève Bujold as Annie Crook
- John Gielgud as Lord Salisbury
- Peter Jonfield as William Slade
- Roy Lansford as Sir Thomas Spivey
The film was directed by Bob Clark and written by playwright John Hopkins, who scripted the Bond film Thunderball (1965). The script partially was inspired by Elwyn Jones‘s book The Ripper File. Hopkins referenced Conan Doyle’s work, particularly Holmes’ deduction and science skills but downplayed other aspects of the characters, such as Holmes’ drug use in favour of making them more likable and human.
The film stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively, and presents a largely different version of Holmes from the Basil Rathbone movies of the 1940s, with the aesthete still prevailing, yet tinged with humanity and emotional empathy. Plummer stated that he tried to make Holmes more human and caring, saying “This is a passionate and caring Holmes.” James Mason‘s Watson is also a departure from previous incarnations; although he may appear at first to resemble the bumbling Nigel Bruce version of the character, he soon shows his level head and scientific and medical training to be as valuable assets as they were in the original stories. Like Plummer, Mason wanted to play up Watson’s skills and avoid the buffoonish way the character had been portrayed before. Mason received especially good reviews for his performance. Plummer had earlier portrayed Holmes in 1977’s Silver Blaze.
The supporting cast includes Donald Sutherland, Susan Clark, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings and Geneviève Bujold. Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, a part he had portrayed in the similar film A Study in Terror (1965), in which Quayle also played a supporting role. Finlay continued his association with Holmes by appearing in an episode of Granada TV‘s Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett.
$3 million of the budget came from Canada, $2 million from the UK.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film “a good deal of uncomplicated fun, not in a class with Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, but certainly miles ahead of many other current movies that masquerade as popular entertainment”. A review in Variety called it “probably the best Sherlock Holmes film since the inimitable pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940s series at Universal. Unfortunately, it also shares some of the defects of those films, i.e. slow pacing, an improbable story line, and an undue emphasis on odd characters.” Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote that its “biggest problem is its script, which runs on for a full 120 minutes with no place to go. We see a couple of murders, meet a psychic (Donald Sutherland) and a long-suffering woman trapped in a psychiatric prison (Genevieve Bujold), then the story doubles back with recapitulation after recapitulation. The film has at least two false endings. I mistakenly put on my coat with one reel to go. All of this is a shame, because the cast is excellent.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Unfortunately, under Bob Clark’s uninspired, plodding direction, Hopkins’ elaborations make for a slow and ponderous film, despite a starry cast and some scary moments. Not helping matters is Christopher Plummer’s rather colorless Sherlock Holmes. The one real joy in the film is James Mason’s warm, loyal, sometimes dense Dr. Watson.” Lawrence O’Toole of Maclean’s declared, “If you were to look for the right word to describe Murder By Decree you would have to go into the archives, lift it lightly from its resting place, and dust it off. The word? Splendid.” Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated, “While never as playful or ingenious as Nicholas Meyer’s screenplay for ‘The Seven Per-Cent Solution,’ Hopkins’ mystery is crisp and chilling right up to the denouement. At that point it might be wise to edge toward the exits, since the solution leaves much to be desired.” David Ansen of Newsweek wrote that the film was “not a new idea” but declared it “a decided success. Christopher Plummer and James Mason seize their roles like a couple of happy musicians handed prize antique instruments: their duets are by turns droll, lyric and touching.”
The film was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1980, of which it won five, including Best Achievement in Direction (Bob Clark), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Geneviève Bujold) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Christopher Plummer).
The film was the fourth highest-grossing film ever in Canada, with a gross of $1.9 million. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a rating of 85% from 13 reviews.
Terror by Night, World Premiere, 1946 OTD
The thirteenth Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Terror by Night borrows elements from The Sign of Four, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.” Billed as “murder at 90 miles an hour” and “a one way ticket to death,” the film’s plot finds Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson aboard an overnight express to Scotland, charged with protecting the “Star of Rhodesia.” When the priceless diamond is summarily stolen, matters become even more complicated by series of murders aboard the train, a cast of characters full of red herrings, and the implied presence of Holmes’s old nemesis, Colonel Sebastian Moran.
Colonel Moran has disguised himself onboard the train as Major Duncan Bleek (played by Alan Mowbray), and is armed with an “air pistol” that fires poison darts. Mowbry’s performance is one of the film’s highlights, moving effortlessly between the jovial Major Bleek (ostensibly an old friend of Dr. Watson) and the villainous Moran. The train’s other passengers also make for great entertainment, including: an alluring young woman escorting her mother’s body back to Scotland, a cantankerous mathematics professor who bears more than a passing resemblance to another of Holmes’s old adversaries, and an elderly married couple who believe Scotland Yard is after them for stealing a teapot from a London hotel. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would appear in fourteen Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Dennis Hoey makes his final appearance in the series as the comically inept Inspector Lestrade.
The film’s plot is a mostly original story not directly based on any of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Holmes tales, but it uses minor plot elements of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” and The Sign of Four.
The film is one of four films in the series which are in the public domain.
- Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
- Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
- Alan Mowbray as Major Duncan-Bleek/Colonel Sebastian Moran
- Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade
- Renee Godfrey as Vivian Vedder
- Frederick Worlock as Professor Kilbane
- Mary Forbes as Lady Margaret Carstairs
- Skelton Knaggs as Sands
- Billy Bevan as Ticket Collector
- Geoffrey Steele as The Honourable Roland Carstairs
- Harry Cording as Mock the coffin maker
Feb 1925 Strand magazine publishes The Illustrious Client in a first appearance in the UK
- in Collier’s (8 november 1924 [US]) 4 illustrations by John R. Flanagan
- in The Strand Magazine (february & march 1925 [UK]) 9 ill. by Howard K. Elcock
- in The Courier-Journal (29 march 1925 [US]) 1 ill.
- in The Sun (Baltimore) (29 march 1925 [US]) 1 ill. by Frederic Dorr Steele
- in The Los Angeles Times (5 april 1925 [US]) 1 ill. by Frederic Dorr Steele
- in New Orleans Times-Picayune (5 april 1925 [US]) 1 ill.
- in Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (18 april 1925 [US]) 1 ill.
- in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927-1930)
- in Les Dernières aventures de Sherlock Holmes (september 1928, Albin Michel [FR]) as L’Illustre client
- in Sunday Chronicle (23 & 30 march 1930 [UK]) 2 ill.
Radio and audio dramas
The story was adapted by Edith Meiser as an episode of the American radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The episode aired on 23 February 1931, with Richard Gordon as Sherlock Holmes and Leigh Lovell as Dr. Watson. Other dramatisations of the story, likely with the same script or a slightly altered script, also aired in the same series on 8 March 1933 (again with Gordon and Lovell) and 18 April 1936 (with Gordon as Holmes and Harry West as Watson).
Meiser also adapted the story as an episode of the American radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that aired on 5 October 1941 (with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson). Another episode adapted from the story aired on 9 May 1948 (with John Stanley as Holmes and Alfred Shirley as Watson).
An audio drama based on the story, starring Robert Hardy as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, was released on LP record in 1971. It was dramatised and produced by Michael Hardwick (who also adapted the 1960 BBC radio version of the same story) and Mollie Hardwick.
“The Illustrious Client” was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1994 by Bert Coules as part of the 1989–1998 radio series starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, featuring Michael Feast as Baron Gruner and Ruth Gemmell as Violet de Merville.
In 2010, the story was adapted for radio as part of The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series on the American radio show Imagination Theatre, with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson.
The 1991 Granada TV version with Jeremy Brett is faithful to the original, except that it shows that Miss Winter’s revenge attempt on the Baron was because he had disfigured her neck and chest with vitriol, and in the small detail that Grüner finds Holmes inside the house, and Kitty (played by Kim Thomson) rushes inside and past Holmes to throw the vitriol at Grüner played by Anthony Valentine.
In Elementary‘s third season, Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond) and Adelbert Gruner (Stuart Townsend) are introduced in a mid-season story arc that changes Gruner from a philanderer and a baron to a corporate vice president and serial rapist-murderer. Kitty escaped from his captivity before he was able to kill her. She spends the first half of the season training under Holmes as a detective. When Gruner arrives in New York, she exposes his identity. Violet de Merville is a supporting character, the sister of another suspect who has no connection to Gruner. In this version, Kitty flees the United States to an unstated destination so as to escape arrest after she scarred Gruner’s face with a caustic chemical. In a later episode, The View From Olympus, Holmes mentions a previous case about a man who killed his wife on the Splügen Pass and made her murder look like an accident.