Saturday, May 5, 2007

Murder by Decree

dir. Bob Clark

Observing a sad loss.

May 4th, 2007 - DVD

Bob Clark’s recent death has brought a lot of well-deserved attention to a few of his excellent and neglected works, particularly his cool and gritty early horror breakthroughs (Deathdream, Dead of Night, The Night Andy Came Home, The Veteran, Whispers, etc.). For some reason, though, surprisingly few of these “and he was good, too!” obituary articles even mention Murder by Decree, which to me is arguably his greatest accomplishment. A model of effective, efficient, and quietly resonant storytelling, this is one of my own favorite mystery films, a slightly twisted Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper hybrid that combines intelligence, wit, chills and—most unexpectedly—a little heartbreak. It’s a movie with the rare ability to unspool a plot that feels at once meticulous and haphazard (in all the best ways), and by the finish it has even earned the right to reduce Sherlock to tears—twice!

The film opens with an incredibly good scene. Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) are at the opera, and everyone is awaiting the Prince’s arrival. When he shows up, he’s received with a mix of polite applause (from the wealthy patrons seated on the floor) and jeers (from the upper galley cheap seats). This goes on for a few moments, until Watson—appalled by the lack of respect—bellows out “God save his royal highness!” from his seat in one of the side balconies. This instigates thunderous applause from most of the audience. Holmes turns to Watson, proud and surprised, and says, “good show old fellow.” This should be the fuckin’ primer on how to open a movie. We get so much out of this seemingly tangential introduction; the turmoil in England that serves as the background for the entire Ripper mythology, Holmes and Watson’s place situated between the poor and the wealthy, and—most charmingly—a representation of the sincere and deep friendship between the two partners.

This “relationship” element is one of the film’s strongest attributes; here, probably more than in any other Holmes film, we get a realistic understanding of the Holmes/Watson dynamic. Holmes was content to observe and critique the cultural melee at the opera, while Watson felt emotionally moved to do something about it. Watson needs Holmes' intelligence to right criminal wrongs, and Holmes needs Watson as his kind of emotional-everyman compass. Furthermore, not a film willing to relax into easy character patterns, some of the best sequences in Murder by Decree occur when the two characters adopt the skills of their counterparts; Watson takes on some of the detective work himself, for example, or (especially) the scenes in which Holmes becomes deeply invested in the humanity of the case.

Clark is good at getting great performances from the excellent cast (which includes Donald Sutherland in his haunted, long-stare mode) but he's even more of an asset when it comes to visualizing this particular world and story. The sets, despite often feeling like sets, are beautiful and misty, and there is a sincerely disturbing sequence where Holmes visits an insane asylum. Clark even sparsely applies some of his signature shots in unexpected and effective ways. He all-but pioneered the modern usage of “killer’s POV” in Black Christmas (and would later rip it off as “peeper’s POV” in Porky’s), and his occasional use of it here—just a year after the technique blew the horror world’s mind in Halloween—is inspired and startling even today. The first kill in the film is as sleazy and disturbing as anything in Black Christmas, and it sets the whole movie on edge. In other Holmes films, we assume people have been murdered, sure, but by brutally depicting the deaths Clark raises the stakes for the great detective. Holmes tries to remain
impassive, but eventually the severity of the crimes sneaks in under his skin, and when he finds out who’s responsible… well… he gives John Gielgud a fat piece of his mind, let me tell you! It’s a great scene, as are nearly all the scenes in this subtle and expert film.

Murder by Decree puts modern mysteries to shame. The investigative thriller genre has been hit hard in recent years, to the point that it’s nearly dead as a dependable entertainment. TV bullshit like C.S.I. and Law and Order have turned the “mystery” into a kind of crank toy, where “get this to the lab” is the new “elementary, my dear Watson” (which, it’s important to note, is a line that goes unspoken in all of this film-- such is the filmmakers' reverence for the characters). Maybe the reason Holmes has remained so enduring as a character is because he’s completely removed from stupid technology, like UV lights and DNA testing. How fuckin' boring is that? In 1978, when Bob Clark was at the top of his game, he knew that in order to make a truly modern investigative thriller he couldn’t easily rely on his own era. Instead, he took his style and intelligence back to the roots of the genre, and delivered one of the best mysteries I know of.

Bob Clark, you'll be very fondly missed and remembered. And not just like this.


JOEY DEVINE! said...

but who does he bare knuckle box in this one?!

katie frank said...

normally i just briefly skim your arguments and think to myself, "my, my, what passion, what enthusiasm!", but today i am leaving a brief comment to fulfill a technology class requirement. the film is an unusually excellent sherlock holmes mystery and i recommend you all see it.