Reel Rumbles #15 – “Sherlock Holmes” vs. “Murder By Decree”
In This Corner…
Mischief is afoot, and only one man is capable of cracking the case. Since Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance in 1887, he has captured the imaginations of writers, directors, and audiences alike. Reportedly based on author Arthur Conan Doyle’s old professor Dr. Joseph Bell, Holmes is able to do what the police often can’t because he has cunning powers of observation, a firm grasp on forensic medicine, and deductive reasoning unmatched by any literary detective to come before or after him. Joined by his faithful sidekick Dr. John Watson, who is often the narrator and an active participant, Holmes set new standards for crime fiction, and his reach has extended into a third century with Guy Ritchie’s latest film. But is this newest version of Holmes capable of besting what many consider to be the character’s finest cinematic appearance, helmed by the immeasurable abilities of director Bob Clark (Porky’s, Black Christmas, A Christmas Story)? Find out in this week’s Reel Rumbles with Sherlock Holmes vs. Murder by Decree.
Round One: Story
In the new Sherlock Holmes (2009), we are once again introduced to the world’s greatest detective and his faithful companion Watson. While the trailers for this film hinted at something of a special effects bonanza, the reality is that Guy Ritchie’s take on the iconic characters rings much truer to the original stories than you might think. Sherlock Holmes (played here by Robert Downey, Jr.) is an exciting man with brilliant powers of deductive reasoning that can still make even the best real life detectives bow with envy. As in the original short stories, he is somewhat of an action hero: a boxer, a scientist, a gentleman, and a scholar. He is an urban James Bond with enough grit and moxie to hold up under most any conditions. Such is the character presented in this latest installment.
The story follows Holmes and sidekick John Watson (Jude Law) as they end the ruthless Lord Blackwood’s reign of terror shortly before he murders his sixth female victim. Blackwood is a cult leader, and fashions himself a dark Svengali, who uses the dark arts to control others through fear. Just when London is breathing a sigh of relief at his capture and impending execution, he warns Holmes that his death will be only the beginning. Three more will die, and there is nothing Holmes can do to stop it. Their fates are intertwined. Holmes thinks nothing of the ominous forecast until Blackwood’s body goes missing, a sighting is reported, and the bodies hit the floor. He clearly has something big in mind, and while the evidence certainly points to his predictions as truth, Holmes is a man of science and has other ideas that could very well change thousands of years of superstition and save the world as we know it.
Sherlock Holmes, despite a few over-the-top yet highly entertaining set-pieces, captures the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and succeeds in drawing you in to the riddles and answers that only Holmes himself can solve. But it also bears some striking similarities to a previous Holmes effort, which many call the best. Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree pits the famous detective against Jack the Ripper. What starts as the simple murders and dismemberments of unfortunate London prostitutes starts to unfold as something much larger. There is a massive conspiracy afoot, much like the one you will find in the newer effort, and only Holmes can get to the bottom of it. While Watson is portrayed as more of a simpleton in Murder by Decree, he does show a somewhat keen understanding of Holmes’ methods and practices. The warmth of their relationship is also apparent, and you have no trouble believing the portrayals of the great detective by Christopher Plummer and his faithful friend by James Mason. It is a superb and faithful rendering of Doyle’s world, but it is also handicapped and dated by the silliness of Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.
The new Sherlock Holmes has taken Murder by Decree’s at one time captivating storyline and added some much needed separation from the Ripper tie-in as well as a nice subtext concerning the rise of science in a superstitious world. Watching the two side by side, it becomes clear that the newer Holmes deserves the nod, and will likely hold up better over time. Advantage: Sherlock Holmes, 10-9.
Round Two: Script
Murder by Decree was released only two years after the controversial Knight book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Unfortunately, it bears quite a mark from that wildly imaginative but ultimately farfetched piece of conjecture. There is a long-standing apprehension in the Reel Rumbles arena when it comes to divulging spoilers, even if the subject of said spoilers is a film over three decades old. So while you will not be hearing any specifics, let it be known that this film follows closely to the Alan Moore graphic novel From Hell, which purports that the killings were more assassinations for highly improbable (and ludicrous) reasons perpetrated by the British government. Who wields the knife and for what reason? You will have to watch. And, believe me, Murder by Decree is a solid film. But it hurts its longevity in attaching itself to a real life event with such a disreputable theory. Sherlock Holmes capitalizes on these weaknesses. It understands the fascination that we have with conspiracy theories, and it sets its narrative in a much more plausible setting. It is not pretending to be history as told through fictional characters, but is instead a rollicking good time in a clearly fictitious world. While its competitor flirts with escapism, Sherlock Holmes is escapism – and a lot of fun! The dry humor of Holmes and Watson’s bickering is the same here as in Murder by Decree, but it gets a lot more mileage out of treating the two as near equals. While Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) seems somewhat out of place and is really used more as a set-up for any possible sequel, she is well written and more than a worthy adversary – and sometimes ally – to Holmes. Murder by Decree sets in place a good structure, but it trips up on a few key details that the newer film gets right. In doing so, Sherlock Holmes edges out the competition with another well-fought round.
Round Three: Performances
Every discussion of a Sherlock Holmes film begins and ends with the chemistry between the two major characters. You botch one or the other, and you are well on your way to a disappointment. Neither of these films is guilty of such a transgression. Plummer and Mason are perfect as the older versions of our daring duo. Had the plots to these two films not been such reflections of one another, you might even call them great companion pieces. There is a moment late in the film when Watson confronts Holmes about the guilt he feels for getting one of the girls killed that is so poignant and true, you feel like you have been a part of these characters’ lives for much longer than the two-hour runtime. It is a touching moment that transcends the emotional limitations of such larger than life characters and feels very human. As good as Downey and Law are, and the script places some of those moments between them, you never really buy into it like you do with Plummer and Mason. As far as the supporting cast goes, Sherlock Holmes bests Murder by Decree in every way. Most of the actors in the older film try too hard. They’re a little too grumpy, a little too ditzy, a little too crazy and melodramatic, as evidenced by Anthony Quayle’s overdone Sir Charles Warren or Genevieve Bujold’s Annie Crook. However, the film gets a healthy dose of support from Donald Sutherland (playing historical figure Robert Lees, a psychic) and the always-reliable Sir John Gielgud (stepping into the role of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury).
Ritchie’s film offers consistently entertaining and colorful characters, although not all of them are necessary. We could have gotten along fine without McAdams and the shadowy mystery villain, who really isn’t that big of a mystery at all if you know anything about Holmes lore. Those two characters are present to set up the sequel, and that somewhat cheapens the film in that it feels like a two-hour introduction instead of an actual self-contained motion picture. But the villains are nicely handled, particularly Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Creepy, debonair, dare I say dastardly, he is a worthy adversary to our hero, never afraid to twist and manipulate people’s beliefs against them. There are still a lot of Lord Blackwoods in our world today. He feels that real. Still, when it comes to a Holmes film, it all hinges on the two main characters, and it is for this reason that I have to side with Murder by Decree, 10-9.
Round Four: Direction
Clark’s direction with Murder by Decree does a superb job of recreating the time period and playing to the sensibilities of the Doyle short stories, but the same can be said of Ritchie’s effort. The difference comes in the relative shortcomings. While Murder by Decree trips up on a heavy-handed and largely uneventful final confrontation, Sherlock Holmes maintains the same sense of fun till the credits roll. As in Clark’s effort, Sherlock Holmes unravels the mystery before our very eyes, but in addition to this, it does a good job of carefully placing the clues that will lead us to its conclusion – complicated for us, yes, but considerably less so in the hands of the world’s greatest detective – into small and accessible chunks, which are successfully dispersed throughout the film’s entirety. One might even say Holmes makes it all seem so “elementary, my dear Watson.” Luckily, neither effort plays up tired and clichéd aspects of the original stories instead focusing proudly on the characters and the mysteries. Ritchie gets the nod here for his finely tuned action scenes, and for keeping the emotional train safely on its tracks.
And the Winner Is…
These are two films worth your time for the main performances alone. Thankfully, we get a couple of men behind the camera who know what they are doing as well. While Murder by Decree has claimed its place in the pantheon of great Holmes films by enthusiasts of the classic character, it remains to be seen where time will place Ritchie’s updated effort. My vote is for “ahead of the pack,” though there is nothing so spectacular that cannot be topped by future outings. Such has been the case throughout the series history: excellent actors tackling the Holmes/Watson roles, emitting fantastic chemistry – Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce, Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke, take your pick) – but the stories have never quite lived up to the performances. We are still waiting on a truly great Sherlock Holmes film, but in the meanwhile, there are good times to be had with this pairing. Having said that, it’s the newest film that yields a stronger final product:
Sherlock Holmes – SPLIT DECISION