Billy Wilder and Jack the Ripper Take on Sherlock Holmes

PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMESThe 1970s featured two revisionist takes on Sherlock Holmes: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was released in 1970 and Murder by Decree appeared at the end of the decade. While neither film is wholly successful, they each boast a lot of star power either in front of or behind the camera. They also overcome convoluted conspiracy plots and miscast actors to justify a couple of hours of your time.

Murder by Decree opens atmospherically with the sounds of London–a dog barking, a baby crying, distant bells–accompanying a heavy fog. A quick scene at a local theatre, in which the Prince of Wales is jeered by the crowd, indicates a tumultuous political climate. Shortly thereafter, we experience the third of a recent series of Whitechapel murders through the eyes of the killer.

Before you can say “Elementary, my dear Watson,” the Baker Street sleuth (Christopher Plummer) and his companion/biographer Dr. Watson (James Mason) are delving into a labyrinthine plot that involves Jack the Ripper, 33rd-degree members of the Secret Order of the Freemasons, a possible psychic, and a “decadent monarchy.”

With an assist from screenwriter John Hopkins, Plummer transforms Holmes into an athletic hero who uses a weighted scarf as a weapon (sort of like a bola). He also makes jokes at Watson’s expense and sheds tears at human injustice. It’s a far cry from the more conventional Sherlocks portrayed by Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Jeremy Brett. There’s certainly an audience for different Holmes interpretations, as shown by the success of Robert Downey, Jr.’s films, but one’s appreciation for Murder By Decree will hinge largely on whether you accept Plummer as Holmes.

Plotwise, Murder by Decree squanders an interesting premise by layering it with too many complexities. It’s also not the first film to pit Holmes against Jack the Ripper. A Study in Terror, a tidy 1965 mystery, holds that distinction (and also features a fine John Neville performance as Holmes). Interestingly, Frank Finlay played Inspector Lestrade in both A Study in Terror and Murder By Decree. The 2001 Jack the Ripper film From Hell, although based on a graphic novel, shares some plot similarities with Murder by Decree (though there’s nary a Sherlock Holmes in sight).

There’s no Ripper to be found in Billy Wilder’s ambitious The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It opens 50 years after Watson’s death when a new manuscript is discovered in a sealed box in a bank. The document contains a letter from Watson, in which he states that in addition to his published Holmes stories, “there were other adventures which, for reasons of discretion, I have decided to withhold from the public until this much later date.”

Wilder and distributor United Artists originally intended The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to be a three-hour “road show” attraction. However, such motion picture “events” were being phased out (one problem was that lengthy films often generated less profit because they could only be shown twice daily…in the days before multiplexes). As a result, the film was edited down to 125 minutes by removing two stories: the 15-minute “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” and the half-hour “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room.”

 The two tales that remain are a mixed bag. The first is a slightly amusing, albeit silly, story of a Russian ballerina offering to pay Holmes for a week of lovemaking so that she can conceive a child genius. She points out that Holmes was not her first choice, but there were problems with Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and Nietzsche. Not wishing to offend, Holmes implies that he and Watson are more than just friends–an insinuation that Watson fears will destroy his reputation.

The second tale starts with the appearance of a mysterious amnesiac woman and spirals into a mystery that involves a missing mining engineer, peculiar monks, midgets, the Loch Ness Monster, and a conspiracy headed by none other than Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee). Its outcome is a letdown, but there are delights along the way, such as the stunning Scottish scenery.

In fact, the same can be said of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in general. Wilder never quite finds the right tone, but Robert Stephens is a delightful Holmes (unfortunately, Colin Blakely’s overexcited Watson is a liability). Wilder and his frequent screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond have a grand time debunking some of Holmes’ famous traits. For example, Sherlock wears the deerstalker hat solely because the public expects to see him in it. Holmes blames Watson’s magazine stories, while Watson claims it was The Strand’s illustrator that added the now-famous head apparel.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a first-rate production, from the period sets to Miklos Rozsa’s lovely score. Still, it was neither a popular nor critical success at the time of its release, though critics have grown more appreciative over the years. Billy Wilder would go on to direct four more films, the last one being Buddy Buddy in 1981.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • Wayne P.

    Good piece, but its hard overall to beat either Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the long history of his film portrayals. Much earlier takes on the great detective were John Barrymore in the silent era, and Reginald Owen in 1933′s A Study in Scarlet, with Anna May Wong in fine support. A personal sleeper pick (and its quick one too at well under an hour) is Raymond Massey taking a turn as the Baker Street gumshoe in The Speckled Band, 1931.

  • KHA

    What about “Sherlock?” Benedict Cumberbatch has a modern interpretation.

    • Daisy

      Sherlock is fun, but it really isn’t classic Holmes, so I don’t count it so much.

  • Roger Lynn

    This is Truly one of the most under-rated jewels in film,,both Mr Plummer and Mr Mason should of earned Oscar Nominations,,Mr Plummer is second only to Basil Rathbone,one of my all time fave movies,,a classic film,,if you have not seen watch it,,it is a masterpiece

  • Rob in L.A.

    There was a third revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s: “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976), starring Nicol Williamson and an unrecognizable Robert Duval as the deerstalkered sleuth and his Bosley. In addition to Rathbone and Brett, Williamson and Plummer are two of my favorite interpretations of the role.

    • Bruce Reber

      T7%S also featured Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud. Cocaine also figured prominently.

  • Daisy

    I’ve always liked “Murder by Decree”, but there’s another Holmes movie that’s a great del of fun” “Without a Clue”. Ben Kingsley is Dr.Watson, writing about his own adventures sleuthing on the side of his medical practice, but his fans want to meet Holmes himself! So he hires a bumbling, out-of-work actor played by Michael Caine, and the fun just doesn’t stop. Jeffrey Jones (one of the funniest actors of his day) is Inspecter LeStrade.

  • Wally Down

    While Basil Rathbone has always been considered the “Definitive” Sherlock Holmes of cinema, Christopher Plummer delivers an outstanding performance here in “Murder by Decree” and has wonderful chemistry with co-star James Mason. Released in 1979, Decree has so much going for it including great sets, a rich musical score and wonderful cinematography which gives the film an eerie and atmospheric look at horrific crimes taking place in 1880′s London. French-Canadian actress, Genevieve Bujold delivers a wow of a performance here in a small role as Annie Crook, a woman who has been locked away in an insane asylum in order to prevent her from revealing a secret that would have caused a major scandal involving a member of The Royal Family. A top notch thriller with a surprise twist ending !

  • Nicolas

    Many are talking about the great Sherlock Holmes here, and “second to basil Rathbone” For me though, perhpas because it might have been my first HOMES movie. I have always preferred Peter Cushing as Holmes in the Hammer version of “The Hound of The Baskervilles”. The film to my surprise was not a big hit, and the Doyle Estate was not happy with Hammer, perhaps because of what was looked at the time of “excessive violence” by Hammer studio’s in their films. I have found the Rathbone version of Hound to be overrated, though I do like the other Victorian based Rathbone version, “the Adventure of Sherlock Holmes”.