Austin Film Festival: Day 3 (Screening, Murder by Decree)

Sorry I'm a little behind, but the hotel's wi-fi went out and then I spent a day traveling, so . . .

On the evening of the 20th, Chris Carter hosted a screening of Murder by Decree, which is a Sherlock Holmes movie from 1979 starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as his faithful Watson. Carter said he'd been asked to choose a film that had been influential in his work, and watching Murder by Decree, it was easy to see a lot of The X-Files in it (I'm less sure of Millenium, which I only watched sporadically).

Chris Carter introducing Murder by Decree at AFF.

Notable elements that connect Murder by Decree to The X-Files include the use of a wild-haired psychic (in Murder by Decree it was Donald Sutherland in an excess of eye makeup, in the last X-Files movie it was Billy Connolly) and the thread of government conspiracy that end in Holmes taking the Prime Minister (John Gielgud) to task. One could easily picture Mulder in a similar situation; in fact, I'm sure he has been in a similar situation any number of times.

As for the film itself, Murder by Decree is quite good, if clearly a product of its time. The music cues are pretty terrible, actually, and the misty-eyed look Holmes gets when thinking of poor Annie Crook does the Doyle character a disservice, but these are minor flaws. There is a nice dose of humor—the pea scene in particular—and solid affection between Holmes and Watson; chemistry is required for any two actors in those roles, and Plummer and Mason have it here. Mason as Watson is not quite a buffoon as in some Sherlock Holmes films; he stands somewhere in between the bumbling Watson of earlier stylings and the more assured Watson so popular today—in fact, I think it would make an interesting thesis to study the trajectory of Watsons over the decades, but that is something else entirely.

The story in Murder by Decree touches on Jack the Ripper and the then fad theory of a government cover-up involving the royal family. This theory is no longer timely but still makes a good story, and it's easy to see how Carter lifted that idea and laid it over the U.S. government and the FBI. What does the hero do when he realizes the very people he works for and with are the bad guys? What power does he have to change the situation? It makes for a good tale, the kind that is timeless.

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