Sunday, January 22, 2006

Murder By Decree

Ed,

You've made three hundred and some blog entries and have never yet mentioned Sherlock Holmes or Conan Doyle. Don't you like the Holmes stories?

Ben Adamson

I'm pretty sure that I've mentioned both somewhere in the past, probably in connection with the DVD appearance of Bob Clark's Murder by Decree, which I consider not just the best Holmes picture I've seen but also one of the best suspense films of any kind I've seen.

As much as I love the Doyle stories, what Clark brought to them was socio-political context. He used Jack The Ripper to examine how the various aspects of Victorian London reacted to the killer. He didn't turn it into a screed, either. The film moves arrow fast and arrow true, making its points dramatically rather than shoehorning them in as audio pamphlets. And has there ever been a better Watson than James Mason?

Have you ever seen photos of White Chapel? Remember Jack London said that it was worse than Calcultta; in fact, London had been in White Chapel for somthing like five days when he had a breakdown and was put in a hospital. Look at the scenes in the film, the madhouse, repellent and heartbreaing at the same time; the faces of the prostitutes who looked to be carrying every disease young girls could; scurrying about of the underclass, like rats darting from one hole to another. . All this was contrasted with the lives of the upper classes. Clark didn't trowel the contrast on. He again let it speak for itself. The dandified men of the leisure class contrasted witht the ragged disaesed men who sold their ten year old daughters into prostitution as way of getting food and shelter for their family. (Upper class men worried that their wives would be unfaithful had surgeons make sure their wives could never enjoy sex gain with anybody.)

Many of the critics disliked the movie. I remember Richard Shickel saying that it demonstrated "the pornography of violence." I thought it was just being true to what we know of Victorian London. If anything, Clark held back. Read about White Chapel and how the lowest of classes sold their children to the highest of classes; and how killing prostitutes became a form of sport.

None of this made me think less of the Doyle stories, which I revere. But Doyle's London was in many respects his own creation where Murder by Decree is what Clark is both great storytelling and at look at how life back then really functioned.

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