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Movie Review: The Windmill
Sherlock Holmes is drawn into the case of Jack the Ripper who is killing prostitutes in London's East End. Assisted by his trusted compatriot Dr. Watson, Holmes finds indications that the murders have their origins in a Royal indiscretion, and that a cover-up is being managed by politicians at the highest level, all of whom happen to be Masons.
Combine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth with the real-life terror that was Jack The Ripper, and you have 1965's A STUDY IN TERROR. Over twenty years later, add in director Bob Clark (coming off BLACK CHRISTMAS just 5 years earlier), Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson, and you have MURDER BY DECREE, which despite going next to nowhere upon its release in theatres (how typically Canadian), was praised by critics and won 5 Genie Awards in 1980 (Canada's version of the Academy Awards).
The first thing that sticks out about MBD is the atmosphere. Wonderfully shot by Clark and designed by Peter Childs, London never looked better (or foggier, for that matter). With the great depictions of the damp and dark winding backstreets, combined with the claustrophobia that went along with it, as well as the equally creepy (and equally excellent) musical score, you have something that belies (at the time) its Canadian origins.
Acting-wise, it's all about the duo of Plummer and Mason. Obviously, it's not an easy task to take on roles of such iconic and historic value, but both actors pull off their respective parts quite well. Plummer plays Holmes as a more emotional, less over-the-top character than what many in the past have done. Likewise, Mason doesn't portray Watson as the bumbler that the character has become associated with at times (Nigel Bruce's portrayal of Watson is infamous for this), and instead comes off with an earthy yet skeptical portrayal.
The thumb to the eye for this film has to be the pacing. At over 2 hours long, the film begins to drag when you have scenes such as one involving Watson and some prostitutes (nothing happens, both figuratively and literally) needlessly slowing things down. It's kind of a shame, since the inevitable showdown between Jack the Ripper and Holmes is certainly faster in its pacing. As well, the film can be seen as a transition for Clark (and an unfortunate one for horror fans), as he never really went back to the horror genre and its ilk after this one.
When you get right down to it, this is probably one of the best takes on the Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper mythoi (that's the plural of 'mythos', you guys) in recent memory. Great casting, great atmosphere and a great story. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective will find this one a joy to watch, but that's not to say the rest of us won't enjoy a wonderful yet underrated murder mystery.
Video: Surprising, given its age and its origins, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite good. Despite the inherent softness of the overall picture (which actually helps out the overall atmosphere of the film), the video is largely devoid of grain. Contrast can be a bit of a problem (given the low-light conditions), but detail and definition are still there, even in shadows.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also reproduced quite well, albeit sounding flat, given its age and lack of frequency range. Still, the wonderful score comes through without ever overpowering the dialogue, which can also be said of the dialogue itself when compared to the score.
Given the relative obscurity of the film, it's no surprise that the extras aren't exactly plentiful. First up is a commentary track with director Bob Clark. Clark offers some insightful moments and a lot of historic details on the real Ripper case, as well as his recollection of the actual production, but not much else. There are some long gaps of silence in spots, and unfortunately he doesn't talk much about the obviously great cast he was working with, but what's here is somewhat informative.
The other extras on the disc are reserved for two image galleries. The first one features over 70 images of stills and posters, the other is dedicated to behind-the-scenes shots from the film, as well as a few storyboards.
Following that is the film's theatrical trailer (which is in serious need of an edit), and some extensive extensive cast and crew biographies. For DVD-ROM content, you can find the film's screenplay on the disc.
Wrapping things up is a 10-page booklet containing extensive liner notes by Anchor Bay's Michael Felscher, in which he covers Ripper films in general as well as this production in particular. Also included in the booklet is a reproduction of the film's onesheet.
Another one of those overlooked films that sports an impressive cast and filmmaking prowess, MURDER BY NUMBERS is both one of the best Sherlock Holmes films out there, as well as one of the best Jack the Ripper films. As for the DVD, it's another case where what you get is as good as you'll probably ever get, with a great transfer but a rather pithy set of extras.