Hands of a Murderer (1990)


Our rating: 4 out of 5

Rated: PG

reviewed by: Charity Bishop


Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character ever to come to the silver screen. This early nineties film pits him once again against his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. It is often melodramatic but ultimately enjoyable for loyal fans of the Baker Street sleuth and his band of street urchins.


A massive crowd gathers in the square to watch the execution of Professor James Moriarty (Anthony Andrews), sentenced to death for crimes against the empire. As he is lead to the noose, a woman hands him a Bible, pleading for him to repent of his sins before approaching the throne of God. In the book is a knife, and at a quiet signal from Moriarty, pandemonium erupts in the crowd, resulting in his daring escape. When the incident is brought to his notice, Sherlock Holmes (Edward Woodward) is infuriated with the bungling of Scotland Yard in allowing the most infamous criminal of their time to once again elude the long arm of the law. Knowing that Moriarty will not remain docile for long, he becomes obsessed with recapturing the professor. His brother Mycroft (Peter Jeffrey) has been engaged by the war department to correspond with their foreign agents overseas through a series of codes. There have been numerous attempts to obtain these documents, ensuing the necessity of inquiring if Holmes would be interested in undertaking their protection.


Disinterested with politics and more concerned with traversing the underground in search of England's most dangerous adversary, Holmes declines. Shortly thereafter, his brother's office is broken into and the latest in a series of cryptic ciphers stolen. Moriarty has taken them, and together with his femme fatale Sophy (Kim Thomson) hopes to bring the empire to its knees by selling the codes to enemy governments. The complexity of the codes have him baffled, obtaining the necessity of bearding the lion in his den and kidnapping Mycroft. There are a few weak plot lines running throughout this combination of several of Doyle's original stories, but it does have a dramatic conclusion. What I found the most unique about this film is that it showed the plight of Moriarty, who is often overshadowed by Holmes' likable, eccentric behavior. That not only he proved clever, but also kept a lover toward whom he expressed genuine affection, makes him a much more intriguing villain to pit the cold, calculating detective against.


Having become accustomed to the very lean, dramatic portrayals by such renowned actors as Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, and Jeremy Brett, I found Woodward to be a little too lethargic at times, but a second viewing made me realize the subtle charm of his performance. Andrews does well in the role of a scheming, intelligent madman, but the real scene stealer is Kim Thomson. Her scenes with Andrews broil with repressed Victorian sensuality, and it's easy to see why he is so ardently fond of her. She is in every way his equal. In the opening sequence, several men are shot and killed, and others are hung. A man dies from a snake bite. Various characters are threatened with guns. A man is found hanging in his prison cell. A horrific carriage incident ends in the presumed death of the occupants. Mycroft is beaten about the face in order to obtain information, and injected with a narcotic to loosen his tongue. Holmes considers taking a seven percent solution of cocaine, but Watson dissuades him. Sophy's primary talent is that of hypnotism, a practice she employs on several occasions. Several uses of the term "go to hell" are used. Moriarty and Sophy kiss passionately in his office, and he unbuttons her blouse. A reference is made to a man's belief that he has been conducting an affair with a married woman. It's not a brilliant film by any means, but delightful for fans of any of the cast members or Sherlock Holmes.