Murder by Decree (1979)
Directed by Bob Clark
Produced by Bob Clark, René Dupont, Robert A. Goldston, Len Herberman
Screenplay by John Hopkins
Based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle and the book The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd
Cinematography by Reginald H. Morris
Edited by Stan Cole
Music by Paul Zaza, Carl Zittrer
Canadian Film Development Corporation, AVCO Embassy Pictures
I find that most people – even Sherlock Holmes fans – have never heard of Murder by Decree. They don’t know that it stars Christopher Plummer (below right) as Holmes and James Mason (below left) as Dr. Watson, don’t know that it’s one of the most atmospheric Jack the Ripper films, and don’t know that the supporting cast consists of such exceptional talents as John Gielgud, Geneviève Bujold, Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quayle and Susan Clark, to name just a few.
What they might know is that the film was directed by Bob Clark, who also directed the Porky’s movies, which might understandably be enough to keep them away from a Clark-directed Sherlock Holmes film. (Those people should be aware that Clark also directed the 1983 holiday favorite A Christmas Story.) Yet Murder by Decree remains a very good thriller/horror/mystery that shouldn’t be ignored this Halloween or any other time of the year.
Based on the book The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd, the film opens with a cloaked character luring a prostitute from the foggy streets of London’s Whitechapel district into his hansom cab. We know that good things are not headed her way… Soon, a group of concerned shopkeepers from the district pay a late-night visit to 221B Baker Street to hire Holmes to look into the murders, which they say are “bad for business.” No doubt.
What opens as a somewhat standard (though highly stylized) Jack the Ripper story becomes an engaging, compelling journey as Holmes starts to peel away the layers of the mystery, which begin at the Royal Opera House and end inside the hidden recesses of Parliament.
I first saw the film on HBO, probably less than a year after its initial release, and was immediately enamored with its fog-encased atmosphere, evocative score, and yes, its suggestion (more than depiction) of gory murders. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that viewing Murder by Decree was probably my first exposure to Sherlock Holmes in any form. (Although I do recall reading The Hound of the Baskervilles around this time, probably inspired by watching this film.) I had no Holmes & Watson “baggage” to contend with, so I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just thought Murder by Decree was a great film.
It’s not a great film, but it is a good one. Plummer (1929 – ) and Mason (1909-1984) – both superb actors who enjoyed stellar careers – are somewhat hit-and-miss as Holmes & Watson. Their conversation early in the film at the Royal Opera House, as well as other points throughout, convey a sense that these two have, in fact, had many adventures together. Their manner suggests a comfortable friendship with moments of isolation brought on my Holmes’s many idiosyncracies. While these scenes work, the moments of comic relief – Holmes accidentally smashing a beaker, Watson attemping to corner the last pea on his plate – become burdensome. (One comedic scene that works a little better involves Watson being set up by a prostitute and her pimp in a London alley.) Their chemistry works well enough that you wish they’d been paired together for at least one more film.
The weakest aspect of Murder by Decree – whether intentional or not – involves the role reversal of Holmes and Watson as far as physical action. Plummer’s Holmes either falls down or passes out at least three times – all during moments of impending danger – leaving us to wonder whether Plummer was attempting to channel Basil Rathbone’s Holmes and mistakenly struck the spirit of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Dr. Watson. (And strangely enough, Plummer and Bruce were cousins in real life.) Mason’s Watson seems much more sure-footed, even after being stabbed by a red-hot poker.
Although some of the action scenes are clumsily written, the dialogue is often spectacular. Much of this can obviously be attributed to fine acting, particularly in scenes with Plummer and Geneviève Bujold as a confused, yet sane woman harboring a secret, forced to live in an insane asylum, and a powerful scene near the end of the film between Holmes and the Prime Minister (John Gielgud), the Home Secretary (Geoffrey Russell) and head of the London Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle). It’s in this last scene that we see Plummer’s portrayal of Holmes not just as a supremely intelligent mind, but also a man outraged at the injustice that he sees. Those scenes and others like them provide the real strength of Murder by Decree. As they are depicted in the film, the murders themselves seem quite dated, although I will always remember the moment Jack the Ripper is interrupted as he’s “working” as worse than it actually is.
Murder by Decree is never going to top anyone’s list of Sherlock Holmes movies, but neither should it be dismissed as footnote. The film’s implications far outweigh its actions and the creepy atmosphere covers a multitude of sins. Murder by Decree is one of those sleepers that’s certainly worth a couple of hours at Halloween or any time.