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ReRelease Review - MURDER BY DECREE

murder by decree review
Sherlock Holmes joins the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bob Clark

Starring: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Genevieve Bujold, Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud

murder by decree bluray

In the century since their crimes shocked the world, many theories have been put forth regarding the identity and motivation of Jack the Ripper. Most of these musings are politically motivated, with Jews and immigrants taking the blame on one hand while others believe the killings were part of a conspiracy involving the aristocracy and the British Parliament.

For their 1979 thriller Murder by Decree, director Bob Clark and writer John Hopkins explored the latter idea, with the killings part of a wider conspiracy involving the Free Masons and members of parliament. The twist here is that the investigation is led by a fictional character. Not just any fictional creation, but Sherlock Holmes himself, aided of course by his faithful companion Doctor Watson.

murder by decree review

Holmes (Christopher Plummer) is studying the killings from a distance until he's approached by a group of Whitechapel shopkeepers who want the matter resolved before it damages their businesses further (given the then general view of the East End district as a no-go area, I doubt the Ripper killings would have made much difference to public perception of the slum). With the assistance of a medium (Donald Sutherland sporting one hell of a mustache), Holmes and Watson (James Mason) uncover a conspiracy that leads them to Britain's corridors of power.


Murder by Decree sets its anti-authoritarian stall out early with a scene in which Holmes and Watson attend a Royal Gala performance that sees the Prince of Wales booed from the cheap seats. While the patriotic Watson calls it an "outrage", Holmes suggests the public has every right to express their contempt of the royals. The film plays upon a widespread contempt of the British ruling class, but the script by Hopkins, a writer more comfortable in the literary surrounds of the stage and in TV, labours this point in a clunky manner that climaxes in an extended scene that plays out like a cross between a political lecture and a Scooby Doo unveiling of its villain.

murder by decree review

At two hours, Murder by Decree suffers heavily from a pace that would be more befitting a two-part mini-series. The latter half of the movie consists of too many scenes in which Holmes listens to someone doling out exposition. For a zippier version of a Holmes vs The Ripper/the ruling class story, see 1965's A Study in Terror.


Clark's film falls short of satisfying Jack the Ripper enthusiasts, but it does have a lot to recommend to Holmes fans. Well, maybe not devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, but fans of the 1940s series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson will find familiarities here, as they seem to provide the template for Plummer and Mason's versions of the characters. While not quite the bumbling fool essayed by Bruce, Mason's Watson does share some of his idiosyncratic ticks, as seen in a beautifully played scene involving Watson trying to trap his last pea on his fork. Like Rathbone's Holmes, Plummer's version views his companion with a mixture of amusement and affection. A scene in which Plummer disguises himself as a chimney sweep is straight out of the earlier series.

murder by decree review

Visually, Murder by Decree presents one of the more atmospheric takes on Victorian London, fog floating above cobbled streets as the sound of foghorns and clomping horse hooves echo in the background. You can tell it's a movie directed by a filmmaker then known for his work in the horror genre with the proto-slasher Black Christmas, Deathdream and the wonderfully titled Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things. When Clark leans into the pea soup atmosphere of the London streets it's a visual treat, but too much time is spent in rooms listening to characters spell out the plot in tiresome fashion.


Extras:

An interview with Kim Newman, who also provides a feature commentary alongside Barry Forshaw.

Murder by Decree is on UK Digital, Blu-ray and DVD from June 28th.