Murder by Decree
In the dark and fog of London, 1888, a brutal killer the papers call Jack the Ripper is slaughtering the "wretched women" of the Whitechapel slums. Although the grisly murders have created a public stir, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) observes that the official investigators are actively hostile when he offers to take up the case. When a citizens committee of Whitechapel shopkeepers appeal to him for help Saucy Jack is proving bad for business Holmes and trusty Dr. Watson (James Mason) have no choice but to pursue the mystery. Through a Victorian London that's realized with sumptuous atmosphere, the pair follow the clues to a psychic (Donald Sutherland) who claims to "see" the murderer, an Inspector (David Hemmings) with a vital secret, the aristocratic Metropolitan Police commissioner (Anthony Quayle) who commands Holmes to steer clear of the case, and a prostitute (Susan Clark) who knows too much and thus is doomed by the nightmarish black horse-drawn coach haunting the dark streets. Genevieve Bujold makes a fine impression as a Bedlam'd young woman whose tragic story is at the heart of matters a heart with arteries connecting to the highest levels of English society.
1979's Murder by Decree wasn't the first Holmes-Ripper movie. A Study in Terror did it in 1965. But it is the one distinguished by lavish "A" production values and by placing Holmes within the most sensational of the "Who was the Ripper?" theories a conspiracy involving Freemasons and the Royal family that also inspired 2001's From Hell. Director Bob Clark and writer John Hopkins fashioned an intelligent, moody, low-key drama that's a more steadfastly grounded Holmes story than, for instance, Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles. As Holmes, Plummer cuts a striking figure. His controlled, subdued performance makes the stereotyped deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe appear natural and unaffected. As we watch Holmes "grappling with the dark intention" behind the murders, we also witness the brittle, aesthete Great Detective overwhelmed and transformed by the sheer humanity of what he uncovers. So much so, in fact, that Murder by Decree is ultimately less about the Ripper the movie's climactic reveal/confrontation falls flat partly because the screenplay offers us no involvement whatsoever with the killer than it is about Holmes being shaken to the core by the revealed truth and by the awareness that things might have gone better if he had not gotten involved. His impassioned speech before the Prime Minister (Sir John Gielgud) strikes a stirring populist condemnation of political elitism.
Murder by Decree takes what could have been just a routine suspense thriller and elevates it into something else. Whether that "else" is something suitably Sherlockian depends on the expectations of the viewer. Many fans rank Murder by Decree among the finest Holmes movie pastiches, embracing its play-it-straight, non-ostentatious approach to the Master. Others balk at Plummer's understated, emotional interpretation, which doesn't play up the literary figure's dispassionate deductive fireworks. James Mason gives us a welcome no-buffoonery Watson, though a purist can reasonably argue whether the stalwart army physician would be so sensitive about his peas. In any case, Plummer and Mason together make one of cinema's most warmly felt Holmes-Watson teams. Ripperologists will be pleased by how faithful the script is to historical incidents and persons involved. Frank Finlay appears as customary Holmes foil Lestrade, although the typical Lestrade involvement is mostly taken up, for plot reasons, by Hemmings' new Inspector Foxborough. And Donald Sutherland's character, despite his screen time in scenes played as if they're of supernatural importance, ultimately has little to do with the story.
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Anchor Bay's DVD edition of Murder by Decree presents a gorgeous print and transfer in its original widescreen (1.85:1 anamorphic). Brief signs of minor wear don't distract from a remarkably clean image, a real plus with all the deep, shadowy darkness that's so essential to the film's atmospherics. The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is okay. Occasionally the dialogue is a little muddy, though the soundtrack is strong enough and its good dynamic balance keeps the chimes of Big Ben a fine mood-setter.
Director/producer Bob Clark's career shows quirky variety, from Black Christmas to Porky's to A Christmas Story, and in this disc's commentary track he proves to be one of the more listenable and informative "how we did it" speakers. In his low-key manner, he covers production and directorial details, some Ripperology, and reminiscences of his stellar cast. Among the revelations: if Peter O'Toole and Lawrence Olivier had had a warmer relationship, they would have taken the Holmes and Watson roles.
Elsewhere on the disc, a behind-the-scenes Stills Gallery displays 36 click-through images. A separate Poster and Still Gallery holds some six dozen well-reproduced period promo pieces. The lengthy theatrical trailer is here, as are thorough Talent Bios for Plummer, Mason, and Clark. As a DVD-ROM extra, the movie's screenplay is accessible as a PDF file. Finally, a nice bonus is a twelve-page insert booklet that holds a centerfold of the theatrical one-sheet poster and an astute little essay on the film. It's written by Anchor Bay’s Michael Felscher, who needs a proofreader but he's clearly a fan of the genre, not just a PR flack. Keep-case.