Director: Bob Clark
Screenplay: John Hopkins
Starring: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland, Susan Clark, David Hemmings, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud
Duration: 123 mins
BBFC Certification: 12
Alongside Dracula, Tarzan and James Bond, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted literary figures in the history of cinema. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ever since he emerged out of the Victorian smog in the late nineteenth century, thanks to the imagination of Arthur Conan Doyle, he has gripped the public like no other fictional detective. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to say that almost every other criminal investigator, in either TV, film or literature, owes a debt to the cold, eccentric but utterly brilliant British detective.
With such a wealth of cinematic and television hours devoted to Holmes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise either than some adaptions might fall between the cracks slightly as the years go by. This seems to be the case with 1979’s Murder by Decree. By no means long lost or forgotten, the film still certainly seems to have faded from people’s minds as one of the premiere Holmes adaptations, something that StudioCanal seem keen to rectify with their new Blu Ray release.
Murder by Decree certainly has a juicy sounding plot, combining two of the most iconic Victorian figures (one fictional, one real) that still linger in the public imagination. The East End of London is being ripped apart by a spate of gruesome murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. With Scotland Yard having failed to solve the crimes, Sherlock Holmes is called upon to start his own investigation. What he discovers will shock him to his core, as he uncovers a mystery more sinister and complicated than he ever dared imagine…
As Arthur Conan Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes mysteries into the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, it is perhaps odd that he never sought to have his famous detective investigate the crimes behind the most infamous murders of the Victorian Era, as Murder by Decree is not actually based on any Conan Doyle story at all. The film, written by playwright John Hopkins (who wrote the stunning 1973 Connery vehicle The Offence, as well as Thunderball) actually takes its plot from a book called The Ripper File. Don’t expect a nuanced, considered examination of the Ripper murders, however (despite the film’s occasionally admirable historical detail around the murders themselves). The conclusion the film arrives at is as outlandish and fantastic as they come. I won’t say too much more, as part of the pleasure of the film is watching the plot unfold. Be warned, though. If you are at all familiar with the Hughes Brother’s darkly stylish 2003 Jack the Ripper film From Hell, then you’ll already know all the surprises Murder by Decree has up its sleeve, as the Jonny Depp film is a virtual remake.
Despite Murder by Decree’s mouthwatering cast list (Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, Geneviève Bujold, David Hemmings, Susan Clark…I could go on!) it is fair to assume that most of the attention will be paid to Christopher Plummer and James Mason, who play Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively. Holmes has now become such a familiar character, that part of the pleasure in watching adaptations featuring him don’t come so much from the plot but from seeing what a particular actor brings to the part (the same can be said of other famous characters, such as Bond or Dr. Who). In this respect, Murder by Decree certainly presents us with a rather unusual Holmes.
If you are more familiar with recent depictions of Sherlock Holmes being a cold, rude and arrogant genius (as typified by Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood films or Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s wildly popular series) then Christopher Plummer offers a reading of the role that feels almost radically different. Murder by Decree presents a Sherlock Holmes that is far warmer, kinder and more empathic than almost any other screen depiction. At one point, he even cries when hearing a vital piece of evidence. Fans of the detective may well love this rare, alternative take on the character, but for my money, I much prefer Holmes as an acerbic loner. His depiction here by Plummer feels like Sherlock Holmes with the edges blunted off, coming across more as a component detective than an investigative genius. This is not to suggest that Plummer’s performance is bad (as ever, Plummer tackles the role with grace and subtly) just that it hit upon a compassionate tone that I was neither expecting nor ended up particularly liking.
James Mason fares far better as Dr. Watson. Showing a light comic touch that he only occasionally brought to his screen roles, his Watson is kind, clever and diligent, proving to be a perfect foil to Holmes’ investigative prowess. In fact, it is in their relationship that the film shines the brightest. Plummer and Mason share a delightful chemistry (just watch the scene where Mason is trying to eat a pea) and you never once doubt the trust and friendship between the two men, a vital element which is occasionally forgotten or underdeveloped in more recent depictions of the characters.
This relationship is one of the key things that Murder by Decree does well. The rest of the time, while the film frequently rises to the heights that its cast suggest it should aspire too, it all too often flounders at crucial moments.
Directed with a simplistic, effective grace by Bob Clark (helmer of such diverse fair as the prototype slasher film Black Christmas as well as, er, Porky’s) Murder by Decree boasts a gloriously gritty, fog fuelled London, achieved through both location work and impressively authentic studio sets. The actual Ripper murders themselves stand out as genuinely creepy and unnerving set pieces, where Clark utilises a flowing POV camera to create a sense of unease. The final murder itself feels particularly gruesome and (if you know anything about the real crimes) historically accurate.
Yet as much as Clark finds success in the film’s sets and key dramatic moments, he also allows Murder by Decree to become dry and rather dull as it stretches out towards a two hour running time. Perhaps the most egregious fault, a long, drawn out coda plonked right at the end of the film, is more the fault of John Hopkins than Clark himself. Indulging in his theatrical tendencies perhaps a little too much, Hopkins concludes the film with long monologues and moral discussions that quite simply kill the pace dead – and this in a film that has struggled with pace to begin with.
Overall however, Murder by Decree succeeds far more often than it fails. Despite my dislike of Plummer’s interpretation of the role and a slow, rather dated feel that plagues the film at certain moments, Murder by Decree remains a thoroughly enjoyable mystery that offers a unique take on one of literatures most enduing characters. For fans of Sherlock Holmes, this is no doubt a key film to own and re-watch in Studio Canal’s new Blu Ray edition.
Murder by Decree is released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 28th June. The picture quality is decent throughout but not mind blowing. The film looks fairly washed out in places but there is pleasing detail in the close ups and no encoding errors that I noticed. In fact, it looks a lot older than its 1979 release date would suggest, appearing more like a mid sixties Hammer effort quite a lot of the time. This might have been a creative decision, however, by Clarke and cinematographer Reginald H. Morris, in order to make the film feel ‘older’. The sound is clear and legible throughout.
The are only two extras on the disc:
- Audio commentary with Film Journalist Kim Newman and Crime Fiction Historian Barry Forshaw
- Interview with Film Journalist Kim Newman
Commentary: Both Newman and Forshaw are Holmes experts and they dive into this commentary with geeky enthusiasm. They offer a great insight into how Plummer’s version of Holmes compares with other screen versions, as well as providing a wealth of additional Holmes lore. They also discuss Jack the Ripper in depth, comparing various theories and how Murder by Decree both deviates and adheres to the established facts. They also discuss the portrayal of Jack the Ripper in cinema. This is a highly entertaining commentary and is a must listen not only for fans of the film but for fans of Holmes and for anyone with an interest in the Jack the Ripper case.
Interview: In this twenty minute interview, Newman goes into more detail on the background of the film and the Jack the Ripper case, as well as making a case for Murder by Decree being one the best Holmes films. This covers similar ground to the commentary, but Newman is always fascinating to listen to, so this makes a great companion piece.