Sherlock Holmes and Watson are tasked with tracking down Jack the Ripper in this inspired film that attempts to uncover the motives behind the famous historical killings. As they unravel the mystery, Holmes finds out the plight of the prostitutes living on the streets of Whitechapel and uncovers a conspiracy that leads at least to the Prime Minister, if not higher. There’s also political intrigue as a bunch of revolutionaries make the case even murkier.
Director: Bob Clark
Actors: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Donald Sutherland
Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Historical
Year of Release: 1979 (original)/2017 (DVD)
Murder By Decree isn’t an original story by Arthur Conan Doyle; rather, it’s based on The Ripper File, a book about the Jack the Ripper killings that details the murders and offers some explanations to motive. Bob Clark’s film takes things one step further by inserting the fictional Sherlok Holmes into the mix, placing him deep into a conspiracy involving the Prime Minister and other high-ranking officials. The idea is exciting, and Murder By Decree certainly understands the appeal of Victorian characters like Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes; however, viewer patience will be key to enjoying this verbose and exposition-heavy film.
Christopher Plummer stars as Holmes, who plays him with both pathos and stoicism. It helps to have James Mason right there next to him as Watson, because the film works best when Holmes and Watson are trading wit and barbs. The two have a good rapport and both are at the top of their game – and it’s nice to see Clark giving both Holmes and Watson time for individual endeavors as they explore two sides of the mystery.
The story itself is an intriguing idea as well, although it becomes obvious that Holmes will not actually “solve” the case since there has been no historical resolution to the Jack the Ripper killings. But Murder By Decree goes a different direction than just introducing a mysterious killer; instead, it focuses on a governmental cover-up as Holmes follows a list of people who know more about the prostitute slayings than meets the eye. It leads him to Freemasons, a “psychic” (Donald Sutherland), and the uncomfortable understanding that the women who walk the streets of Whitechapel have been forced into their position by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Clark has an empathetic eye for the poor and downtrodden, as does Holmes himself: at first reticent to accept the case, he soon learns that his help is necessary in order to stop the killing of prostitutes who are basically subhuman to most people.
Clark’s film runs long, though, at just over two hours, and it relies heavily on dialogue and exposition. The entire conclusion is one long courtroom scene as Holmes runs down the solution to the mystery, basically spelling out the subterfuge that the Prime Minister himself has been involved in (or, as the title suggests, the crime that he “decreed”). The film relies on telling a bit too much especially at the end, and while it’s clear that Clark was attempting to avoid the more salacious aspects of the Jack the Ripper case, the movie could have used more of the murders themselves. One scene reminiscent of Clark’s opus Black Christmas works wonderfully, though: the camera looks in through a frosted windowpane as Jack the Ripper tortures and murders Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), obfuscated except for some shapes and the misery in her voice.
For those looking for a Sherlock Holmes film with wit and mystery, Murder By Decree is a good recommendation; but it is quite slow, and it definitely hits on the more classic notes of Victorian literature rather than the newer era of Holmesian storytelling. Many will find this film too much of a slog, but if one perseveres, they’ll find a noble, if heavyhanded, attempt at realizing Arthur Conan Doyle’s character.
Murder By Decree is pretty tame, and intentionally so. It’s no Hammer horror picture by far, but it does have some interesting moments: a slow motion scene where a man removes the a bloody body of a prostitute from his carriage, the aforementioned scene of Jack the Ripper torturing Mary Kelly, and the strange hanging of the Jack the Ripper killer in some shipyard netting. None of these will be particularly gory, but Clark has a way of showcasing the horror of these moments.
None, just some funny wordplay and a couple of innuendo scenes with Watson.
- Basically the same plot as From Hell years later.
- Found on IMdB: “Bob Clark had to do research to see if the word ‘fart’ was in existence in 1888. It was.” Thank god!
Murder By Decree gets a DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment and StudioCanal, which was previously released in the UK in 2012. The film looks good with a 16:9 aspect ratio picture, and while sometimes a bit blurry, the video quality is rather good for DVD release and features a healthy amount of film grain. This is perfectly serviceable for fans looking to own on home video.
Audio is presented in 2.0 with no issues or drops. One unfortunate element is that this disc does not come with English subtitles, something that would be welcome due some heavy British accents at times.
None, and there’s not even a menu on this disc. The only thing included is a trailer at the end of the film after the credits – you’ll see it tacked on, and that adds to the 124 minute running time about four more minutes.