“Murder by Decree” is an atmospheric, engaging, and well-paced, 1979 film directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story). The screenplay of the 124 minute movie was written by John Hopkins (Z Cars) based on the book “The Ripper File,” which was co-written by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd who used characters originally created by author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The film is a mixture of the genres of crime, drama, horror, mystery, and thriller. Reginald H. Morris (Loose Cannons) provides captivating cinematography, and the movie also utilizes appropriately haunting original music by Paul Zaza (Prom Night) and Carl Zittrer (Moonstruck).
The year is 1888; the setting, the streets of Victorian London, where the sadistic murders of prostitutes, at the hands of Jack the Ripper, are taking place in the Whitechapel district. Who can stop the killer before he strikes again? A group of low end business men, whose shops in the district are directly affected by the Ripper’s crimes, feel they have the answer. Enter the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. He is portrayed by “Academy Award,” “BAFTA,” “Golden Globe,” and “Emmy” winner, Christopher Plummer (Beginners). Plummer’s Holmes is a highly intelligent, cunning, and self-assured individual. His take on the character is not like that of other actors who have portrayed Holmes before him. What separates Plummer’s version of the character is the empathy he displays. This is made evident while Holmes is questioning the character of the institutionalized, Annie Crook, in a one scene, emotionally gut wrenching turn, acted by Golden Globe winner Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days). The normally, emotionally detached Holmes, is riled up into furious anger, not at Annie, but at those who are keeping her locked up, and sadness is clearly visible on his face. He knows that she shouldn’t be in an asylum, and is only there as part of a larger conspiracy involving the Ripper murders.
In addition to Plummer and Bujold, Golden Globe winner and three times Oscar nominated actor James Mason acquits himself excellently in the role of Sherlock’s loyal sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Mason’s Watson is not the bumbling character that was often seen in earlier film incarnations. Instead, he is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and is appalled at the thought of who might be involved in committing the ghastly crimes. Rounding out the cast in the role of Inspector Lestrade is Frank Finlay (The Three Musketeers). He gives intellectual deference to Holmes, and welcomes, as he has done in the past, much to the chagrin of others, his help in solving the Ripper murders. Golden Globe and Emmy award winner Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games) doesn’t have an abundance of screen time, but completely embodies the role of Psychic, Robert Lees. There is Susan Clark as prostitute Mary Kelly; she is a person who is being sought by Holmes for important information she might have regarding the crimes. Also featured are: Anthony Quayle, as Sir Charles Warren who appeared as Doctor Murray in the 1965 film “A Study in Terror,” which also dealt with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson trying to capture the ripper; Inspector Foxborough (David Hemmings); and last, but certainly not least, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar winning, prolific actor, Sir John Gielgud as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.
The more Holmes and Watson seek to uncover the truth regarding the heinous murders, and the person or persons involved in carrying them out, the more they come up against the possibility of a multi-layered conspiracy. A cover-up involving a secret brotherhood, known as the freemasons, and people who ascend all the way up into the highest reaches of wealth and power during the London of the time period. Why are two such groups conspiring together to keep the identity of a brutal murderer secret? Holmes and Watson come to discover that perhaps Jack the Ripper is not one man, but several, working in concert with, or on behalf of someone whose tawdry behavior with women of the night, might have a direct impact on the throne of England.
I found the film to be an interesting mixture of factual accounts and creative fiction. My one and only problem with the movie was that this was the only time that Plummer and Mason ever teamed up together to portray Holmes and Watson. I would have loved at least one sequel, if not several. Other far less deserving films sometimes spawn as many as four or five sequels and prequels, but sadly, neither Bob Clark, nor anyone else involved with the film, continued on to turn their teaming into a franchise. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a must see for fans of the Holmes character. I absolutely love the modern day portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on “Sherlock,” shown on cable on BBCA. I also highly enjoy the CBS show “Elementary,” which has Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Holmes and a female Dr. Watson acted by Lucy Liu – but if you are looking for a blast from the past featuring these characters, I highly recommend this film.