Murder by Decree is one of the better Sherlock Holmes movies.
Directed by Bob Clark, it features an all-star cast. Christopher Plummer plays Sherlock Holmes and James Mason plays Dr. John H. Watson. As they become embroiled in the Jack the Ripper slayings, they follow the trail of blood to the highest echelons of political power. Along the way, Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland in perhaps the film’s most effective supporting role) offers psychic counsel, and Holmes and Watson brush up against bureaucratic figures (Frank Finlay, David Hemmings, and Anthony Quayle) and folks from the London slums (Susan Clark plays Mary Kelly). Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), a whore trapped in a lunatic asylum, is the key to Holmes’ doggedness in making his case and unlocking the corruption behind it.
If I say more about the plot, I might spoil the fun. (I suspect that I’ll give away more than I should in the ensuing paragraphs.)
I am, however, conflicted about this film. On the one hand, it stokes a Hammer film vibe. Using a mixture of sporadic point-of-view shots and over- and under-lit cinematography, the movie gives us a fully imagined London in 1888. The streets and alleys ooze atmosphere, and the Ripper has a frightening presence. In 2020, it is heartwarming to see actual fog-bound sets and miniatures of London behind blue, calligraphic film credits. I’m a sucker for that kind of old-school craftsmanship. Clark welcomes you to sit back and soak in the Victorian trappings, and on production value alone he and his team get an “A” grade for effort. There is equal pleasure in the Holmes/Watson dynamic. Both Plummer and Mason have a grand time in their roles, and the comic relief is in fair supply (my favorite bit is the green pea scene. Lesson: to fork the pea, you must smash it).
Where the movie becomes troublesome is the poorly paced way it chases a jaundiced view of the rot in the highest offices in England. Part of the joy of any Sherlock Holmes mystery is getting to see Holmes and Watson unravel the clues; how they connect the pieces of the puzzle, and how it affects them. They’re supposed to be a charming, dynamic duo, and Murder by Decree doesn’t skimp on that. But neither does it open much of a portal to their thought process. I doubt the film is as interested in Holmes’ genius as the rest of us are. We lose deduction; the thrill of the chase, of watching the puzzle form, is missing. Instead, we join the pair as they examine corpses and interview whores and dock workers—scenes, on average, paced long enough to allow the acting luminaries a chance to bite into their roles. Then, with movie-convenient rapidity (after a sluggish two-hour run-up), Holmes explains everything that happened—a perfect, unerring indictment with all the narrative threads in place. I’m not sure I’m being fair to the scenarist, John Hopkins (he also scripted Thunderball); but his eagerness to make the movie a post-Nixon, post-Vietnam statement about the abuses of power overpowers the presentation of the heroes. Plummer’s otherwise amused detective is in one scene brought to tears, then betrays his regret and disgust in the final summation; but his Holmes is a sanitized and charming lad with no kinks or chinks of his own. He doesn’t have to be a coke fiend; I just wanted to see more of his mind at work. As shown here, Sherlock Holmes risks our disinterest, because the filmmakers are keen on other things.
These are vicious murders the Ripper committed. Clark tones the bloodshed down to earn a PG rating but shows enough of it (and these moments are chilling) to make me wonder why he didn’t capitalize on the gruesomeness, to better condemn and expose the people who (in this film’s premise) sanction the brutality. Or why he didn’t use more of a Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur touch and coat everything in shadow and suggestion, focusing on the actors’ reactions and recapitulations of the crimes, rather than any blow-by-blow depiction on screen.
More than a little restraint is easy to understand, when you consider the movie’s desire to mount a stately ensemble piece in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express (1975). Clark, an exploitation veteran, and a talented filmmaker (responsible for no less than two unqualified yuletide classics, the original Black Christmas, and A Christmas Story), seems muted here. It’s as though the production team felt it had to modernize an old-fashioned detective story but lacked confidence in the audience’s ability to acknowledge the horrific nature of the crimes without some blood visibly spilled. Graced with an accomplished cast, Clark, you could argue, took this moment as his first do-or-die swing for the majors—to show his capacity to deliver a classy but dark hit in sync with the political jadedness of the times, alienating no one. (It wasn’t a hit.) To this day, the Ripper affair shocks and repels. And for Hopkins’ view of a systemic corruption to carry weight, he and Clark should have seen the importance in laying bare the gruesome facts (as Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell did in their brilliant graphic novel, From Hell), while still giving us something to get whipped about. Sometimes an explicit display of carnage, of the outrage it inspires, is necessary to drive the point home. That, or outright cloaking everything in suggestion. Murder by Decree has a mid-tier approach. I wanted a stronger commitment.
Having flown under the radar for 40 years, Murder by Decree deserves a wider audience than it received in 1979. It’s not a can’t-miss, magnificent mystery. But if ever you want to sit back with a glass of wine and cigar (or pipe) and catch a Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper whodunit, it does the job. It’s lightweight, but it entertains.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is not the greatest transfer, but at least it has audio commentary by Clark and by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. You also have access to the original trailer, besides the trailers to Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (now there’s a lost, flawed gem) and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (ditto), among two others.