Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree brings a first-rate tale of Victorian England murder and mayhem into the realm of Sherlock Holmes in a crackerjack movie that mines the best of its real and the fictional worlds.
The Production: 4.5/5
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote a story in which his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was tasked with solving the real-life murder rampage of Jack the Ripper, but that fact hasn’t stopped scores of novelists, video game producers, and moviemakers from concocting their own scenarios where the master detective’s famous deductive reasoning was pitted against the nefariously obscure crime wave taking place in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Bob Clark’s 1979 mystery Murder by Decree wasn’t the first film to set Holmes against the Ripper, but it’s certainly the finest; indeed, Murder by Decree may well be the best Sherlock Holmes film that doesn’t star Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth.
After three prostitutes turn up murdered and mutilated in London’s East End, a citizen’s committee headed by storeowner Makins (Ron Pember) calls on Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Doctor Watson (James Mason) asking them to find the killer and bring security and hopefully prosperity back to their streets. Though Holmes had wondered why Inspector Lestrade (Frank Finlay) hadn’t called on him asking for help as per usual, he turns up at the crime scene of a fourth victim only to be brushed aside rudely by Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), now in charge of police investigations, with the warning to steer clear of this particular case. Intrigued, Holmes and Watson naturally begin investigating beginning with prostitutes who might have known the four victims eventually finding connecting links between them and a common source of information, one Mary Kelly (Susan Clark) who seems to have some key pieces to the puzzle. But the solution to the mystery is far more complicated than a single madman slashing his way through Whitechapel as both Holmes and Watson incur injuries on a convoluted journey to a very unpleasant truth.
John Hopkins’ rather dour screenplay makes it clear from the start that this is not to be a Holmesian lark but rather a serious and altogether bleak investigation into the darker machinations of Royalty and those sworn to protect them. This is all conveyed in a marvelous opening scene set at the opera where the Prince of Wales is alternately cheered by the upper classes and jeered by the lower when he makes his appearance in the Royal Box. At first it seems a rather superfluous opening to a story about Jack the Ripper where Watson stands up for the defamed Prince, but later events have a way of circling back to this opening sequence making it far more understandable as the beginning to the story. Director Bob Clark takes his Steadicam through the twisting passageways and tight side streets of Whitechapel on several occasions as the murderer stalks his prey or as Holmes goes on the prowl, and the fog-shrouded alleys and dimly lit corridors simply reek of mystery and potential mayhem. It’s not all downbeat, of course; there are some lighter moments with Watson stabbing at a lone pea on his dinner plate, Holmes taking aim at some beakers on his scientific table, strange psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland in similar facial hair arrangements he sported in The Great Train Robbery) offering up some clues for Holmes to investigate, or Dr. Watson on the receiving end of a prostitute’s attention. But the solution of the murders is eye-opening and quite ingenious, and the teaming of Plummer and Mason is so comfortable and right that it’s a shame they didn’t get a chance to experience further adventures.
Christopher Plummer isn’t quite as tall or lanky as the Holmes of the illustrations, and while Holmes in the stories is an expert swordsman and boxer, Plummer’s Holmes seems much less athletic and nimble. Still, he can certainly stand toe-to-toe intellectually with his antagonists and emerges as a Holmes to be savored. James Mason is simply wonderful as Watson: not buffoonish or dim-witted but not quite as quick on the uptake as his friend Holmes. The three police officials tasked to the case are all acted well by Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings, and Frank Findlay, the later reprising his role of Inspector Lestrade from the last Holmes film to deal with Jack the Ripper A Study in Terror. Susan Clark and Geneviève Bujold are excellent as the two women central to the mystery’s solution while Donald Sutherland has a field day with another eccentric character in his filmography. John Gielgud makes a brief but very important appearance as Prime Minister Salisbury.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is faithfully rendered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. There is a brief but odd vertical ribbon along the left-hand side of the frame for a few seconds, and a couple of errant scratches along the right side right after that, but otherwise, the image is very strong. Of course, the fog-encrusted streets are soft in appearance as are some long shot miniatures, but interiors are very sharp and the color, slightly desaturated on occasion, is consistently presented. Black levels in the deep shadows are excellent. The movie has been divided into 10 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is very typical of its era. Dialogue has been well recorded and has been mixed superbly with the background music of Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza and the outstanding sound effects. One might wish for a little punchier delivery in terms of fidelity, but that’s a minor quibble.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentaries: there are two on the disc. Ported over from the DVD is director Bob Clark’s excellent reminiscence on the making of the film and new to the disc is a conversation between film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell who not only exclaim their enthusiasm for the film but also make many comparisons to other Holmes movies and other Hammer-like influences on the look and tone of the film.
Theatrical Trailer (3:33, SD)
Kino Trailers: The Silent Partner, Ordeal by Innocence, The Great Train Robbery, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree brings a first-rate tale of Victorian England murder and mayhem into the realm of Sherlock Holmes in a crackerjack movie that mines the best of its real and the fictional worlds. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc offers very good video and audio quality for fans of the stars, the director, or Sherlock Holmes. Highly recommended!