Outstanding Sherlock Holmes mystery film. 4.5 Stars

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.

Murder by Decree (1979)
Released: 09 Feb 1979
Rated: PG
Runtime: 124 min
Director: Bob Clark
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Cast: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark
Writer(s): Arthur Conan Doyle (characters), John Hopkins (screenplay), Elwyn Jones (author), Stephen Knight (book), John Lloyd (author)
Plot: Sherlock Holmes investigates the murders commited by Jack the Ripper and discovers a conspiracy to protect the killer.
IMDB rating: 6.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Studio Canal
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: PG
Run Time: 2 Hr. 4 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 06/23/2020
MSRP: $29.95

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.

Video: 4.5/5

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.

Audio: 4.5/5

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.

Overall: 4.5/5

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!

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Matt Hough

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Robert Crawford

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Thank you for your fine review. I haven't seen this movie in its entirety. At least, I don't remember seeing it. Anyhow, I did pre-ordered it during Target's latest "Buy 2, Get 1 Free" sales. Looking forward to watching it.
 

Hank E

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Uh.... some controversy over on BR which reports this is an older scan incorrectly timed and graded, one person's post:

"Kino Lorber's transfer ruins the film. Gone are the inky blacks, deep-shadows, and lamp-lit
pools of light in the fog. In fact, the contrast is boosted so high, gone is the fog. The sense
of danger lurking around every corner, the mystery of what might be hiding in the darkened
doorways and alleyways of White Chapel, has been obliterated. There is so much light now
there are no darkened doorways, and the alleyways no longer drop off into darkness. I
haven't stuck up for a film in a long time, but this transfer is so completely wrong, and done
with such a total lack of understanding, someone must stick up for MURDER BY DECREE.

To see the film the way director Bob Clark and cameraman Reginald H. Morris intended,
watch the old Anchor Bay DVD. It may not be in 1080p, but it accurately represents the
film insofar as a DVD can, and it's the exact the same scan that Kino Lorber botched.
The Anchor Bay DVD is the MURDER BY DECREE that you want to own"
 

CinemaCynic

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Uh.... some controversy over on BR which reports this is an older scan incorrectly timed and graded, one person's post:

"Kino Lorber's transfer ruins the film. Gone are the inky blacks, deep-shadows, and lamp-lit
pools of light in the fog. In fact, the contrast is boosted so high, gone is the fog. The sense
of danger lurking around every corner, the mystery of what might be hiding in the darkened
doorways and alleyways of White Chapel, has been obliterated. There is so much light now
there are no darkened doorways, and the alleyways no longer drop off into darkness. I
haven't stuck up for a film in a long time, but this transfer is so completely wrong, and done
with such a total lack of understanding, someone must stick up for MURDER BY DECREE.
Just to add another view, the film looks more or less as I remember it theatrically. It is shot with a lot of on set atmosphere, which can dissipate and renders some scenes inconsistent from shot to shot in terms of diffusion. Furthermore the DP also used a lot of diffusive and softening filters in most scenes (but not all) so there's a bit of an inconsistency of look that's baked into the film. I was hoping for the new transfer to reveal some hidden gems of color or detail, and it does in some scenes, but this is a film whose gauzy look is more or less baked into its negative. I don't know what the review above had in terms of settings for his monitor but there are no scenes lacking fog or darkness. It is not, for example, a washed out nightmare like Kino's 'Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' release was.
 

Worth

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Had a quick look at the disc over the weekend and I think it's maybe a little too bright, but fine overall. I did see this when it came out, but I was ten years old, so I won't pretend to remember exactly what it should look like.
 

Will Krupp

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Thanks, Matt! Mine's on the way from the Kino sale (in what I call the "July" box) and I'm really looking forward to it!
Turns out I had it wrong and it's NOT coming in the "July" box. That one has items that aren't going to be available until almost the end of the month and I guess I didn't want to wait. I had ordered it on it's own from Amazon and it came last week. It's still sitting here unopened but I hope to get the chance to look at it tonight!
 
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Stephen_J_H

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DOP Reginald H. Morris worked as a cameraman for the venerable Geoffrey Unsworth, and this film has the haze and soft focus that Unsworth is known for, which works well with the period.
 
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Matt Hough

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Turns out I had it wrong and it's NOT coming in the "July" box. That one has items that aren't going to be available until almost the end of the month and I guess I didn't want to wait. I had ordered it on it's own from Amazon and it came last week. It's still sitting here unopened but I hope to get the chance to look at it tonight!
Let us all know what you think once you've seen it please!
 
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Bartman

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Uh.... some controversy over on BR which reports this is an older scan incorrectly timed and graded, one person's post:

"Kino Lorber's transfer ruins the film. Gone are the inky blacks, deep-shadows, and lamp-lit
pools of light in the fog. In fact, the contrast is boosted so high, gone is the fog. The sense
of danger lurking around every corner, the mystery of what might be hiding in the darkened
doorways and alleyways of White Chapel, has been obliterated. There is so much light now
there are no darkened doorways, and the alleyways no longer drop off into darkness. I
haven't stuck up for a film in a long time, but this transfer is so completely wrong, and done
with such a total lack of understanding, someone must stick up for MURDER BY DECREE.

To see the film the way director Bob Clark and cameraman Reginald H. Morris intended,
watch the old Anchor Bay DVD. It may not be in 1080p, but it accurately represents the
film insofar as a DVD can, and it's the exact the same scan that Kino Lorber botched.
The Anchor Bay DVD is the MURDER BY DECREE that you want to own"
If this person viewed this on a poorly calibrated LCD TV, the lack of TV contrast will exacerbate the brightened image. If this person is viewing on the best plasma or OLED TV, they may simply be reacting to the brightened image. I have no horse in this race, as I havn't seen Murder By Decree in 40 years but I have the Anchor Bay DVD coming from Netflix. I'm partial to the Rathbone/Bruce SH movies and the Caine Ripper (I have the U.K. Blu-ray) so here's hoping for the best.
 
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