MURDER BY DECREE, 1979
It is the autumn of 1888 and Jack the Ripper is terrorizing London’s Whitechapel district. A group of concerned citizens band together and approach Sherlock Holmes at his home on Baker Street to ask for his assistance in apprehending the dreaded Ripper as the police have gotten nowhere in their investigation. Holmes agrees to take the case, and with Dr. Watson, begins an investigation that will lead him to the highest echelons of power in the realm.
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“Murder By Decree” is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, mixing the historic evidence of the Ripper murders with the always popular Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters. Arthur Conan Doyle never addressed the Ripper case in his contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but it was probably inevitable that a modern writer and director would do so. In fact, an earlier film, “A Study In Terror” (1965) had already covered this territory. It also pitted Sherlock Holmes against the Ripper and ended up pointing toward a member of the British aristocracy as the real killer, only to have his crime covered up to protect the powerful. In both films the real motive behind the murders is a high level political conspiracy not the random actions of a serial killer. As an interesting side note, in the same year “Murder By Decree” was made, “Time After Time” was released. That film combined H.G. Wells’ time machine concept with the Jack the Ripper murders. In it Wells himself, played by Malcolm McDowell, chases the Ripper into the late 20th century, after the murderer has found Wells’ time machine and used it to avoid capture. It seems there was a vogue for combining 19th century literary figures with the Ripper in the late ‘70s film industry.
The cast is headed by Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson. They make a memorable duo, and are one Holmes & Watson team that it would have been good to see paired again. The two veteran actors play off of each other like old vaudeville partners, with Mason taking the role of stoic straight man to Plummer’s rakish and amusing Holmes. Each are comfortable in their roles and, as a result, funny together, as in the famous pea scene in which a distracted Watson doggedly chases a lone, surviving pea around his dinner plate only to have an exasperated Holmes crush it with his fork. Mason knows just how to play this scene for maximum effect and his reading of the line, “You squashed my pea ... yes, but squashing a fellow’s pea...” is classic.
Further, Plummer is crucial to the transition in the mood of the film from the early light comedic tone taken in his scenes with Mason to the deeper emotional waters surrounding the Ripper’s victims and their plight. He moves easily between the two poles and evidences a genuine feeling for the women, and thus contributes enormously to making these two aspects of the film cohere in a way that they might not otherwise have done.
The rest of the cast is an impressive list of British and Canadian talent, Donald Sutherland as the sad eyed psychic, Robert Lees; British stage veteran Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren, the duplicitous chief of Scotland Yard; and, John Gielgud as the Prime Minister. But it is Genevieve Bujold who stands out as the betrayed and abandoned Annie Crook, left to die in the dank recesses of a Victorian asylum. This is a wonderful example of how a gifted actor can be given just one scene in a film, and yet nail it so perfectly that they make an indelible impression. Every time I watch this film, I’m moved by Bujold’s raw and unmediated performance as a woman, not insane, but simply in deep pain over her forced separation from her child.
The colour cinematography by Canadian Reginald H. Morris, captures our idea of late 19th century London. The late night fog is drawn in a shadowy palette of dark blues, grays and blacks, the edges of the frames often blurred, and distorted camera angles used to invoke the nightmarish atmosphere surrounding the Whitechapel murders. The cinematography is appropriately lurid at times and richly textured at others, when presenting the comfortable upper middle class homes of London’s fashionable districts.
“Murder By Decree” builds convincingly to its bloody climax, but the long expositional scene between Holmes and the Prime Minister, which concludes the film, is anti-climactic. Clark attempts to explain everything that has gone before while leaving not one loose end, and it feels too long, too wordy and unnecessary after the narrative we have just witnessed. However, the film is still eminently worth watching for its intriguing story, its evocative depiction of 19th century London, and it’s memorable and surprisingly moving performances.