Directed by the man who gave us Black Christmas, Porkys, and A Christmas Story, and starring Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes alongside James Mason as his trusted friend and loyal partner-in-solving-crime Dr. Watson, it baffles me that Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree isn’t talked about more widely among fans of detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes, and murder mystery films more generally. With a brand spanking new restoration of the 1979 classic coming to Blu-Ray as part of StudioCanal’s beautiful Vintage Classics collection at the end of the month however, it looks like Clark’s film is about to get the recognition it so richly deserves.
Clark’s film is set in 1888 and sees London in the grip of terror as Jack The Ripper sets about his grisly, gruesome work in the East End. At their wits’ end, the incompetent police turn to the world’s greatest consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose subsequent investigation unravels a sprawling conspiratorial plot that sees royalty, politicians, and the elusive Freemasons all tied up in the terrors taking place beneath the rolling fog and lamplit streets of Whitechapel.
Murder By Decree is a played straight, fairly dry procedural investigative thriller, but in its suffusing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic fictitious sleuth with the most compelling unsolved murder spree in history, something at times quite extraordinary is produced. Plummer is a brilliant Holmes, led by rationality and logic but pierced occasionally, purposefully by pangs of emotion otherwise absent in many on-screen Holmes’. It is to the film’s great credit that the Ripper’s victims are portrayed with empathy and dignity to the best of screenwriter John Hopkins’ ability. And a large part of the film’s success comes in the later scenes that allow Plummer to portray Holmes’ utter despair at his shortcomings, and the horrific losses of life that have led him to where he ends up.
Opposite Plummer, Lolita and A Star Is Born star James Mason makes for a strong Watson – Mason’s insistence on the good doctor being portrayed not as a fool but rather as Holmes’ humanist companion pays off as we are given a dynamic both in performance and character between the duo that is consistently engaging to watch. In addition, Donald Sutherland makes a memorable appearance as mystic Robert Lees, who comes into the fray to take Holmes’ investigation into new, supernaturally inclined directions, adding a supernatural perspective to proceedings that sees the film fizz and bubble into life, recalling some of Doyle’s own more fantastical Holmesian adventures.
Beautifully shot atmospheric slow tracking movements, pseudo-expressionist interplays of shadow and light, and static wide shots that convey the helplessness and fear growing amongst the public and police alike make Murder By Decree a visual feast. With the new restoration, Reginald H. Harris’ stunning camerawork is given the clarity and definition it deserves, whilst the film’s deliciously Gothic art direction and production design is illuminated anew here too, letting the textural nuance of the mise-en-scène pierce the veil of night. Elsewhere, a superb, swirling, infrequently but impactfully stabbing string score from composers Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer mingles with the fog and the labyrinthine streets to instil paranoia and uncertainty in the piece.
Cocktailing conspiracy and compassion for the set-upon sex workers of London’s East End, contrasting Holmes and Watson’s inductive methods with the world’s natural way of unspooling its deepest held secrets and societal taboos, Murder by Decree marks a slickly written, oozingly atmospheric addition to the extended Holmes canon. At the same time too, with little of the lurid excess and bravado of the Alan Moore graphic novel adaptation From Hell – which alike this film drew heavily on Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd’s The Ripper Files – Murder by Decree uses its speculative storytelling to proffer a compelling case as to Jack The Ripper’s true identity.
StudioCanal’s Blu-Ray only has a couple of special features to note, but both are fascinating. The first is an audio commentary with critic Kim Newman and Crime Fiction Historian Barry Forshaw, which offers a whole new set of lenses through which to view Clark’s work and its portrayal of the Ripper and also Sherlock Holmes. The second is a 20 minute interview with Newman, which for any physical media aficionados is both A) an expected inclusion in any classic film’s re-release, and B) an expectedly great inclusion at that. The real draw though is the HD presentation of the film itself, which continues StudioCanal’s brilliant curatorial work in the field of classic cinema, preservation, and restoration. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this is an essential day one purchase.