Thursday, July 21, 2022

#2,787. Murder by Decree (1979) - Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s


Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper in director Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree, a film dripping with atmosphere and suspense that also features one hell of a cast.

A number of women have turned up dead in London’s Whitechapel district, and with the police unable to stop the killings, a group of concerned citizens asks the great Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) to investigate. With the help of his loyal companion Doctor Watson (James Mason), Holmes is determined to track down the killer everyone is calling Jack the Ripper and find out why he is only targeting prostitutes.

But as Holmes and Watson delve deeper into the case, they realize it stretches well beyond the confines of Whitechapel, and might even involve a conspiracy orchestrated by some of England’s most respected officials.

With a script penned by John Hopkins, Murder by Decree is a dark, sometimes frightening Sherlock Holmes mystery; no stranger to horror, director Clark even presents the film’s first murder from the killer’s POV, as if we were looking through the Ripper’s eyes (a similar technique to the one he used in 1974’s Black Christmas, and would eventually become a staple of ‘80s slashers).

In addition, the set design throughout Murder by Decree is superb, especially the darkened streets of Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson spend quite a few nights traversing. Clark even manages to squeeze all the tension and intrigue he possibly can out of the story, which twists and turns in a number of fascinating directions.

Then there’s the cast, led by Plummer’s humanistic approach to the role of Holmes, playing him as a master sleuth who is nonetheless concerned about the safety and well-being of those he’s trying to protect; a scene in which Holmes is talking with Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujoud), a key figure in the case who has been hidden away in an asylum, is particularly heartbreaking.

The supporting cast assembled by Clark features a number of England’s most prestigious actors, including Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren, the standoffish chief of Scotland Yard; David Hemmings as the enigmatic Inspector Foxborough; Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade; and John Gielgud as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Also on-hand are Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees, a psychic who claims he’s had visions of Jack the Ripper, and Susan Clark as potential victim Mary Kelly. Topping them all, however, is James Mason, who plays Watson not as the bumbling sidekick, but a strong-willed investigator in his own right who also occasionally makes us laugh (a scene involving a green pea on Watson’s dinner plate is absolutely hilarious).

If Murder by Decree has one weakness, it’s the finale; the exposition-laden sequence in which Holmes addresses Lord Salisbury about his findings dragged on a bit too long, and was followed by not one, but two false endings. Even with its lackluster climax, however, Murder by Decree has a hell of a lot going for it, and is a movie I wholeheartedly recommend
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

1 comment:

irish said...

Just finished watching this a after A Study in Terror, which is also about Holmes and the Ripper.
I gave Study 8/10 and this one a 7/10.
But where Decree wins out is it's casting of Mason as Watson. I think I prefer John Neville's
portrayal of Holmes in Study over Plummer's in Decree, good as it is.