Holmes and Watson Hunt For Jack the Ripper in This Thrilling Detective Caper.
DIRECTED BY BOB CLARK / 1979
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 23, 2020 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Let’s begin with a show of appreciation for the always underappreciated Doctor Watson. The character is oftentimes used as little more than a comic foil for Holmes, someone to have around merely to be wrong, so the great consulting detective can show off his keen intellect. Murder By Decree doesn’t necessarily work as a corrective to this trend (at least not as far as recent adaptations like Sherlock and Elementary do), but there’s something very warm and affable in James Mason’s performance as Watson. It humanizes Christopher Plummer’s Holmes just by knowing that the two of them are good friends.
I admit I didn’t read the movie’s details too closely before I sat down to watch Murder By Decree, and I initially assumed Mason would be playing the villain- who turns out to be none other than Jack the Ripper! A group of men from Whitechapel implore Holmes to investigate the spate of grisly murders when the police prove less than capable of solving them. Holmes soon discovers that it might be less a matter of capability and more a matter of a high-level cover up keeping the truth from becoming known. Determined to ferret out the Ripper and the motives behind his crimes, Holmes and Watson go on the hunt. The game is, and I cannot stress this enough, afoot!
For those familiar with Ripper lore, or at least for those familiar with the graphic novels of Alan Moore or the movies of the Hughes Brothers, the true nature of the Ripper crimes will not come as a surprise. The screenplay was written by John Hopkins (who also co-wrote Thunderball). It was loosely based on the book The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones, but Hopkins also folded in a lot of the then-recent theories of Stephan Knight (no relation). Knight postulated that the Ripper murders were tied to ancient Masonic rites, and may have been committed to protect the English crown from scandal. This premise also forms the basis of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell and the movie based on it. Hopkins’s script changes the names of the actual historical figures involved, and adds in the ahistoric figures of Holmes and Watson of course.
Bob Clark- yes, the Bob Clark of Porky’s and A Christmas Story fame- directed Murder By Decree. Clark got his start directing horror movies like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and the original Black Christmas. That horror-movie skillset serves him well in Murder By Decree, helping him build up the tension as the Ripper stalks his next victim. One can’t help but think that Jaws had some influence as well, particularly in an early sequence seen from the killer’s POV, and an ominous duh-DUH-duh-DUH plays on the soundtrack.
It’s also not hard to imagine that this film has had some influence of its own. A closeup of the Ripper’s eyes at one point show them to be fully black, like a doll’s eyes (there’s that Jaws reference again, eh?). The Hughes brothers used this same effect for the killer in their adaptation of From Hell.
If the movie has any major mis-step, it’s that it ends the story fifteen minutes too early. The final section is filled with speeches. Holmes presents his case and the guardians of the social order- as exemplified by Sir John Gielgud’s magistrate- refute it. Now, nobody can deliver a speech as full of righteous indignation quite like Christopher Plummer, but this part tends to run a little long. Yes, the why of the crimes is arguably more important than the who with respect to this story, but it’s still just information being delivered via speech, which almost never works in movies. Maybe what this part needed was a jury who could murmur excitedly whenever Holmes makes a pronouncement, leading the magistrate to pound his gavel while screaming “Silence in the Court!”
Other supporting cast includes David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough, Genevieve Bujold as Annie Crook, and Susan Clark as Mary Kelly. Donald Sutherland appears briefly as Robert Lees, a self-proclaimed psychic who claims to have had visions of the murderer.
But let’s circle back to James Mason as the perennial sidekick Watson. His interplay with Plummer’s Holmes gives the movie its real heart. Their quest to catch the killer is important to them, but Holmes shows more emotion, and more humanity, when he feels guilty for having squashed the pea Watson was attempting to skewer. It’s a small scene, but wonderfully played and it speaks volumes about the two men’s relationship. Whereas Plummer is given showy speeches, Mason does so much when he protests quietly “Yes, but squashing a fellow’s pea.”Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release of Murder By Decree comes packaged with a pair of audio commentaries. One is from director Bob Clark, and film historians Howard Berger and Steve Mitchell provide the other. It also comes with the usual assortment of theatrical trailers.