Retaining the dark and eerie style he established in 1974’s Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree successfully blends fact and fiction as Sherlock Holmes and Watson go on the trail of Jack the Ripper in this atmospheric and entertaining yarn from 1979. Christopher Plummer and James Mason make an endearing Sherlock and Watson, hamming it up with relish on the right side of pastiche, with terrific support from Donald Sutherland as the seemingly stoned medium Robert Lees, David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough and John Gielgud as the PM. Despite the talent on board Murder By Decree’s A-list supporting cast seem somewhat misplaced in a film baring grimy 70’s horror traits, but perform well with a standard script slightly let down by a dawdling set up.
The film opens with Holmes and Watson being propositioned by some East End locals to investigate the Ripper killings then picks up pace at the suggestion of a conspiracy involving the police investigation and a possible cover up concerning the freemasons. Had this aspect of the story been explored in greater detail, opening the element of threat to the protagonists and developing tension, Murder By Decree would have been a more involving and stimulating thriller. Instead the film mainly focuses on the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the murderous set pieces which makes for enjoyable yet lightweight viewing and feels somewhat lazy and unimaginative considering the wealth of material at hand.
In other superior/later Ripper films (Jack The Ripper, From Hell) the Freemason/radical aspects of the factual account was explored in greater detail, but despite the lack of emphasis in Murder By Decree the film does have its strengths. The smoky, killer POV shots and distorted score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer lend to an unnerving sense of foreboding, perfectly fitting yet somewhat unusual for a Sherlock Holmes film at the time. Many viewers would only be familiar with the top hat and tails Basil Rathbone’s Holmes pictures some forty years before it, or Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles from 1969. The visuals and atmosphere on display in Murder By Decree were not seen again with such a menacing effect until the Hughes brothers’ From Hell in 2001.
Despite the perfect coupling of Christopher Plummer and James Mason, Murder By Decree suffers from hokey dialogue and a sometimes pantomime feel due to the theatrical studio street sets, making it reminiscent of the gothic Hammer Horrors a decade or so previous, in particular the studios own take on the Whitechapel murders Hands Of The Ripper from 1971. As a result, Murder By Decree is just another sub-genre entry with the added novelty of being a fact and fiction hybrid. The second of the year following the sci-fi Jack The Ripper caper Time After Time.
Despite its strengths, the film feels structurally restrained, resorting to a standard detective story template without delving into the Ripper conspiracy elements in more detail, which would have given it some added tension and depth. With more engaging complexities and plot turns to keep the viewer on edge, Murder By Decree would have benefited greatly. But it does boast wonderful performances from the leads and a gnarly horror feel fitting to the source material which makes it enjoyable enough to pass a couple of hours but not relevant to warrant purchasing. For horror fans and Ripper/Holmes enthusiasts only.