Murder by Decree (1979)
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The movie displays a first-rate set design and is very atmospheric . The shady and spooky slums are pretty well designed . Some shots create creepy and horror moments . The film blends thriller , suspense , detective action , terror and a little gore and is quite interesting . Acting by Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes is excellent , likeness to Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett as TV Sherlock ; furthermore James Mason as Watson is sublime . Other secondary actors are David Hemmings , Susan Clark , Frank Finlay , Genevieve Bujold , all of them are splendid . In 2002 the Hughes Brothers made a special version with Johnny Depp titled "From Hell" . Rating: 7 , above average . Well worth seeing .
This was released and died VERY quickly in 1979. I'm probably one of the few people who saw it in a theatre. The critics almost unanimously praised it, it had a huge cast of good actors...but it just died. That's too bad because this is a very good Sherlock Holmes film.
It's atmospheric (LOTS of foggy streets), has exquisite production design and is beautifully directed by Bob Clark (I love the way the first murder is done--very effective). Also the acting is great. Plummer gives a very good, different interpretation of Holmes--he makes him more emotional than other actors have...but it works. Mason nicely underplays the role of Watson--he does not make him a bumbling fool like Nigel Bruce did back in the 1940s. In small roles Susan Clark, John Gielgud and especially Genevieve Bujold are excellent. Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quayle and David Hemmings unfortunately are not that good.
There are some problems with this movie though. It's too long (a long sequence involving Watson and some prostitutes could have been completely cut) and is needlessly convoluted. Also they throw politics in the plot which seems out of place. And, strangely, Holmes' deductive reasoning is almost never used. He comes across more as a protector of the people than a detective. Plummer's performance though carries it through. It's quite bloody too--not enough for an R rating but pretty strong for the PG it got back then (PG-13 wasn't a rating yet).
Reservations aside though, I think this is one of the best Holmes' film ever made. Recommended.
My Grade: B+
DVD Extras: Commentary by Bob Clark; poster and stills gallery; Behind-the-scenes still gallery; Talent bios; and theatrical trailer
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound format: Mono
London, 1888: Whilst investigating a series of murders committed by 'Jack the Ripper', Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (James Mason) uncover a Masonic conspiracy which leads them to the very heart of the British Establishment.
During the summer of 1973, the BBC ran a six-part documentary series entitled "Jack the Ripper" (also known as "The Ripper File"), in which two popular fictional detectives (played by Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor) investigated the 'true' identity of Jack the Ripper, using all the evidence available to them at the time. Their conclusions form the basis of Bob Clark's all-star period thriller MURDER BY DECREE, which condenses vast amounts of information into a single digestible screenplay. The film's lavish recreation of Victorian London (extravagant opera houses, cobbled streets and miles of gloomy Whitechapel alleyways populated by hundreds of costumed extras) belies its modest $4m budget, and for once, the starry supporting cast - including Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings, John Gielgud and Donald Sutherland - seems perfectly suited to the material.
A combination of Gothic thriller and historical whodunnit, John Hopkins' comprehensive screenplay outlines the social and political divisions which prevailed in England at the time of the Ripper murders, hindering the police investigation and prompting a number of conspiracy theories which persist to this day. However, the script also contains a number of memorable character touches (the episode of the 'errant pea' is most prized by fans) which prevents the narrative from surrendering to mere facts and figures. Plummer and Mason are ideal as Holmes and Watson, though Genevieve Bujold almost steals the film during a heartbreaking sequence in which Holmes looks for clues in a crumbling asylum. You may not agree with the film's conclusions - the same evidence was re-evaluated by author Stephen Knight in his popular non-fiction account 'Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution' (1976) and David Wickes' excellent TV movie JACK THE RIPPER (1988) starring Michael Caine - but MURDER BY DECREE is generally acknowledged as one of the best Ripper/Holmes movies ever made.
Incidentally, the film's PG rating seems extraordinarily lenient. While MURDER BY DECREE doesn't exactly revel in violence, it conveys the grislier aspects of the Ripper's crimes with enough potency to warrant a PG-13 (unavailable at the time of this film's initial release).
The characters are believable and well played: Plummer underplays Holmes when so many other actors take him over the top: James Mason is an earthy, skeptical Dr. Watson whose blusterings are amusing without ever become a pain in the tail; we have a cooperative and good-natured Lestrange, a suitably shell-shocked Mary Kelly, and Anthony Quayle puts in not only an incredibly gruff and abrasive performance as Scotland yard's Charles Warren, but also wins the movie's bizarre-makeup award. Donald Sutherland also modestly underplays his role as the sickly psychic with a mustache that Wyatt Earp would have envied. And of course, the unmasked villains are suitably sinister and reek of the madness being perpetrated on the panicky London slum.
Also deserving a nod are John Gielgud and others who play high government officials with the proper stuffy condescension and total disregard for "inferiors" of whatever class or religion, putting the stability of the monarchy far above those the ruling class are supposed to be caring for. It's hard to visualize Holmes an an insurrectionist, but if this was not the appropriate situation, nothing would be.
This film would merit a 10 out of 10 except for the peculiar character played by David Hemmings, who seemed out of place to begin with and brought too much attention to himself as someone to keep an eye on, as if he were a walking clue for the more inattentive viewer. Good performance, just an awkward and blatant addition to the story characters.
Forget the drug-hazed and farcical Johnny Depp character of FROM HELL: rather, watch the clear-headed relentless Holmes take on Saucy Jack with such a fervency that he overlooks more hidden, sinister forces attempting to steer him towards satisfying their own ends....
Christopher Plummer gives a fine performance as the great sleuth, his performance as Holmes is almost as powerful as Jeremy Brett's, I was also impressed to see a rarely seen side to Holmes' character – emotion. James Mason is also on fine form in the role of the faithful friend Dr John Watson.
The dedication given to the film by the cast and crew is shown, the camera movements at the scene of the first murder shown in the film is powerful and extremely suspenseful.
This film is a film which should not be missed fans of Sherlock Holmes.
There is widespread speculation, among those of us who consider Sherlock Holmes a very real person, as to his possible role in investigating the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Given Holmes's passion for unsolved mysteries, it seems unlikely that he would not have taken up the Ripper case. And if he did, it seems very unlikely that Holmes would NOT have solved it. So why does the Ripper's identity remain a mystery? Is the Ripper case one of those "unpublished" cases that Dr. Watson occasionally refers to in the Sherlock Holmes stories? If so, why did Watson choose not to publish an account of Holmes's involvement in the Ripper investigation.
"Murder By Decree" answers these questions with true Holmesian style. Christopher Plummer, as Holmes, is a deductive reasoner with an ounce of compassion and a sharp sense of justice. James Mason, as Watson, is not a bungler, but is an active, intelligent aide to Holmes's investigation. And we have scenes that are mainstays of the classic Holmes tales, including the chase through dark, foggy, gaslit streets, and a visit by hansom cab to a dark foreboding asylum, which resembles Baskerville Hall.
And then there's the Ripper, the ultimate unsolved mystery. The movie places Holmes among real-life characters in the Ripper drama, such as Charles Warren, Robert Lees, Mary Kelly, Annie Crook, and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. It re-creates the murder scenes with historical accuracy. It shows us the East End as it was (and more or less still is): A horrific maze of alleys that is the perfect stalking ground for a predator like the Ripper. The shots from the Ripper's POV, moving through a maze of dark, foggy alleys, accompanied by ominous footsteps and heavy breathing, are particularly scary. This air of mystery surrounding this unknown fiend is partially why the Ripper murders are remembered even today.
The movie takes one of the more imaginative Ripper theories (the "Prince Eddy/Annie Crook" conspiracy) as its explanation for why Holmes and Watson kept silent about their involvement in the case. The movie becomes exceptional when Holmes himself becomes a victim of the conspirators. Holmes discovers to his horror that he has been used. The conspirators have purposely set him on the Ripper's trail, knowing that he will lead them to the elusive Mary Kelly, who becomes the Ripper's last victim.
Is the "Annie Crook" theory true? Probably not, but it still refuses to die. (The NEXT Ripper movie, "From Hell" starring Johnny Depp, uses the "Annie Crook" theory as its base.) But who cares if it's fiction! It's STILL a terrific "conspiracy theory." And it makes for a case worthy of Holmes, one which he solves but cannot win. He stops the conspirators, but emerges from the case outraged and grief-stricken over having led the murderers to Mary Kelly. A more flawed, more human Holmes we have rarely seen, outside of Jeremy Brett.
But Watson reminds Holmes that Mary Kelly died willingly to protect the bastard child of Annie Crook and Prince Eddy, the source of the Ripper conspiracy. And Holmes, through his investigation of the conspiracy, has insured the child's safety. There is still decency in the world. The closing credits, played to music from Holmes's violin, give a sense that, with the Ripper nightmare over, Holmes and the city of London will emerge into the light once more.
This movie totally draws you in to its dark and sometimes horrifying world, where the seamy underbelly of Victorian life is on display. Congratulations must go the production designer who immerses us in the London fog and dark backstreets of 1880's England. Add a beautiful, haunting score and wonderful direction and this rivals the best thrillers I've ever seen. Highly recommended!
Film pitches Sherlock Holmes (Plummer) and Dr. Watson (Mason) into the hunt for Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, London 1888...
I've been exploited old fellow, by the very people for whom we are searching.
The greatest of detectives searching for Britain's most notorious serial killer, it's a killer pitch that had already had a film made in 1965 called A Study in Terror. That was a film that couldn't quite get it right, here, 14 years later, there's a bigger budget and "A" list gloss to help tell the tale. And boy does it work! In the cannon of Sherlock Holmes, Murder by Decree is to Holmes films what On Her Majesty's Secret Service is to the James Bond franchise. Appertaining to the great detective himself, it's the odd one out, a divisive picture, not because it's rubbish or technically shy, but because the main man protagonist dares to be human, a man of conscious; politically, socially and ethically. He's still the same charming, clever and complex character most have come to know and love, but Murder by Decree fronts him out as a human being, with Watson alongside him as a non buffoon bloke doing his bit for the case whilst remaining sensitive about the last pea on his plate! It's these characterisations, splendidly played by two actors of considerable talent, that are at the core of the film's success.
If she dies and you come under my hand? Expect no mercy.
Period production value is high, it has to be for a Jolly Jack based movie. Bring the dark, bring the smog and bring the Victorian costumes (Judy Moorcroft). Then play it out amongst shadowy lamp lighted cobbled streets and let the sets drip with slum London sweat and tears. All that is required then is to have a source story of compelling interest, of which Murder by Decree scores greatly as well. It's fanciful for sure, but the most spectacular of all Ripper theories. From a secret love child to the Freemasons, and up to Royalty itself, it's a potent notion put forward. That is of course conjecture as a solution, but the makers are to be applauded for taking that idea and successfully combining the Arthur Conan Doyle creations with historical reality, something that A Study in Terror fell considerably short on.
Rest of the cast is filled out with some quality as well, where Hemmings, Quayle, Finlay, Gielgud and Bujold don't disappoint, the latter of which gets to really perform with substance in the pivotal scene set in an Asylum. Only real let down is Sutherland, or more like what the makers did (didn't do) with him. His psychic Robert Lees crops up for a couple of small scenes for what we expect will be a telling contribution to the plot, but they aren't. It seems like just an excuse to do Sutherland up like he had just awoken from the grave, and to give the picture some ethereal sheen moments. For the finale and the big reveal of the Ripper, Plummer is simply magnificent. He holds court in front of his peers, including the Prime Minister (Gielgud), and unfurls the explanation with impassioned fortitude, it's then that we realise this was always a Sherlock Holmes movie, and not a Jack the Ripper piece. With that, it's one of the best featuring the Deer Stalker wearing fellow. 9/10
The story is a WHAT IF--what if Sherlock Holmes had been real and actually investigated the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. The story is VERY complex and VERY rewarding. However, I must point out that it's easy to feel a bit lost later in the film and you should NOT stop watching. Stick with it--the payoff is great and everything is tied together very well. I am not sure, however, if Arthur Conan Doyle ever would have written such a story as it's tone is very anti-British Empire! I could say more, but it would spoil the film. Overall, excellent acting, very good writing and direction. Well worth seeing and a commendable effort by all.
Foggy, murky Victorian London has never been better represented than this film. Mist swirling round gas lamps, the hollow echoing clatter of horses hooves on the cobbles and dark spooky alleyways represents exactly how we picture London at the end of the nineteenth century. The depictions of Holmes and Watson stick faithfully to the usual conceptions. Christopher Plummer is perhaps a little too handsome and James Mason rather too old, but the two experienced troupers attack the roles with relish. The plot follows one of the most frequently imagined Ripper scenarios with one or two maybe unnecessary diversions into other areas - Donald Sutherland, as all to often, is given opportunities to dispense thick slices of ham as a medium, but the presence of Anthony Quayle and John Gielgud as senior government officials adds gravitas.
Overall, if you like your Sherlock Holmes to stick to tradition, this is highly recommended.
Holmes and Watson are colleagues and sincere investigators. This Watson is not a bumbling fool. The production value is pretty good considering the cost. The actors are all very high quality. Christopher Plummer is a very effective Holmes. It's a lot of foggy murders but not a lot of action. The plot was reused for the movie "From Hell". It's a pretty good crime investigation.
Victorian era London is perfectly represented, and you also get to see Donald Sutherland in a small but important role as a psychic. Hints of a Masonic conspiracy wrap around the edges of this story, and it ultimately comes out that the Ripper cover up goes up to the highest levels of the English government.
I first saw this movie in its first theater run in 1979, and it's something I'd definitely like to own on DVD for posterity.
Plummer gives (in this reviewer's opinion), his best performance as the pipe smoking and argyle cap wearing detective. While I agree he is one of Britain's greatest gifts to the theatre and cinema, I often took pause with his slow moving speech and frequent stalls in reciting his lines. That is totally missing here, and he gives a relaxed and often humorous performance that isn't as hyper as Rathbone's but just as riveting. Just as outstanding is James Mason, taking over Nigel Bruce's role as Dr. Watson. While slightly bumbling, he isn't as eccentric as Bruce was, and as a result, is taken more seriously. In a nod to Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson in the Rathbone/Bruce films), the brief appearance of Holmes' landlady is hysterically amusing because of the bit actresses' resemblance to the wonderful Ms. Gordon.
As the storyline unfolds, it is obvious that the writers are developing something more sinister than just the whims of a madman killing prostitutes. It is almost devilish in its innuendos as clues are dropped that give enough information to the viewers to guess what is going on, yet keep them intrigued as well. In smaller roles, Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay shine, while brief appearances by "Webster's" Susan Clark (whatever happened to her????) and Genevieve Bujold are extremely haunting.
Why this film was overlooked at awards time is beyond me, especially for Plummer, Mason and its moody photography. Everything about this film is exquisite and with recent, more youthful looks at Holmes and Watson, this entry in the popular series is worth re-discovering.