Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche
Director: Bob Clark
Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)
In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).
It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.
Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).
They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.
It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.
With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.
Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.
There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).
The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.