Movie Review: MURDER BY DECREE (1979)
By Michael Arruda
Today on SCREAMING STREAMING! it’s MURDER BY DECREE (1979), an atmospheric mystery/thriller that pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it’s now available on streaming video.
I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979 . I was especially intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper storyline . Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of Jack the Ripper movies since then, and so the plot points and revelations made here in MURDER BY DECREE regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper don’t possess the power they once did.
And if you’ve seen any movies or read any books about Jack the Ripper (and who hasn’t?), the plot of MURDER BY DECREE offers nothing new . Yes, prostitutes are being viciously murdered in Whitechapel by Jack the Ripper, and the world’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) is called in to investigate, along with his partner Dr. Watson (James Mason).
A psychic named Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) informs Holmes that he believes the Ripper murders are the result of a government conspiracy, and the clues that Holmes and Watson uncover during their investigation seem to back up this premise . Holmes is led to Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), who confides in him that she is protecting her friend Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold) and her child from threats which she intimates are from the highest positions in the British government, including the crown itself . Holmes finds Crook in an insane asylum, and what he learns from her confirms his theory regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper . He and Watson then set out to catch the Ripper and expose the conspiracy.
If you’re looking for an atmospheric period piece, you can’t go wrong with MURDER BY DECREE . The film looks terrific, as it depicts 19th century London at its foggy best . It has the look of the Hammer Films period pieces from the 1950s and 1960s .
And if you’re looking for good acting by veterans of the field, MURDER BY DECREE satisfies here as well . The film enjoys strong acting performances, especially from its two leads: Christopher Plummer, as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason, as Dr. Watson. They share an amiable chemistry, and when they are onscreen together, they are fun to watch . The rest of the cast is also excellent.
The film even gets off to a good start with some creepy murders in the London fog .
But then it slows down halfway through and never really picks up again . Towards the end, when the story should be picking up steam, it falters, and its conclusion, whereby Holmes explains all that he has learned and proved, is interesting, but it’s nothing new nor all that dramatic.
Even though there are some eerie murder scenes, MURDER BY DECREE is rated PG, so don’t expect much blood and gore . FROM HELL (2001), this ain’t! Further complicating matters is that some of the key murder and action scenes are shot in slow motion, and this doesn’t work at all, as it only results in slowing down the suspense.
The two main reasons to see MURDER BY DECREE, then, are the strong acting performances from its veteran cast, and the atmospheric photography of this period piece thriller.
Christopher Plummer is very good as Sherlock Holmes, and he plays the world’s greatest detective as a more compassionate and human man than he’s usually portrayed in the movies . Plummer’s Holmes is also very emotional, especially when the investigation brings him closer to the lives—and deaths— of the women he’s investigating .
James Mason, one of my all-time favorite actors, makes a very likeable Dr. Watson . Mason was an accomplished actor who starred in all types of films, and he enjoyed some memorable roles in genre movies, from the heroic Sir Oliver Lindenbrook in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), to the conniving Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973), to the evil Straker in Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT (1979), to name just a few . Here, he makes a very distinguished Watson, applying some understated humor to the role.
The rest of the cast is full of veterans of the field . David Hemmings, a popular actor from the 1960s, who I remember most from movie roles in the 1970s, plays Inspector Foxborough, a Scotland Yard inspector with ulterior motives . Hemmings made a ton of movies, and one of his last was THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) with Sean Connery, before his death later that year at age 62.
Frank Finlay plays Inspector Letrade, and he’s another actor I’ve always enjoyed, from his performances in Richard Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS movies in the 1970s to Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE (1985), that bizarre space/vampire movie that should be on everyone’s “must see at least once” list . Finlay was also in THE PIANIST (2002), the film in which Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar, but my all-time favorite Finlay role was his portrayal of Professor van Helsing in the 1977 Great Performances production of COUNT DRACULA, a neat and faithful retelling of Bram Stoker’s tale . Alas, as good as Finlay is, he doesn’t do much here in MURDER BY DECREE.
Donald Sutherland fares better as psychic Robert Lees, and his performance serves as a solid reminder as to why he was such a popular actor in the 1970s . Genevieve Bujold makes the most of her one scene as Annie Crook, so much so that she delivers probably the best performance in the film, other than Plummer and Mason . She’s really good . Susan Clark is also very good as the tragically doomed Mary Kelly.
MURDER BY DECREE was directed by Bob Clark, the man most famous for directing the Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) . Of course, Clark is also known for a less family-oriented Christmas movie, the 1974 Christmas horror movie BLACK CHRISTMAS, starring Margot Kidder . Clark also directed PORKY’S (1982) . Quite the varied resume!
MURDER BY DECREE doesn’t showcase Clark’s best work . The film lacks effective pacing, and the murder scenes don’t really pack the punch that they should, hindered by the annoying slow-motion photography .
John Hopkins wrote the screenplay . Hopkins is one of the writers who worked on the Sean Connery Bond film THUNDERBALL (1965) . In MURDER BY DECREE, there’s entertaining dialogue between Holmes and Watson, but there’s not much else that makes this one special in terms of writing .
Neither the direction nor the writing does much in the way of building suspense in this movie.
I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979, but watching it now, all these years later, it doesn’t hold up all that well . It’s a beautifully photographed movie, it enjoys solid acting, and the first third of its story is rather compelling, but then it slows down and it remains slow all the way to its dramatic revelations, which, if you know the Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories, really aren’t that dramatic or surprising.
MURDER BY DECREE is one of those movies that, if you catch it in the right frame of mind, you might like it, but the fact is, there are better Sherlock Holmes movies, and there are better Jack the Ripper movies .
Watching MURDER BY DECREE is like looking at a mediocre painting . It catches your eye, and as you stay to look at it, you like what you see, but before long you tire of the experience and move on, and since it didn’t knock your socks off, you see no need to look at it again.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda