Murder By Decree (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jack the Ripper exposed.

Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) is asked to investigate the killings of prostitutes by Jack the Ripper and the clues lead to a massive conspiracy that goes all the way up to the British Royalty.

This rendition of the Holmes versus Ripper theme is fun and handsomely produced. My favorite element was the recreation of the dark, dingy, atmospheric streets of old London. The fog, lighting, and sounds of carriages going over the cobblestone streets is perfect and I wanted to see even more of it. The killings are surprisingly graphic, the strangulation of a woman near the beginning looks  quite realistic as does the stabbing of another man in which you can see, from the side, a sword going right through him.

The supporting cast is a treat and includes an almost unrecognizable Anthony Quayle in a beard and a wig, as well as John Gielgud, David Hemmings, Genvieve Bujold, Donald Sutherland, Frank Finley, and Susan Clark. Clark gives the strongest performance in the crucial role of Mary Kelly. She speaks with a believable British accent despite the fact that she was not a native. Sutherland is the only one that is wasted as his character is dull and his screen-time limited.

Both Plummer and James Mason in the role of Dr. Watson are terrific actors, but I don’t know if I was completely sold with them in these parts. Plummer is too polished, handsome, and always displaying a sneering type of grin that I never pictured Holmes having. I would have wanted the character to be just a bit more aloof, awkward, and detached.  Mason is fine, but the chemistry between the two doesn’t seem genuine. I expected more comic interplay. There is some, but not enough. The best moment is the pea scene, which is a howl and written by Mason.

The case is elaborate and well thought out. Normally I find with these types of stories that if you aren’t paying careful attention, or miss one line of dialogue that you become lost and confused, which fortunately did not happen here.  It stays intriguing and the logic is sound for the most part. The wrap-up at the end in which Holmes explains the case and solves the mystery while discussing it in front of the Prime Minister (Gielgud) is satisfying and complete. However, I got a real kick out of the fact that when Holmes starts his dissertation he has a cut on the side of his face from an altercation that he had with Ripper the day before, but in the fifteen minutes it takes him to delivery his speech it turns into a scar before your very eyes.

SPOILER WARNING!

The few misgivings that I had here was that it does not stand out from the myriad of other films that have been done on the same subject.  The mystery and conspiracy angle is interesting, but speculative with no bearing on the actual case. The fact that they turn the Ripper character into being just a couple of idiots who didn’t know what they were doing is clever in one way, but disappointing in a other because it destroys the mystique that has become the Ripper legend and becomes anti-climactic in the process.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bob Clark

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

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