• Murder By Decree

    Released by: Umbrella Entertainment
    Released on: October 5, 2017
    Director: Bob Clark
    Cast: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Frank Finlay, Donald Sutherland, and Genevieve Bujold
    Year: 1979

    The Movie:

    “The game’s afoot. No time to lose.”

    Murder by Decree is a handsome and witty suspense thriller from the late director Bob Clark in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend and colleague Dr. John Watson engage in an investigation of the Jack the Ripper slayings that terrorized London’s poverty-stricken Whitechapel district in 1888 and had authorities baffled as to the identity of the Ripper and their motivations for murdering several prostitutes.

    The film was one of a series of theatrical Holmes adventures made throughout the 1970’s, including Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Herbert Ross’ The Seven-Per-Cen Solution, and with Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins (The Offense) marrying the analytical detective work of Doyle’s unbeatable detective to the atmospheric fright and fear of the director’s influential horror classic Black Christmas, it was also one of the darkest Holmes tales ever brought to the silver screen.

    In roles originally intended for Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier (the latter having played Holmes’ longtime nemesis Professor Moriarty in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), Christopher Plummer and James Mason respectively portray Holmes and Watson. The intrepid detecting duo are called upon one evening at the 221B Baker Street apartment they call home by a group of concerned Whitechapel merchants to investigate the Ripper murders for fear that their businesses will continue to suffer as long as the killer is on the loose. Clues gathered and witnesses (including a psychic played by Donald Sutherland) interviewed point to a possible conspiracy linked to the Freemasons, but any cooperation with Holmes’ and Watson’s investigation from the police is stonewalled by Scotland Yard chief Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), and potential associates of the Ripper are watching the detectives’ every move and attempting to intimidate anyone who might be able to help them uncover the methodical psychopath’s true identity and bring them to justice.

    Screenwriter Hopkins drew his inspiration for its original story of Murder by Decree from Stephen Knight’s 1976 non-fiction bestseller Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, the same speculative tome that also helped fuel the creation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s classic underground comic series From Hell (and the 2001 film directed by Allen and Albert Hughes that it inspired). Only Hopkins had the change the names of the chief conspirators working against the heroes in his tale. Under the direction of Bob Clark, a consummate journeyman filmmaker who excelled at chilly horror (Deathdream, the aforementioned Black Christmas) and audience-pleasing comedy (Porky’s, A Christmas Story), Decree is a ripping first-rate detective yarn with excellent depictions of the legendary Misters Holmes and Watson, a rich cast of supporting players for stars Plummer and Mason to match wits with, and a twisty narrative that nevertheless manages to squeeze in moments of pure emotional amidst the mayhem and machinations.

    Plummer is terrific as Sherlock Holmes, an underrated portrayal of the great detective that is ripe for reappraisal, and the master thespian of stage and screen easily finds the heart at the center of the character’s cool deductive reasoning and charming eccentricity. Having insisted before taking the role that Holmes’ right-hand man wouldn’t be the comic bumbler other actors have played him as, James Mason brings soul and a calm authority to Dr. Watson and makes him Sherlock’s conscience with the ease of a true professional getting to work with meaty material for a change. The two performers share a warm, authentic chemistry that makes their scenes together the highlight of Murder by Decree. It’s a shame that Plummer and Mason didn’t reprise the roles in future screen mysteries. That really could have been something. The mind boggles at the greatness we were deprived without realizing it.

    Every major supporting role was cast with a well-known actor who plays their part, however limited in screen time they may be, with a respect for the material. I wish there had been a little more of Frank Finlay (The Wild Geese, Lifeforce) as Inspector Lestrade, Holmes’ confidant in Scotland Yard, and David Hemmings (Blow-Up, Deep Red) as a police detective with suspect motives for his involvement in the investigation. Genevieve Bujold (Dead Ringers, Obsession) supplies Murder by Decree with its damaged soul in a brief but tender scene as a woman named Annie Crook who plays a key role in the Ripper conspiracy. Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia) is good as the haughty and distrusting Sir Charles Warren, while John Gielgud (Gandhi) is brought in in the final scenes to play the Prime Minister with every ounce of his decades-old acting experience. The small parts played by Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now) as the troubled psychic and Susan Clark (Coogan’s Bluff) add much to a pretty crowded story.

    Clark’s film was surprisingly violent for a PG-rated, even one released at the end of the 1970’s when one could get away with more than that rating permits today, but the director doesn’t wallow in the bloodshed and corpses. The fog-choked cobblestone streets and alleyways of Whitechapel, recreated on soundstages in England’s fabled Shepperton and Elstree studios by production designer Harry Pottle (The Wilby Conspiracy) and art director Peter Childs (The Abyss), give Clark all the menacing mood and atmosphere he requires to transport his audience into the Victorian-era horror and mystery of Jack the Ripper’s murderous reign. With a running time of 124 minutes and not much plot to fill it, the pacing on Murder by Decree occasionally drags as certain scenes are allowed to run far longer than they should, but it’s a small price to pay to watch a cast of acting greats performing marvelously under the stewardship of a director who always seemed to be more at home making gripping thrillers like this than the insipid comedies like Porky’s, Loose Cannons, and Baby Geniuses he became best known for later in his career.


    Encoded for Region 4, Murder by Decree’s DVD release from the Australia-based Umbrella Entertainment features a widescreen transfer in the 1.77:1 aspect ratio and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The transfer is likely a preexisting DVD master prepared for an older edition by current rights holder Studio Canal. Though the source elements appear to be in good shape, this film really could have used a fresh high-definition scan.

    Picture quality suffers from a lack of improved detail, drab colors, and a softness in the cinematography by Clark’s frequent collaborator Reginald H. Morris doubtlessly brought about by the filmmakers’ pursuit of a realistic depiction of late 19th century London but regardless often smudges facial details captured in medium shots. Texture is solid in clothing and scenery, but night scenes can sometimes look too dark and murky for the action to be visible. All in all, it’s a good transfer, but a film of this age and regard could really do with a HD restoration post haste.

    The 2.0 track presents a serviceable but highly flawed mono mix in which dialogue is often indecipherable when music and ambient effects come into play. The rest of the time, everything comes through with decent clarity and distortion is never an issue. No subtitles have been provided.

    There are no extra features on this DVD. It doesn’t even have a start-up menu. The film begins playing after the Umbrella Entertainment logo when the disc is loaded, but if you keep watching after the end credits you’ll see the original U.S. theatrical trailer. It’s a shame the supplements from Anchor Bay’s 2003 Region 1 DVD couldn’t be secured as they included an audio commentary with the sadly missed Bob Clark.

    The Final Word:

    Murder by Decree is an enjoyably tense and fun thriller and one of the most underrated Sherlock Holmes movies ever produced. Bob Clark’s direction and the performances by a stellar cast headed by the great Christopher Plummer and James Mason make this film a real winner than fans of cinematic mysteries will find very rewarding. I can’t say as much for Umbrella Entertainment’s DVD release, which only has a decent transfer of the film to recommend its purchase since supplements are nowhere to be found. Until a superior Blu-ray edition arrives on the market with an improved HD transfer and informative extras, Region 4 DVD viewers will have to make do with this disc.