Following three forays into the horror genre — Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Deathdream and Black Christmas (both 1974) — filmmaker Bob Clark helmed this 1979 fusion of Victorian gothic, a political thriller, and horror tale. An ex-pat American, New Orleans-born Clark is best known for the movies he shot in Canada after moving there in the early ‘70s. Black Christmas, the first production he made entirely in Canada, was a prototypical slasher film that is credited with influencing the whole subgenre, including Carpenter’s Halloween (1979). The same year that Michael Myers first stalked Laurie Strode saw Sherlock Holmes pursue the identity of Jack the Ripper in the Canadian/British co-production Murder by Decree.
The initial seed money for the production was provided by the BBC, and the Anglo-Canadian agreement to make the movie specified that the screenwriter had to be English. Bob Clark considered John Hopkins or Anthony Shaffer for the script. After he hit it off with Clark it was Hopkins, writer of the stalwart British TV police drama Z Cars, who scripted the film, initially entitled Sherlock Holmes and Saucy Jack. Hopkins incorporated ideas from the Stephen Knight nonfiction book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) into his screenplay.
Knight’s book posited a conspiracy involving Freemasons and the Royal Family to protect the reputation of Prince Albert, second in line to the throne, who had had an affair and secret marriage with a working-class woman named Annie Crook. In this theory, Royal surgeon Sir William Gull and two accomplices slaughtered Crook plus her compatriots, who knew of the marriage, in an attempt to snuff out the possibility of knowledge of the relationship reaching mainstream English society and toppling the Crown. Though the story is fanciful and intriguing since the publication of Knight’s book his theory has been discredited and is now known to be incorrect. However, it remains a great yarn and was reused by Alan Moore as the basis for the graphic novel From Hell, published in serial form from 1989-98 and subsequently filmed by the Hughes Brothers in 2001. Hopkins’ script plays up the political conspiracy angle, pitting the mind of Sherlock Holmes against a labyrinthine plot cooked up by the rich and powerful to protect their predatory position at the apex of English society. As such, the sociopolitical themes of the piece still resonate today.
The social and class tensions in the story are evident from the opening scene. Holmes and Watson are in attendance at the Royal Opera House, and after the Prince turns up tardy, the lower classes in the cheap seats strike up a chorus of boos. Watson saves the day by striking up a chorus of “God save his Royal Majesty!” from the toffs. Holmes later questions why he hasn’t been called upon to help in the Ripper murders by the authorities; the answer will become evident and lies within the opposition of rich/royalist to poor/radical. If it was the West end, the murderer would have been caught by now, the Citizens Committee formed by the working class denizens to catch the Ripper tells Holmes. The detective is later accused of working for radicals and is warned that Chief of Police and Freemason Sir Charles Warren has “secret friends.” The conflict between lower class “radicals” and upper class aristocracy runs throughout the story, leading to a talky but powerful denouement with Holmes facing off against three representatives of the rich and powerful.
At the centre of the conspiratorial web, Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) are deliberately humanized by Hopkins and Clark and warmly interpreted by the veteran actors. Peter O’Toole was originally scheduled to play Holmes, but a timing conflict scuttled that plan. Christopher Plummer was Clark’s second choice, and he brings a cordiality yet steeliness to the part. Holmes is portrayed with the well-known iconography that has come to be associated with the character. The first shot of Plummer has him emptying his famous pipe; later he wears the cape and deerstalker. This makes the later inclusion of psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) all the more incongruous. Mason is simply wonderful as stalwart-for-the-Crown Watson, a position that will be sorely tested when the true depth of the political coverup is revealed. But it’s in the interactions between the two characters that the lead performances truly shine. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is shot through with a rich vein of friendly humour that is endearing and gives the film its heart.
The supporting cast is quite something: David Hemmings; Frank Finlay; John Gielgud; Anthony Quayle; and Donald Sutherland. However, it’s Genevieve Bujold that makes the greater overall impact, brilliantly playing the tragic Annie Crook. Her scenes with Plummer in an insane asylum induce both sadness and anger at the fate of this poor woman.
Thanks to outdoor shooting and some brilliant set design and miniatures, Murder by Decree has a visually sumptuous look. Much location work was done in London, including the London Naval College, Southwark Cathedral, the Tate Gallery, and Twickenham Bridge. The East End docks were recreated on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios as they no longer existed in their Victorian state. A total of seventeen various streets and alleyways were built at Elstree Studios, including a recreation of Whitechapel’s main street, supervised by production designer Harry Pottle. Several miniatures, usually shot with a haze or mist, impart a sense of time and place while locating the story in a fantasy gothic landscape.
Clark’s horror background is evident during the Ripper attacks, when the film moves into stalk and slash mode complete with point of view camera and a giallo-like closeup of the killer’s eyes. At times the Ripper scenes become tangibly eerie, through the use of slow motion and touches like a hansom cab being engulfed by the mist of a London peasouper. There are moments where the film positively drips with atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Clark’s knack for interesting framing and some superb set decoration.
Murder by Decree was a critical success in Canada. At the 1980 Genie Awards, the Canuck version of the Oscars, the production snagged five awards: Director, Bob Clark; Actor, Christopher Plummer; Supporting Actress, Geneviève Bujold; Editing, Stan Cole; and Musical Score, Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer. (The Changeling, a key Canadian genre film, also scored big at the 1980 Genies.)
Easily one of the most interesting Sherlock Holmes pictures, Murder by Decree is a consistently engaging and evocative syncretism of Victorian detection, political conspiracy, and chilling gothic horror. Though it’s technically not a horror picture, it’s worth a look for all horror fans.
Kino Lorber. Region A. Feature: 91 mins. Aspect ratio 1.85:1.
The transfer is vibrant, with dark, inky blacks, and maintains the grain inherent to the film and the softness of some of the visuals (those draped with fog, for instance). It’s a welcome boost in picture quality over the old Anchor Bay DVD.
- Audio commentary by Director Bob Clark — The filmmaker provides a rich vein of details about the production and his directorial choices.
- Audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell — A breezy and informative conversation about the movie by two obvious fans.
Overall, Kino’s blu ray of Murder by Decree is highly recommended and should please all present and future admirers of this wonderful little gem.