Murder by Decree (1978) reviews and overview

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[Total: 13   Average: 3.1/5]

‘1888: Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of London…’

Murder by Decree is a 1978 Canadian-British horror feature film about Sherlock Holmes investigating the true-life Jack the Ripper murders.

Co-produced and directed by Bob Clark (Black Christmas; Deathdream; Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things) from a screenplay written by John Hopkins (The Holcroft Covenant; Thunderball) based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle and the books The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd and Jack the Ripper – The Final Solution by Stephen Knight.

The movie stars Christopher Plummer (Knives Out; Vampire in Venice; The Pyx; et al), James Mason (Salem’s Lot 1979; Frankenstein: The True Story), David Hemmings, (The Survivor; Thirst; Deep Red), Susan Clarke, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Frank Finlay (Lifeforce; Twisted Nerve; The Deadly Bees), Donald Sutherland and Geneviève Bujold.

Sherlock Holmes has previously encountered Jack the Ripper in A Study in Terror (1965). A similar Royal Family conspiracy theme was explored in From Hell (2001).

New Blu-ray release:

Murder by Decree will be released by on Blu-ray in the USA by Kino Lorber Studio Classics on June 23rd 2020. The disc features a 2019 high-definition master by StudioCanal. Buy via Amazon.com

  • Audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell (new)
  • Audio commentary by director Bob Clark
  • Theatrical trailer

Reviews [click links to read more]:

” …the film’s cinematography is overtly stylised in other respects. This isn’t just a foggy London, it’s a soft-focus, smeary one. But Clark makes a lot of other, better choices, particularly with the cast. Christopher Plummer and James Mason are Clark’s Holmes and Watson, and they manage to create a fairly fresh, but very compelling manner for each.” Bleeding Cool

“As a horror film, Murder by Decree is fairly tame and talky, as might be expected. But the tension rarely lifts. Atmosphere is sustained with extending sequences along the dark, twisty, foggy cobblestone streets of 1888 London […] As a mystery, and as a serious treatment of the Whitechapel murders, the film is excellent.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

Buy: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com | Amazon.ca

” …the film has a vivid period touch, with plenty of clever staging and off-kilter angles, and even some dark humor (such as the scene in which Holmes helps Watson capture the last pea on his plate). But the real selling point of this movie is the villain: Jack the Ripper. An excellent cast helps round things out.” Combustible Celluloid

“Although it is well-trodden ground – even back in 1978 – and the plot is a tricky-to-follow tangled web in the intelligent screenplay by John Hopkins, this is an outstanding version of the tale, packed with Victorian East End London atmosphere, suspense and realism.” Derek Winnert

” …takes a popular what-if scenario, Jack the Ripper vs. Sherlock Holmes […] combines that scenario with period production design (the grimy backstreets of London’s East End) and atmospheric cinematography, adds credible, charismatic performances by Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr Watson, into an intelligent, suspenseful, if flawed, film examination of the abuses and corruption inherent in unchecked, autocratic power.” e-Film Critic

Murder by Decree will no doubt continue to divide viewers, particularly those with special interests in either Holmes, the Ripper or both. But despite its flaws, it remains a powerful thriller, its conspiracy as convincingly sketched as is possible given how outlandishly silly it is (don’t think about it too much or it simply crumbles away to nothing) and the fantastic cast are worth the price of admission alone.” EOFFTV

Murder By Decree is not exactly helped by the casting of Christopher Plummer who makes a colourless Sherlock Holmes. That said, James Mason fares far better and gives a superbly droll performance as Dr Watson. Director Bob Clark plays up the atmosphere well, creating a densely fog-laden London of narrow streets with some claustrophobic chill.” Moria

“While the film is never particularly frightening, Clark displays a workmanlike ability to create an atmosphere of palpable dread. Even seedy cod-Victorian London during the day, with its ever-shifting light patterns and labyrinthine streets, is given a sense of shuddery menace. The widescreen transfer highlights the judicious use of Steadicam and the seamless combination of sets, locations and miniatures give the film a vintage, handmade feel.” Pop Matters

“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…” Rock! Shock! Pop!

“The film wields a dedication to evoking an intensely physical sense of decaying environments that was a particularly strong trait of late ‘70s cinema, turning that evocation into a kind of cosmic paradigm with Whitechapel becoming a battleground where class war is enacted in the apparel of psychotic monstrosity. The feeling of voyeuristic malignancy and reactionary madness infesting like mould blight that Clark articulated so well in Black Christmas resurges…” This Island Rod

“Although it’s a neat idea, I wonder how good a match the classic detective and the real-life serial killer are, for they are at odds with each other. The reason the Ripper endures in both history and fiction is that he was never caught and therefore comes with a lot of baggage about nineteenth-century social hypocrisy, the failings of the authorities and plain and simple chills.” The Spinning Image

“Stellar performances from all involved here, especially from Plummer who lends Holmes just the right degree of pragmatism, painted with a thoughtful sensitivity we haven’t necessarily seen in the character before. Director Bob Clark does a magnificent job of recreating Victorian-era London, complemented by a classy score from composer Paul Zaza.” The Terror Trap

“There is action aplenty, especially as the film nears its conclusion. The highlight, a dockside battle wherein Holmes wields a lethal weight tied to his scarf, is exhilarating. Christopher Plummer and James Mason are excellent as Holmes and Watson, as is the first-rate supporting cast. Though the script is a bit dense and the film slightly overlong, it’s exciting and engrossing on all levels.” TV Guide

“While the overlong story may get you to squirm in your seat a little at times, there are some other compensations not previously mentioned that do distract you from being too annoyed at the movie’s length […] Period detail looks fine, from the costumes and props to the real-life London locations chosen to shoot on.” The Unknown Movies

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.com

Murder-By-Decree-novelisation-Robert-Weverka.jpg

Cast and characters:

  • Christopher Plummer … Sherlock Holmes
  • James Mason … Doctor John H. Watson
  • David Hemmings … Inspector Foxborough
  • Susan Clark … Mary Kelly
  • Anthony Quayle … Sir Charles Warren
  • John Gielgud … Prime Minister Lord Salisbury
  • Frank Finlay … Inspector Lestrade
  • Donald Sutherland … Robert Lees
  • Geneviève Bujold … Annie Crook
  • Chris Wiggins … Doctor Hardy
  • Tedde Moore … Mrs Lees (as Teddi Moore)
  • Peter Jonfield … William Slade
  • Roy Lansford … Sir Thomas Spivey
  • Catherine Kessler … Carrie
  • Ron Pember … Makins
  • June Brown … Anne Chapman
  • Ken Jones … Dock Guard
  • Terry Duggan … Danny
  • Hilary Sesta … Catherine Eddowes
  • Anthony May … Lanier
  • Betty Woolfe … Mrs Dobson
  • Iris Fry … Elizabeth Stride
  • Geoffrey Russell … Home Secretary Henry Matthews
  • Peggy Ann Clifford … Lees’ Housekeeper
  • Ann Mitchell … Jane
  • Katherine Stark … Molly
  • Elaine Ives-Cameron … Ellen (as Elaine Ives Cameron)
  • Stella Courtney … Betty
  • Judy Wilson … Emily
  • Roy Pattison … Carroll
  • Victor Langley … Prince of Wales
  • Pamela Abbott … Princess Alexandra
  • Robin Marchal … Duke of Clarence
  • Richard Pescud … Doctor (as Richard Pescuid)
  • Pat Brackenbury … Nurse
  • Dan Long … Constable Long
  • Michael Cashman … Constable Watkins
  • Tony Clarkin … Police Sergeant (uncredited)
  • Peter Dean … Police Constable (uncredited)
  • Norman Gay … Distinguished gentleman (uncredited)
  • Jim McManus … Policeman (uncredited)

Technical credits:

  • 124 minutes
  • MetrocolorAspect ratio: 1.85: 1
  • Audio: Mono

Related:

“From Hell…” Jack the Ripper on Screen – article

 

Some image credits: This Island Rod

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