Presumably inspired by the success of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer about Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Sigmund Freud—and by the favorable reception for the terrific 1976 movie adaptation of Meyer’s book—this ambitious mystery film pits Holmes against a real-life murderer, Jack the Ripper. That’s where things get a little complicated. First off, Meyer was not involved with Murder by Decree, but he made a wholly separate 1979 movie about Jack the Ripper called Time After Time. Furthermore, Murder by Decree is based on two separate books. They are Murder by Decree, a 1975 tome that Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd adapted from their own 1973 BBC miniseries Jack the Ripper, and Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, a 1976 book by Stephen Knight. Oh, and neither of those books features Sherlock Holmes. Confused? Me, too. Moving on!
Murder by Decree is predicated on two gimmicks. First is the novelty of pairing Holmes with a real-life mystery, and second is the conspiracy theory detailed in the books upon which the film is based. Without giving away anything that isn’t hinted at by the title, the theory holds that Jack the Ripper was a member of the British aristocracy who had official sanction for his horrific crimes. Murder by Decree has many fans—deservedly so, since it’s a consistently intelligent and sophisticated film—though one wishes the producers had demonstrated more confidence in the source material, since the Holmes contrivance makes the whole picture feel a bit fluffy. After all, it’s hard to buy into a conspiracy theory when it’s presented in tandem with one of world literature’s most famous fictional characters. In other words, the story can only be so persuasive since it contains a made-up protagonist. Anyway, notwithstanding the credibility gap (and an overlong running time), Murder by Decree is solid entertainment for grown-ups.
The cast is terrific, with an urbane Christopher Plummer playing Holmes opposite a snide James Mason as Dr. Watson. Supporting players include Frank Finlay and David Hemmings as policemen, plus John Gielgud as the British PM. (Geneviève Bujold and Donald Sutherland also appear.) Orchestrating the whole film is eclectic director Bob Clark, who at this point in his career had just escaped the ghetto of low-budget horror pictures; appropriately, he cloaks Murder by Degree with enough shadows and smoke to fuel a dozen frightfests. The movie comprises lots of skulking about in dark places, as well as interrogating suspects in ornate rooms, so the contrast between posh and seedy locations serves the story well. Still, it’s all a bit long-winded, and Plummer’s quite chilly, making it difficult to invest much emotion while watching the picture. Accordingly, how much you dig Murder by Decree will depend on how intriguing you find the central mystery—and how satisfying you find the ending, which might tie things up a bit too neatly for some tastes.
Murder by Decree: GROOVY