Looking Back At MURDER BY DECREE (1979) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At MURDER BY DECREE (1979)

Tony’s stalking the streets.
Murder By Decree is a thoroughly unusual Sherlock Holmes mystery, in that it pits the fictional Victorian/Edwardian detective and his redoubtable companion, Dr Watson, against a sensational real-life serial killer – the notorious Jack the Ripper.

What’s actually more remarkable than that is that it doesn’t make a complete schlockfest of it.

It really could have done – it’s the equivalent of “Batman V Hitler” in terms of its leaps of reality. But what it actually does is examine, not to say massively popularise, a theory that Jack the Ripper was not in fact a single person, working out of some private, obsessive need to kill women, but that “he” was in fact a conspiracy of people, working with a single clear goal to wipe out some very particular women, who all had knowledge that could shake the British government and even the monarchy to its foundations (in the era before the British public became unshockable).

The story is significantly influenced by a non-fiction but moderately polemical investigation into the Ripper case by Stephen Knight, the optimistically-titled Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution.

The premise of that book is that the Ripper murders were the result of a conspiracy and that high-ranking freemasons in the government and the police colluded to keep the secrets of the killers.

In itself, it’s only one among a series of potential explanations for the murders. But one thing that infuriates historians at every level is the human capacity to prefer a good story to verifiable fact.

Filmmakers of course prefer a good story, and the idea of an unseen conspiracy reaching from the gutters of London all the way to the throne does make for a fundamentally sound Sherlock Holmes story.

A killer who strikes a particular demographic for reasons unknown. A killer who performs gruesome mutilations on his victims. While most Holmes stories are lacking quite so much grit and gristle, it’s an easy step through the fog for our minds to make, to put Holmes and the Ripper in the same universe, the same streets, and the same battle.

Chrisopher Plummer is Holmes for this cinematic outing, and while he touches some Holmes base notes – the pipe, the violin, the cryptic statements – he’s a more living, breathing, fundamentally socially aware Holmes than we might be used to in recent decades. Rather than a high-functioning sociopath, Plummer is actually closer to Holmes as written – very acutely aware of class, poverty, riches, and the tensions and attitudes which exist between the strata of his society.

That said, he’s rarely anything like as eccentric or piercing as the greatest versions of the character – there’s little, for instance, of Jeremy Brett’s manic consumptive energy about the Holmes of Murder By Decree. At least until the end, when he has a great speech denouncing all those who would trample the little people to keep their own immoral secrets, he’s a Holmes who looks like he’s up for anything unless it gets his hair messed up.

Even on a couple of occasions when he’s required to fall down, Plummer’s is a very stage-acted Holmes, falling gently, and never actually hitting the head that’s supposed to be concussed in the incident. As Holmes then, he’s somewhat in the beta league. More socially aware than some parodical versions, but also far too fundamentally nice to be the full-on red-blooded Holmes of the books and the best adaptations.

James Mason, on the other hand, makes a first-class Dr Watson. Active, useful, and not without the strain of exasperation for his colleague’s behaviour that is present in the books, Mason is very much the active terrier in this adventure, going down among the street women to find out more about Mary Kelly, being heavy-handedly propositioned, and then dealing with the demands of a roughneck pimp. Mason’s Watson is occasionally in danger of being too good for the Holmes he has, though with a seemingly gentlemanly restraint, he reins in his performance where necessary to allow the pairing to work well together.

While the cast is crammed with top-flight actors, restraint is a quality many of them share in this production, from John Gielgud as the Prime Minister to Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren, to David Hemmings as the always-mysteriously-there Inspector Foxborough.

Even an almost unrecognisable Frank Finlay as the ever-necessary Inspector Lestrade plays the role and the lines relatively straight and keeps himself from eating too much furniture, allowing the central duo of Holmes and Watson, but more importantly the interesting and fact-studded plot, to take the audience’s main store of attention.

No-one appears to have sent Donald Sutherland the memo, though. As psychic medium Robert Lees, he’s distinctly ‘out there,’ his eyes suitably bulging and with joyously mad hair, meaning that while Lees’ part in the film is more or less that of a link in a chain of circumstances (he claims to have seen the Ripper both in a vision and, incongruously enough, on public transport by light of day, but been unable to rouse any police support to question the stranger, who subsequently got away), he remains an unforgettable part of the movie.

The story, written by John Hopkins, makes a certain sense if you don’t stand still too long – and Murder By Decree never does. The central idea is that the Prince of Wales is an ungovernable philanderer, who took up with a low sort (Annie Crook, played by Genevieve Bujold), went through some form of deeply hush-hush marriage with her, got her pregnant and then unceremoniously legged it back to the high life.

So far, so everyday life for some in the British Royal Family.

How that turns into the Ripper murders though is the business that Holmes and Watson are set to detect throughout the course of Murder By Decree, cutting through a web of lies that also involves a group of anti-royalist revolutionaries in both high and low places (with the joyous Ron Pember vocal among their number as Mr Makins), and a plot to show the royals up for the uncaring scum they’re believed to be.

There’s a degree of justification for this, given that Annie Crook ends up in an asylum, drugged off her face to stop her talking and telling her story to any more of her friends and acquaintances. Though whether this is done by royal decree, government instruction, or simple hot-headed zealotry isn’t revealed until close to the end of the film, when Holmes has had the chance to work it out – and lead the killer to another victim in the process.

There’s a good deal of atmosphere in Murder By Decree – to some extent it prints the legend of Victorian London legend – foggy streets, deep class division and tension, and all.

The Sherlock Holmes elements though are occasionally rather crowbarred in – Plummer’s Holmes gets to wear one of his famous disguises, but the reason why he does so is at least somewhat spurious. And, where normally, Sherlock Holmes is consulted by the Powers That Be, in Murder By Decree, it’s notable that the Powers That Be want him to stay the hell away from the case as much as his nose will let him, and the people who want him commissioned to investigate are those who want to bring down the status quo – by solving a multiple murder case.

Does that hang together?

Yyyyyes, but only just. The cunning element taken from Stephen Knight’s book on the Ripper killings is that while there may have been a conspiracy, and there may have been some sort of royal connection, the key thing to keep in mind is that there was police corruption, rooted not so much in race or class, but in freemasonry.

Yes, absolutely, on the face of it, that sounds ludicrous, and – for the record – most freemasons are groovy people who wouldn’t dream of colluding to pervert the course of justice and/or murder sex workers. But Knight’s book details occasions where judges have refused to convict criminals on the grounds of an avowed masonic brotherhood, and it’s certainly true that in the 1980s, the Metropolitan Police was rife with masonic corruption and had to be investigated as a result. Even today, the impartiality of the Metropolitan Police comes under daily and increasing scrutiny.

Put that together with the tendency of ultra-loyal lickspittles to jump any foreseeable gun, and it’s jussssst plausible enough that there would have been some ultra-zealous masons who’d have been prepared to cover something as thoroughly ghastly as the Ripper murders up. Plausible enough for a Sherlock Holmes movie, at any rate.

So what does Murder By Decree actually give us?

Well, we get a Holmes who’s had his less attractive qualities rounded off, along with some of his dynamic energy – Disney Holmes, in fact. We get a well-crafted, just-about-plausible merging of the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and real life true crime investigation. We get an interesting, if never completely compelling, reworking of the Ripper case that brings in royalty, the British government, a corrupt network of freemasons, and a gang of would-be revolutionists, determined to expose all this through the auspices of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.

All played out by a bunch of immense acting talent, and with one of the best Dr Watsons ever laid down on film.

There’s just enough character fun to keep the grisly business and the conspiracy theory bobbing along, and all in all, it’s a diverting way to spend an hour and a half – particularly around the Jubilee if you’re not especially into bunting and street parties. Take a trip back to the Victorian era, and watch one of the handsomest of Holmes’ take on Jack the Ripper on Britbox instead.

Watch Murder By Decree today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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