Murder by Decree (1979)


Our rating: 3 out of 5

Rated: PG

reviewed by Charity Bishop


Few pastiches have the distinction of living up to the original works of Arthur Conan Doyle. There have been many speculations on Sherlock Holmes' involvement in real mysteries like the Jack the Ripper killings in London, and even his pairing of other classic literary figures like Erik, the Phantom of the Paris Opera House. Murder by Decree has the distinction of being a favorite among Sherlockians for its distinctive flavor and complex storyline. It takes the Holmes we know and love to new heights without ever distorting his true nature. It's the "definitive" pairing of Holmes against the infamous Whitechapel murderer. It also comprises one of the finest on-screen pairings of the literary sleuth and his faithful associate in Christopher Plummer and James Mason, who manages to redeem the mishandled screen portrayals of Dr. Watson with his surprisingly insightful performance.


London, 1888. Upper class society remains constant under a reasonable monarchy and the expert detective work of the famous man of 221B Baker Street. Beneath the glittering exterior lies a series of complex and barbaric murders in the west end. An unknown fiend has been randomly attacking and slaying prostitutes in Whitehall. Scotland Yard has become involved but show little headway in marking this fiendish assassin who seems to have no reason for his crimes. The interest of Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) has been engaged, but he is unwilling to enter into the case without being invited. He has not long to wait. A group of unidentified "shop keepers" in Whitehall make a plea for his assistance, saying that the police are making no headway and as a result their business is suffering. Holmes shies away from any direct compliance, but undertakes an investigation when notified of the most recent murder -- this one with particularly gruesome details.


His presence in Whitehall is brought to the attention of the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Charles Warren, who warns Holmes not to invade in police matters. Warren is concerned for the impoverished people of the lower district, to whom incriminating evidence is pointed. A message written in chalk on a wall found near the body indicates "Jews" are to blame for the atrocities. But Holmes is not convinced. He receives an anonymous tip leading him to a local medium claiming to have foreseen the crimes. His investigation will lead him to the torrid confines of a mental institution and one young woman's shocking link to a series of crimes against humanity at the orders of a higher power. In this sense, Murder by Decree is both a complex thriller from a purely cinematic standpoint, and also a controversial glimpse into British politics and elite secret societies in the Victorian age.


Where many other pastiches fail, this one succeeds by tying in the social ideals of the age (as well as an avid interest in mysticism, which was growing popular at the time) along with a watertight case of evidence to prove the Ripper killings had more significance than merely random attacks of slaughter. The screenplay manages to be both convincing and intriguing while not allowing the dark humor of Holmes to elude the audience. Lighter moments between Holmes and Watson offer some much-needed comic relief without being too obvious in their intent. Another aspect that came off well is the ability of Christopher Plummer to take a character who has been much maligned in the way of emotional response, and inject into him some humanity. Horror at the killings, a deep sense of grief when discovering he has failed to keep someone alive, unbridled anger at the mistreatment of a young woman. He even collapses when the case is complete, after he has tracked "The Ripper" to his death, proving he is not all-powerful or without mental exhaustion. I was very pleased with James Mason's performance as Dr. Watson. He avoids the bumbling idiot so often associated with the cases (which is very untrue to the books since Watson proved invaluable in many respects) and instead manages to portray a very likable, intelligent physician who just happens to room with the most eccentric man in London. Supporting characters are also well-developed.


The case is difficult to follow at times, though Holmes clears it all up in a dramatic conclusion. It is also a very dark and brooding experience; viewers should be forewarned many alley chases, stalking scenes, and murders take place. The actual killings are never explicitly graphic (except for one early sequence when a woman is strangled to death in a close-up) but are bloody. Blood coats the bodies of the murdered prostitutes and several men who strayed into the way of the fiend. We hear screams as a woman is killed. Two men are stabbed through the chest with a long, slender instrument. A violent battle erupts in which men use dock chains against one another. Becoming entangled in fishing nets, another figure unintentionally hangs himself. There is graphic discussion of the results and a mention of suicide. Profanity is moderate, with many uses of d*mn, bloody, and "Good Lord!" A woman cries out, "Sweet Jesus!" while Holmes is attempting to console her. An inspector accuses Holmes of acting like "God Almighty Sherlock Holmes!"


There is no sexual content, which is surprising considering the "trade" of the women involved. Watson is sent to interrogate the ladies of Whitechapel and one of them comes onto him by flirting and sliding her hand up his leg. She leads him into an alley (he under the presumption of meeting a witness) and turns on him. As previously mentioned, there is a medium in the film. However, there are no séances, attempts to use him to contact the dead prostitutes, or anything potentially evil. He merely makes an appearance in several scenes and recalls flashbacks of "intuition" he had prior to the murders. While it's not quite perfect and many of its elements are disconcerting, I feel this is one of the best Sherlock Holmes films I've seen. The historical ties, as well as the shocking conclusion, make for a dramatic glimpse into the world we've come to associate with powerful reasoning and deductive skills. If you want a film you can dwell on intelligently, Murder by Decree is a fascinating way to spend a foggy afternoon.