On paper Murder by Decree looks like a recipe for a sure-fire hit. It boasts an excellent cast, with such superb acting talents as Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland, and Sir John Gielgud; and the plot, which pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, sounds so obvious a synthesis of material that as a mystery it should have been nothing less than tantalizing. Despite these seemingly potent ingredients however, the end product somehow manages to come up very flat indeed. Murder by Decree is not a bad film, per se, but it fails to live up to its potential, thus accounting for its relegation to cinematic obscurity.
The film offers very little in terms of set up, which is understandable given that Sherlock Holmes and his often-portly cohort, Dr. John H. Watson are two of the most iconic characters to ever grace the screen. Holmes and Watson are played by Christopher Plummer and the not-so-portly James Mason (respectively), and they make a very likable duo. Plummer, whose career has seen rejuvenation in recent years, gives an admirable portrayal of Holmes—a far more humble one than the literary version. And Mason, who had always excelled in playing villains, gives Watson just the right amount of affability. The two play off of each other very well, and the writing is just good enough to provide enough interesting interplay between them.
The plot is advanced very early on as the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings are already underway when Holmes and Watson are delegated to the case. Without giving too much of the plot away I can say that, given that Sherlock Holmes is the detective here, the plot is far more convoluted than a simple ‘find the mad killer’ case one would generally expect of a ‘Jack the Ripper’ film. There’s a lot of political intrigue, and even the involvement of the Freemasons is postulated—a secret society whose very existence is often underutilized in films. Still, given all of the complexity to this mystery I couldn’t help from finding it a bit humdrum. For those of you who are more used to the 21st century-style of mystery/thriller, in which the films are brimming with high action and special effects sequences, you may be surprised to know that Murder by Decree was a feature film in its day. By today’s standards it has more of a made-for-Public Broadcasting-TV type of feel, but don’t let that act as a detraction. It certainly didn’t bother me, quite the contrary: I for one often feel patronized while watching the over-the-top action/thrillers of today. The makers of these films seem to believe that their audience is incapable of investing themselves into the picture unless it is bloated with exaggerated stunts and monstrous explosions, while at the same time filled with actors and actresses who were obviously chosen more for their sexual appeal rather than their strengths as a thespian. Older films didn’t have these highly calculated, profit-based decisions behind them, and I appreciated Murder by Decree for its humility and intricate plotting.
There are of course elements in this film that are indicative of the popular conventions of the day. For instance, we are often given first-person camera shots of the murder victims first being stalked, and then killed by the murderer. This of course was a very common device in slasher films of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The art direction here is very dreary; most of the scenes take place at night, and there is omnipresent fog that seems to traverse into interior shots as well. This film could have had very adverse effects on London tourism, to say the least.
Murder by Decree is a not a film I would recommend you rush to track down and view. But, if you’re at home on a rainy Saturday afternoon and it just so happens to be playing on TV you might find it a somewhat satisfying viewing experience. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be relegated to total obscurity.