Murder By Decree is a 1979 film directed by Bob Clark that was released on DVD in 2003. Previously, it wasn’t even widely available on video. I encourage any of you who enjoy Sherlock Holmes movies (or who have any interest in Jack the Ripper) to rent this movie, because it’s a real gem. It’s not very gory, considering the subject matter.
In short, this movie is about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigating (and solving) the Jack the Ripper murders. This isn’t the first film to use that scenario; a 1965 film called A Study in Terror, based on an Ellery Queen novel, had the same core plot idea.
While I won’t get into spoilers just yet, the Hughes Brothers owe a huge debt to this film for their 2001 movie From Hell. So, all you movie buffs out there who saw From Hell should most definitely see Decree.
Decree is also possibly the best Holmes/Watson film ever made because of the excellent portrayals of Sherlock Holmes by Christopher Plummer and of Dr. Watson by James Mason.
For us fans of old movies, Basil Rathbone is the Sherlock Holmes … but Plummer is better. Plummer’s Holmes is a man of keen intellect and observation, but he also has a human warmth and humor that’s unique amongst portrayals of Holmes (and to a large degree Plummer’s other roles, as well).
Mason’s Dr. Watson is no bumbling fool; while he does provide for some fine comic moments (particularly in the “pea” scene, where he tries to capture the last pea on his dinner plate) he’s intelligent, fierce, and loyal. Dr. Watson kicks ass in this movie, and you get the sense of a genuine, deep friendship between him and Holmes. The two are more complementary equals in this film than in others.
Interestingly, Mason later said that he used American President Gerald Ford as his model for Watson, primarily because Mason said he was always struck by Ford’s decency and steadfastness. Also interesting is that Peter O’Toole and Sir Lawrence Olivier were originally supposed to play Holmes and Watson in this movie, but the two actors couldn’t get past their dislike of each other.
The movie’s other parts are played by some of the best Canadian and English character actors of the era. Sir John Gielgud plays Lord Salisbury, Donald Sutherland plays the clairvoyant Robert Lees, and Genevieve Bujold has a small but heartbreaking role as Annie Crook. Her scene in the Victorian asylum is easily one of her best performances.
Comparing Murder By Decree and From Hell (spoilers)
In Murder By Decree, writer John Hopkins puts forth the conspiracy theory that the Ripper murders were decreed by Freemasons within the British government to cover up the Prince Edward’s seduction of and marriage to Annie Crook (a Catholic) and the subsequent birth of his child her. Those of you who’ve already seen or read From Hell are well aware of this conspiracy theory; while the details of the conspiracy differ somewhat, clearly neither the graphic novel nor the 2001 movie would exist in their current form without the influence of Decree. The main difference is that From Hell makes it clear that the conspiracy went all the way up to the Queen of England, whereas in Decree the ringleaders are Sir Thomas Spivey and Lord Salisbury.
Decree is entirely from the perspective of Holmes and Watson, so From Hell goes much more into the daily lives of the Whitechapel prostitutes and the details of the murders themselves. And while From Hell also deals more with Masonic ritual and their relevance to the murders, Decree shows the genuine secret Mason’s handshake, which was evidently a controversial revelation in 1979.
Other elements of Decree are incorporated in From Hell, mainly some set design elements and Robert Lees’ clairvoyance, which is transferred to Johnny Depp’s Inspector Abberline.
Release Year: 1979
Running Time: 124 minutes
Budget: about $4m U.S.
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: John Hopkins
Christopher Plummer: Sherlock Holmes
James Mason: Dr. John H. Watson
David Hemmings: Inspector Foxborough
Susan Clark: Mary Kelly
Anthony Quayle: Sir Charles Warren
Sir John Gielgud: Lord Salisbury
Frank Finlay: Inspector Lestrade
Donald Sutherland: Robert Lees
Genevieve Bujold: Annie Crook
Chris Wiggins: Doctor Hardy
Tedde Moore: Mrs. Lees
Peter Jonfield: William Slade
Roy Lansford: Sir Thomas Spivey
Catherine Kessler: Carrie
Ron Pember: Makins
This review originally appeared in the spring 2004 issue of Full Unit Hookup Magazine