‘You create allegiance above your sworn allegiance to protect humanity!’ rails Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) in the closing arguments of Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree; if nothing else, this blend of fact and fictional characters is a nice excuse to dust off the conspiracy theories of yesteryear. Yes, long before the fake news era and the wealth of ridiculous notions created to make a vain ex-president feel better about his unsurpassed record of failures, linking Jack the Ripper to the British royal family was a national sport, and had previously been investigated by Holmes in 1965’s A Study in Terror. Author Stephen Knight was a keen observer of masonic conspiracies, and after the publication of his 1976 book on the subject, it was inevitable that another outing would follow; Murder By Decree does a nice job of colliding two separate mythologies.
Shooting at the same time in the same studio as Alien also offers a dream cast with a Canadian bent; the late Christopher Plummer is a sparky, serious Holmes, no smarty-pants but a learned, passionate type. And James Mason does a nice job with Watson, with a dash of Nigel Bruce bumble, but also leaning in to the doctor’s medical training and suggesting a bit of steel beneath the bonhomie. Frank Finlay is a less-than-comic Inspector Lestrade, and even if the London locations are a little random, the whole package should work for the dedicated Holmesian.
Holmes is approached by a group of local entrepreneurs concerned that the Jack the Ripper murders will destroy their Whitechapel businesses; Holmes investigates, and uncovers a conspiracy that goes right to the top, and the Prime Minister (John Gielgud). On the way, there’s diversions via a fictional establishment copper (David Hemmings), a real-life psychic (Doanld Sutherland) and the madhouse, where Genevieve Bujold hogs the spotlight for a powerful one-and-done scene as a wronged woman with a heart-breaking story that brings a tear to Holmes’ eye.
The opening title-card warns of ‘outdated attitudes’ but Victorian vibes are hardly the least palatable notions in a film featuring POV murders of prostitutes. But Clark’s film holds back the gore and focuses on the detection, and the conspiracy; unlike A Study in Terror, this version, spoiler alert, suggests that the Ripper was a fictional construct of the British establishment to cover up royal indiscretions. The Prince of Wales should have his ears burning from the description of his activities here, and the notion of Holmes in conflict with British government black-ops makes for a highly entertaining fantasy.
The Masonic details here are also rather more scrupulous than in previous versions; Clark seems to have felt compelled to change a few names, but the punchline is, as the top-lined quote suggests, that there’s an ongoing danger when those with responsibility to the public feel more loyalty to their own secret society. That’s a notion that still feels current as we start to probe pandemic miscreants around the world; weak responses seem to be the result of authoritarians of dubious loyalty, and casting Sherlock Holmes as the individualist keen to bring the neglectful down is an agreeably dark take seen in the pale light of 2021. In a persuasive coda, Holmes doesn’t arrest or charge those responsible, but leaves them to stew in their conscience. It’s a great moment, and one of many that make this film well worth reviving now.
This is a handsome restoration of the original film, complete with a rewarding twenty minute interview with critic’s critic Kim Newman, who has little time for the conspiracy theories but a lot of time and enthusiasm bigging up Z Cars and Softly Softly; Task Force as the UK’s Law and Order; he’s great value as always. Newman also collaborates on an erudite commentary track with crime fiction historian Barry Forshaw, and there’s plenty of surprising nuggets of information.
MURDER BY DECREE is available to buy on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from 28th JUNE 2021.
Thanks to Studio Canal and Lisa Richards PR for access to this title.