Murder by Decree (1979)

“You create allegiance above your sworn allegiance to protect humanity: you shall not care for them, or acknowledge their pain. There lies the madness.”

Synopsis:
Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (James Mason) try to unravel the mystery of Jack the Ripper, who has been killing prostitutes across London; when they learn that a high-level conspiracy may be behind the murders, they attempt to track down the woman (Genevieve Bujold) who holds the key to the entire affair.

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Review:
This oddly unsatisfying Victorian-era thriller should be much better than it is: despite the inspired casting (Plummer and Mason are wonderful together), an effective recreation of foggy London, several unexpectedly humorous moments, and a satisfying denouement, it’s too bloody difficult to follow. Only during the final 15 minutes of the film — once Holmes neatly unravels the entire affair in front of the British prime minister (John Gielgud) — does one finally understand who all the key players are, and why Holmes has been tracking them; indeed, Murder by Decree is a rare thriller which may be more enjoyable upon second viewing. Plummer and Mason are the main reasons to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Christopher Plummer as Holmes
    Murder Decree Holmes
  • James Mason as Watson
    Murder Decree Watson
  • Susan Clark as frightened prostitute Mary Kelly
    Murder Decree Susan Clark
  • Watson chatting with a prostitute who’s inordinately proud to still have all her teeth
    Murder Decree Teeth
  • The clever ending, in which Holmes solves everything
    Murder Decree Ending

Must See?
No, but fans of Sherlock Holmes will certainly want to check it out. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Murder by Decree (1979)”

  1. Not a must, but it’s absorbing-enough as storytelling.

    I wouldn’t say that ‘MBD’ is “unsatisfying” or “too bloody difficult to follow”. John Hopkins’ script is certainly dense but mostly by reason that it’s very talky. Not talky in a dull way necessarily but certainly in a slow-moving one – it seems to take a little while before the film is kick-started. Director Bob (“Porky’s”) Clark is in more of his “Black Christmas” mode here (esp. with the stalking routines) – with a rather large budget (seemingly) and an A-list cast – and he does what he can to accent the underbelly of the story. But he can only do so much. The film comes off as more of a piece for intellectuals (or at least bookworms) than more hardcore mystery fans. Yes, there are murders but…well, there *is* an awful lot of talking.

    The acting serves the film well – no one is really called on to do much more than be in average mystery territory (although Donald Sutherland rises above a bit as a man who sees visions of the murders).

    The most intriguing aspect of ‘MBD’ is its posited theory that the stories we’ve all heard about Jack the Ripper could very well be myth-based. It’s almost irrelevant whether you ultimately buy into that or not but, for the purposes of the film, it makes sense.

    If you’re a fan of this genre, you probably won’t regret watching ‘MBD’. I *am* a fan of the genre but, though I don’t regret having seen it, it’s not something I’d go out of my way to recommend.

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