In the history of fiction, few characters have proved to be as enduring or as malleable as Sherlock Holmes. In fact, with Nexflix’s The Irregulars and Dexter Fletcher’s Sherlock Holmes 3 due for release this Christmas, Conan Doyle’s creation has never been so popular. Which makes StudioCanal’s decision to re-release this much-neglected movie on DVD and blu-ray a very sound decision.
Murder By Decree (1979) is an Anglo-Canadian production, adapted from Stephen Knight’s novel Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Knight’s best-selling story made no reference to Holmes, but the idea of turning the Ripper murders in Holmesian fiction had already been test driven in 1965’s A Study in Terror. Since then, there’s been an alarming glut of Holmes versus Ripper tales. Alarming, because many of them cast the real life Ripper as nothing more than a comic book villain. “Zap, pow, biff”, reads the movie poster for A Study in Terror… “”Here comes the original caped crusader!” Fortunately, thanks to sensitive direction and clever casting, Murder By Decree is a very different beast.
Director, Bob Clark is probably better remembered for his autographical comedy, Porky’s (1982) but he began his career in schlock-horror B movies. And this experience has clearly stood him in good stead when it comes to bringing Whitechapel’s sleazy, smog laden streets to life. Although there’s something oddly North American-guide book about Clark’s vision of Victorian London, the overall effect is eerily atmospheric.
As Holmes fans will appreciate, the Sherlock portrayed on film rarely resembles Conan Doyle’s vision. After all, Holmes starts out as a man in his mid-20s—a vigorous, eccentric, bohemian, with a healthy disregard for pomp and social conventions. He’s also a man with “a great heart as well as a great brain” (The Three Garridebs) And, as such, he has much more in common with Guy Richie’s ‘reimagining’, than the stiff, stuffy Sherlocks which so often clog up afternoon TV schedules.
Fortunately, despite being decked out in cape and deerstalker, Christopher Plummer manages to step out of stereotype and create a believably well-rounded Holmes. His Great Detective doesn’t have the visceral energy of Jeremy Brett’s or the old world charm of Basil Rathbone’s. But his Holmes is a man of compassion and it’s that which makes the horror of the Ripper murders are all the more powerful.
Watson is played, with evident relish, by James Mason who always brings grace and gravitas to any role. Donald Sutherland puts in a haunting turn as the real-life psychic Robert Lees. While Geneviève Bujold acts her socks off with a performance which won her a Canadian Cinema & TV Genie Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Plummer won Best Actor).
130 years after he made his first appearance, the Great Detective still inspires a level of fandom usually reserved for the likes of Dr Who. And while Murder By Decree is certain to be viewed by a knowlegable and critical audience, there’s sure to be some heart-felt appreciation for this a welcome addition to the ever-expanding Sherlockian Universe.
Murder By Decree is released as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics Collection which showcases iconic British films—all fully restored with all-new extra content. Included in this brand-new restoration is a new audio commentary with film journalist Kim Newman and crime fiction historian Barry Forshaw.