Movies My Dad Likes: Murder by Decree [1979]

There have been numerous movies involving Sherlock Holmes and a number dealing with the Jack the Ripper murders. A Study in Terror (1965) was the first attempt at bringing them together in one plot and it’s an enjoyable watch even if the portrayal of the original Dynamic Dual is somewhat wooden. It is a traditional Holmes mystery with the Ripper murders playing second fiddle (apologies for the irresistible pun). The remake, Murder By Decree (1978), is a far more even-handed version where Holmes and the Ripper murders have equal standing. One wonders however with the first Sherlock Holmes story being published in 1887 and the Ripper murders occurring during 1888 perhaps it is a murderous tale that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should himself have penned.

Sherlock is given more expansive character traits in “Murder By Decree”. I wonder if Conan-Doyle would have approved of his creation expressing so much emotion with bouts of laughter, tears of sorrow, physical aggression, remorse and utter outrage. No shortage of drama then in this movie. Many actors have played Sherlock Holmes on the big screen from the dour Basil Rathbone to the frivolous Robert Downey Jnr. Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock in “Murder By Decree” falls midway between the two making the character more compassionate and fallible. Doctor Watson is also given more scope. No longer the upper class clumsy buffoon without a clue but blessed with an intelligent enquiring mind, which Holmes uses to carry out research when narrowing down suspects or finding the next likely victim before she suffers the knife. Of course Watson is still a bit of an upper class snob. This more useful companion to Holmes was ably played by the silky voiced James Mason.     

When gruesome murders become serial in the East End of London it’s the local traders who approach Holmes for help. The locals spurred on by radicals believe some toff is visiting their poor man’s parish to murder women of ill repute and would easily be caught if the crimes were happening to ladies in the West End. The familiar Inspector Lestrade is leading the police effort with the inevitable zero results. As in” A Study In Terror” Frank Finley plays the limited Lestrade who has competition this time in the guise of Inspector Foxborough, a new breed of intelligent copper played by David Hemmings.

It’s not long before Holmes crosses swords with Sir Charles Warren the bombastic Police Commissioner who doesn’t want a civilian poking around in police business. He wants the killer to be a low life and is worried that Holmes might consider a gentleman as the culprit, and god forgive a freemason. This was a perfect role for Anthony Quayle who always seemed to play a character of rank and authority. The lower ranks therefore suspect the killer to be a madman who has a dislike of prostitutes and enjoys cutting them up and removing their organs. Holmes however soon concludes that the crimes have a more sinister motive. When taking an interest in the stalk from a bunch of grapes at the crime scene of the third victim you just know this will lead to the killer’s downfall. Unlike the hapless Lestrade he establishes a link between the victims after Watson spends time chatting up the working girls at a hostelry of ill repute while still retaining his honour.

Holmes’s attitude to the prostitutes is that of compassion and when he fails to gain the trust of one who is subsequently brutally murdered, remorse and guilt hang heavy on his shoulders, most un-Sherlock like. That said his intellectual prowess shines through as he unravels the sinister plot with a few strands of unrelated circumstantial evidence. There are some physical altercations that Holmes has to overcome and his scarf proves to be mightier than the sword. There’s a cameo role for Donald Sutherland as psychic Robert Lees who sees the killer at work in a vision and on spotting him by chance when out, follows the man to an upmarket residence. Sir Charles restrains Lees to keep the address secret and unknown to Holmes. Sir Charles is soon unmasked by Holmes as belonging to a secret order of free masons and is protecting a public figure of high office to avoid a scandal. Unfortunately the scandal is a real headache for the government of the day that would prefer to sweep it under the carpet. This is not possible with Holmes on the case and there’s a memorable scene where he confronts the Prime Minister who like Sir Charles is a freemason. With John Gielgud playing the Prime Minister the result of the confrontation is a draw.

A surprisingly good movie considering the director had previously been nominated for Worst Director, and went on to direct both Porky’s and its sequel. Having a stellar cast for Murder By Decree obviously helped to make it a riveting watch.



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