Murder By Decree, 1979. 8/10

An interesting take on the Jack The Ripper story; since Sherlock Holmes is on the case, we have true crimes investigated by a fictional detective. This might be the only plausible fiction/nonfiction hybrid. If Holmes had existed, he would probably glue himself onto the trail of the most notorious criminal in Victorian London.

A great cast: Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes, James Mason as Dr. Watson, Sir John Gielgud as Prime Minister Gladstone, Donald Sutherland as psychic Robert Lees. Also, there’s David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough, Susan Clark as Mary Kelly, and Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren.

We see Holmes and Watson waiting for a performance at the Royal Opera House. They’re waiting for the not-so-welcome Prince and Princess of Wales (Victor Langley and Pamela Abbott); hmm, has there perhaps been a scandal? Then we cut to some noxious Whitechapel alleyway. A dark figure rambles across a narrow steet to throttle a woman in a doorway. When Holmes and Watson get out of the opera, there’s already a news extra announcing the third Ripper victim.

When the detectives get home, a bunch of guys await them. It’s members of the Citizens Committee. Naturally, they feel that the murders are not only heinous, but bad for local business, “We’d better shut up shop until this bloke’s (Ripper’s) put away.” Holmes more or less blows them off, but later entertains their entreaty with Watson “well, old chap, what shall we do, take up the chase?”

Another Whietechapel street scene, a woman, presumably a prostitute, is picked up. Soon enough, the same carriage reappears, with the guy depositing the woman’s body. So “the game is afoot.” We see a crowd, with the police and Holmes at the core of it, hovering around the body. Holmes and Watson meet Foxborough. Sir Charles shows up, peeved that Holmes was called into the case.

Then there’s a constable who finds the infamous graffiti implicating the “Juwes” (that is, Jews, a significant part of the contemporary Whitechapel population). Back with our detectives, Holmes tells Watson about a “haunting” look of an onlooker in the crowd, twirling the twig he picked up there. They get an anonymous telegram indicating a meeting at an isolated wharf. Holmes’s referred to Robert Lees by the shadowy boatman. And there’s a guy skulking in doorways with a sword–which soon finds a home in the boatman’s chest.

More creepy streets at night–our guys scope out a wall, uncovering the “Juwes” graffiti. Watson doesn’t see why the writer didn’t just go to the police, “imagine a more malign influence at work” replies Holmes, enigmatically. Time to see spiritualist Lees in action: his slow-motion macabre retelling of the Chapman murder is distinctly horrific. Sutherland, though, looks like he’s been on an hallucinogenic bender. But Unfortunately, while Holmes is out and about the next day, he’s summoned by Sir Charles.

Apparently, a corpse has shown up, the sword-victim. Also, he’s a former client of Holmes’. That is to say, a political enemy from a group who embarrassed Sir Charles in demonstrations/riots not long before–which is true to history. Anyway, Sir Charles is fingering Holmes for this “radical’s” murder–not least because that would literally kill two birds with one stone. Turning the tables, Holmes subsequently tricks Sir Charles into a tell-tale Masonic handshake. Sir Charles is taken aback–but insists that, by his Masonic interest, he’s somehow protecting Jews–that is by hiding the graffiti. Holmes reminds him that we’re actually not at all speaking of Jews or ‘Juwes,’ but other Masons.

Comfortably back at Holmes’, we hear him tell a Masonic story. It’s about three guys in ancient times who murdered the Grand Master, builder of King Solomon’s Temple. The guilty ones gave confessorial oaths to Solomon, describing horrific fates for themselves–very similar to the Ripper’s M.O. That’s a little out of my realm. Anyway, our detectives are off to inquire into the victims’ friends and the nutty Lees. Holmes very cunningly disguises himself as a chimney sweep to surreptitiously gain entrance to the spiritualist.

Lees delivers the psychic goods: a reverie concerning a piece of one of the victim’s dress, and a bit of a grapevine (that was like the twiggy stuff Holmes found earlier). With Foxborough, Lees traces the clues back to a swanky mansion. The master of the house threatened Lees for his insinuations, thus Lees’ reclusiveness “he was not impressed by my intuition.” Back in a rather rowdy Whitechapel, Watson tries to chat up some acquaintances of the victims.

The conversation there focuses on Mary Kelly, widely regarded as the last confirmed (‘canonical’) Ripper victim. It’s pretty weird to have a fish-out-of-water guy like Watson make the acquaintance of “tarts.” The woman–she is indeed Mary Kelly (Susan Clark) herself–lays a trap for him. He gets the advantage of her pimp, not before she gets up a story about Watson being the Ripper. And, bumbler that he is; he gets arrested.

Perhaps to rehabilitate himself, Watson does a chalkboard analysis of the crimes, a true Ripperologist now. Holmes figures he might know who Lees’ mysterious gentlemen antagonist is. Now, on the tails of the latest victim’s funeral, we see the disguised (Ripper) figure in his cab, probably off to his next murderous assignation.

Holmes, for once in daylight, finds Mary Kelly. She lets on that “they” are after her. She was given Annie Crook’s (Genevieve Bujold’s) baby. As if on cue, what we take to be the Ripper’s hansom cab nearly runs them both down. Now it’s Watson’s turn to play nurse, Foxborough assures him of the obvious, that the driver intended to kill him.

Off to see some doctors, and Annie, who’s apparently in an asylum. She’s under the care of Sir Thomas Spivey (Roy Lansford), who, coincidentally, is a grape connoisseur–that’s right, Lees’ suspect, of the mysterious grapevine clue. “Why is this woman so damned important, Holmes?” I guess we’re about to see. The asylum is a magnificently creepy gothic joint. Spivey shows the guys the nearly-catatonic Annie.

Holmes gets her to respond to the name “Eddy”. Now, we’re talking. She’s concerned with her baby’s safety, and Mary’s. Annie speaks also of “they.” She might just be drugged, and not mentally incapacitated. It seems that this Eddy was the baby’s father, and their baby is more or less doomed if something happens to Mary. Holmes confronts Sir Thomas: Annie is wrongfully held there; they scuffle. It’s a truly pitiful scene of Bedlam, as the mentally-impaired inmates get stirred up and throw their cries into the tumult. What’s also notable is Holmes showing a very sincere emotional side, which plays well against his world-weary persona.

Back to fog-shrouded Whitechapel. We hear that Sir Charles has resigned. Ah, now we get the Ripper’s point of view, approaching Mary’s place via the courtyard (there’s terrible cries from inside). Our guys are just emerging from the nearby Black Horse; we see Holmes accosting Foxborough. Surprisingly, he specifically accuses Foxborough of being in league with a radical group “a man devoid of conscience, as guilty as the killer himself.” For his part, Foxborough says he’s fighting the government/the monarchy, the actual culprit. I’m out of my depth here. Busting into Kelly’s place, the guys find two creeps doing god-knows-what kind of torture to Mary.

The beastial sadists flee; but Holmes finds one dead, in the cab. The other keeps hoofing it, and manages to plunge his rapier into the lurking Foxborough. (Now we know he was the boatman’s assassin, that is William Slade, played by Peter Jonfield). No last words given to Foxborough. Using the Inspector’s whistle, Holmes summons help. He’s got his cunning weapon, an Indian sling-like deal. Pretty cool fight scene–our Ripper gets wrapped up in some dockside rope netting while Holmes tries to get back on his feet. Weirdly, Slade ends up hanging himself even as he struggles to get free.

We’re not done yet, as the next day Holmes has a meeting with the Prime Minister. That worthy gentleman accuses Holmes of “injudicious actions.” Holmes relates Annie’s story. We see that the Prince of Wales, Edward, aka “Eddy” is her ex-lover. All else flows from there: since Annie was Catholic, she was not technically a legitimate spouse. Unwanted, she was put away. The victims before Mary were red herrings (also witnesses to the clandestine wedding) to mislead, “deaths disguised as the work of a madmen.”

It’s actually sort of a double-conspiracy. The Prince of Wales’ indiscretion was itself covered up by the The Masonic connection. “You’re all equally to blame.” Holmes accurately tells them. The Prime Minister is persuaded that he’s in hot water, and Sir Charles is toast. But Annie’s dead, not to mention Mary. At least the Ripper never got his main target, the baby. We finally see the kid at a convent, just a regular ‘ol toddler. The end. Well, we still have to sit through a complete parade of major and supporting characters with their credits. Actually, even this proves to be useful, as there’s probably one or more of these dudes that we couldn’t otherwise place.

Murder By Decree was extremely entertaining, on a number of levels. Although Whitechapel wasn’t as authentically ugly as expected–there’s almost no garbage, the same cart we can find in the same place a couple of times, almost no one but our characters are on the streets at night, etc. Still this was very atmospheric.

In general the performances were very good–especially Bujold’s. Plummer and Mason have just the right mixture of easy familiarity and mutual respect. As Mark Bourne references on his site The DVD Journal, Holmes is very much the main character here; The Ripper remains unknown until the very end. And, with the exception of the very short scene where we’re in his shoes (homing in on Mary’s place), we get no feel for him.

Part of the reason for this skeletal version of Ripper’s character might be that the gigantic Masonic/government/Prince subplots had to be fit in. The plot becomes so layered and intricate that the post-denouement Prime Minister meeting is simultaneously necessary and tiresome. By this time, the Ripper, and, of course, all of his victims are dead. There’s been a superb fight scene, culminating with a unique twist (literally).

Nonetheless, we have to listen closely to Holmes. Otherwise, the whole story, the whole long viewing experience, will come crashing down into a slag heap of Bedlam, a tweaked Donald Sutherlund, and Dr. Watson’s last pea.

Isn’t it enough to blend Sherlock Holmes into the Ripper story? If we prune out the royal/Masonic/ministerial stuff, and graft on some more Ripper (Lees’ spiritualist-fueled scene of the murdered victim ejected from the cab is very effective), we would have a more cohesive, possibly more interesting movie.

Besides, even my limited bit of Ripperology tells me that the subplots seen here are among the most farfetched, even within the Ripperologist’s array of plots from left field–i.e., how about Lewis Carroll for a suspect? That some conspiracy is possible is one thing, but all these assumptions are just too much. I do like the idea of the slate of victims covering up for one targeted victim, or to serve some ulterior purpose. So, I’m not rejecting each subplot per se so much as pointing out that they don’t help Murder By Decree.

I need to find out what’s going on with another Holmes/Ripper hybrid, 1965’s A Study In Terror. Ye olde Farmermouse thought it no easy thing scurrying around after Dr. Watson’s mischievous peas, but he gives Murder By Decree eight grapevines. 8/10.


As perhaps the most infamous serial killer known (especially to the English-speaking world) there’s no lack of resources available on Jack The Ripper. Obviously, to the ‘Ripperologist’, such things are part of one’s daily routine. But to the relative newbies to the case, like myself, or anyone else who has done without, I would recommend the website Casebook: Jack the Ripper, produced since 2008 by Stephen P. Ryder and Johnno.

In fact, this is such a comprehensive virtual tome of Jack the Ripper (JtR), that I find myself perusing it just to see who’s butting heads with who about their favorite ‘candidate’ (that is, the suspect they most favor as being the Ripper). So, whether you just want info on the case (any aspect), or like me, like to eavesdrop on some great arguments, this is one absorbing way to go.

We can see posts for free, but it costs to post (i.e., to join the site). I’m not in any way promoting or benefiting from Casebook for any tangible purpose–strictly for its entertainment/research value. Something to keep us indefinitely hooked on The Ripper.

In addition, I’d recommend these books: Jack the Ripper, by Whitehead and Rivett (reviewed on this blog in Books category–ok, I can promote myself here), and The Complete Jack the Ripper, by Rumblelow. Time to check Casebook for some ripping Ripperology.

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