Murder by Decree was undoubtable the most “classy” entry in Canadian director Bob Clark’s baffling career. He was coming off his earlier exploitation films, most notably Black Christmas, but it was before he transitioned to mainly working in comedy with Porky’s 1 AND 2, Rhinestone, Turk 182 AND of course his other Christmas film, A Christmas Story. Here he is doing a Sherlock Holmes-meets-Jack the Ripper movie wrapped up in a ’70s conspiracy thriller.
Christopher Plummer and James Mason play Holmes and Watson, and unlike a lot of film versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, they generally like each other. The plot itself is too convoluted for its own good, and relies heavy on the much-debunked theory linking Jack the Ripper to the Freemasons and the royal family, throwing in another layer of hierarchal cop conspiracy that doesn’t really make any logical sense. Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution supplied a lot of the inspiration, while Elwyn Jones’s book The Ripper File is the credited basis for the film. The graphic novel and loose film adaptation From Hell is drawn from the same well, just without the Holmes/Watson twist.
The film is a perfectly enjoyable, even if the conspiracytheory itself is just silly, and Plummer and Mason make a great pairing, it’s a shame they didn’t do a sequel. The script was written by John Hopkins, who is best known for the Bond film Thunderball (although his finest work is The Offence, which was based on his own adaptation of his stage-play This Story of Yours, and features Sean Connery’s greatest screen performance.) This film isn’t as tightly written, and could’ve probably used another draft, but it’s a enjoyable yarn. The supporting cast is full of greats like Donald Sutherland, Susan Clark, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings and Geneviève Bujold. It might not be the forgotten cult classic that some have claimed it is over the years, but if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you will have a ball—even if they do water down his drug dependency to make him more “likable” (and this film came out in 1979!)
The Blu-Ray disc includes a content warning before the film,which seems increasingly commonplace from StudioCanal for any older titles. The warning reads “Please note that film reflects historical attitudes which audiences may find outdated or offensive.” I wonder if the disc-makers at Studiocanal listen to Joe Dante’s podcast The Movies That Made Me, because they seem to be slapping it on any old film, Joe said they should do it for any film made before last week or none at all. Weirdly enough, the recent Blu-Ray of Basic Instinct from StudioCanal didn’t get one. The disc’s extras are, unsurprisingly, Kim Newman-heavy, with him supplying a interview and a commentary track with Barry Forshaw.