ondon 1888. The Whitechapel district is awash with the bloody work of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes is called to investigate the crimes and uncovers a twisted conspiracy involving hidden allegiances, Masonic Ritual and exploitation by the radical ideologies of a society in unrest.
Following his 1975 classic Black Christmas, Bob Clark revved up the suspense once more with this excellent film that pits the world's greatest detective against "the" most notorious of crimes and arguably the most intriguing mystery in history books.
We begin at the theatre where Royalty are heckled by scores of lower class gentry that is to form the plot and veiled "solution" to the age old question mark over the identity of Saucy Jack as he was known.
"If the prince wants more respect he should conduct his affairs with more discretion" says Holmes (Plummer) who sits in the stalls with Watson (Mason).
Out in the murky slums of Whitechapel the camera floats round corners in the darkness to the sound of hollow footsteps as the Ripper walks. Liz Stride is then murdered.
They hear shouts of "Murder in Whitechapel" on leave from the theatre, and Holmes is urged to show some interest by his friend on route to Baker Street in an open top carriage.
Once they return they are paid a visit by some local tradesman who plead with the sleuth to take up the chase, letting slip an important clue when they show their distaste at police intervention in the case, the class divide seemingly sways the lack of effort made amid their working class shopfronts.
Awoken in the night hours by an anonymous message calling them to this the two in one night murders, our detectives arrive to find Inspector Foxborough (Hemmings)and detective Lestrade (Finlay) standing over the corpse as people gather. Holmes finds the stem from a bunch of grapes which proves food for thought, and notices a woman with, as he says a singular haunting quality, she disappears into the crowd as head of Scotland Yard Sir Charles Warren (Quayle) arrives. His disdain at the detectives presence is shown and our two slip off into the night with the clues gathered.
They hear more from their anonymous adviser, he invites them to meet him at the Elizabeth Wharf, here we just make out a figure underneath at waterline, positioned out of clear sight he tells them to liase with the medium Robert Lees and also offers Holmes some fascinating evidence.
"The Juwes are not the men that will be blamed for nothing" is discovered written in a seclude alley unearthed by Holmes having strangely earlier been covered by Warren for fear of backlash against the Jewish community. Our detective visits Lees (Sutherland) who tells him of his strange encounters with the man who he believes was responsible for the murders. The clairvoyant being overwhelmed with an intuition whilst the act was committed later seeing a figure in an open top and hearing from the head of police to keep quiet about the visions.
Sir Charles is then confronted with Holmes using Masonic symbolisms to fend off any hostility and is told to tread carefully, obviously Warren is involved to some higher extent in this secret order.
Describing to Watson the gestures used and explaining the importance of "Juwes", the detective relays the story of Solomon and the archaic rituals that ended in slaughter for the three gods, rubbishing Warrens poor attempt at diverting the message from its real basis and so clearing any involvement for the Jewish community. Anti semetic rage would be rife according to the man but these diversions are silenced as Sherlock Holmes begins to piece together clues, and unravel the truth.
Watson also uncovers some important details regarding the whores and their social habits, he has them all frequenting the Black Horse tavern, known to each other he learns that they all seem to revolve around one name, Mary Kelly who proves the central figure in these pattern of events.
The grapes stem found earlier are a particular variety, also mentioned by the clairvoyant the fruit is prescribed by one of the top physicians in the land, Sir Thomas Spivy.
Paying his last respects to Catherine Eddows who has died at the hands of the Ripper the detective notices again the woman seen at the crime scene, she flees the area tracked by Holmes and tracked also by the horsedrawn.
Finding her hiding in deserted Clink Wharf she tells him of a woman Annie Crook who had delivered none other than the Duke of Clarence a child. The woman had been admitted to an Asylum by Spivy as cover up for insanity whilst the baby girl was sought as proof of the liason.
The ultimate discretion needed for involvement of royalty was that the whole episode be made invisible , the conflicting religion of the child and the filanderings of the prince were enough to make Crook disappear.
Kelly is frightened for her life as she is too involved ,the knowledge is relayed as the open top closes in, the carriage chases them down and Holmes just makes out a figure leading her away as he comes to, then passes out from his fall.
Watson discovers the whereabouts of Crook and the two visit the asylum, she tells Holmes the story of "Eddy" and the child, who was given to Kelly for safekeeping.
The highest order are at the centre of these events, Crook has been silenced and hidden, now the child must be found. Those involved cover their search leaving hideously mutilated corpses seen as the work of lone killer, Jack the Ripper.
Holmes realises he must find Kelly before it is too late.
They search the dimly lit streets aware they are followed, Foxborough has been tracking them and is unearthed as a revolutionary, a disaffected radical. Prompting the anonymous messages through agents and using the detective as bait for Kelly to surface, hence the deductors summary hopefully exposing the aristocratic corruption rife in this government born from the decadent monarchy he loathed.
He tells Holmes "they used you ...and if she dies its because she trusted God Almighty, Sherlock Holmes"
They part and we see a lone carriage positioned outside Millers Court where inside a tiny squalid room Spivy and Slade are at work on Mary Kelly, whos barely alive body is laid out.
The physician is comatosed from the violence and makes no attempt to escape but the swordsman flees, making off through the dark grey fog, Foxborough is killed as he collides with the prime movers weapon on a blind corner backstreet as Holmes gives chase .
A tense and hallucinatory dockside confrontation has the detective do battle with "the Ripper" before unravelling the whole case to the Prime Minister (Gielgud) in a suitable and grand finale confirming this film as simply the best outing on the crimes committed in Whitechapel London in 1888.
Don't forget that Murder by Decree is now available to order on Widescreen DVD using our special 70s search device... [See DVD section or click here for more details]
By: Nik Allen
Clark's film is memorable for many reasons. His knack for period is uncanny with 1978 substituted for 1888 with some excellence. Costing 4 million he managed along with Rene Dupont and... To create a vivid account of the fictitious battle between Holmes and a mysterious nemesis who is shrouded by the political unrest at large in 19th century London.
The Canadian presents a largely different sleuth from the Rathbone days, with the aesthete still prevailing yet tinged with a humanity and emotional apathy. Watson is also a departure, the bumbling Bruce replaced by a sturdy and level headed Mason who is excellent here, in a way sealing the capsule of considerable quality among the cast.
With the central view of Masonic ritual and murderous blackmail all but discarded as authentic, the plot seems sensationalistic but anyone who has read Stephen Knights Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution or The Ripper Files on which this film is based will say there are questions that need answering. The problem that I would suggest faces all Ripperologists is that every other account has conflicting facts that remain at the core of proof.
The Duke of Clarence theory has some strength in factual evidence but has been recently put to rest by books such as Portrait of a Killer by Patricia Cornwell who cites painter Walter Sickert as the sole assailant, incidentally his name appears in the Knight book as the third man involved.
Whichever lead is taken and "believed" the basis for Decree comes from a certain time in our history that will always be shrouded in the fog that permeates every set in Clarks stunning picture. This conundrum is the draw for a story that cannot fail to deliver , many films have covered the Ripper crimes but this is a cut above the rest.
With a cast that includes Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees, the psychic who claimed to have seen the killer, David Hemmings as the revolutionary Foxborough who strives to uncover the corruption around him in Prime Minister John Geilguds government, along with Anthony Quayle, Frank Finlay and Genevieve Bujold it makes heady entertainment with an added initiative on style and class.
Shot on location in London and at pinewood studios where the top draw sets were constructed this is a masterful nod to excessively inspired product design, the mist drenched wharfs, streets and cul de sacs create a claustrophobia in production art rarely matched in 70s British cinema, Anglo/Canadian to be precise.
There are some dark magical moments captured, including Holmes visit to Annie Crook in the asylum where much of the drama is shot in one take. Bujold excellent. The morbid atmosphere of Millers Court where Mary Kelly was found brutally and insanely mutilated beyond recognition, and the overall reconstruction of my city of London including the grey and veiled surreal dockside confrontation between Holmes and the prime mover in the atrocious crimes.
Ultimately Murder by Decree stands up as the best film on its subject and is ingenious in its inclusion of Conan Doyle's famous icon if leaving a slight sense of unfulfilment in the summation of the case.
Bob Clark was a thirty something Canadian director who engaged with some of the finest actors this country has ever produced, the lasting reminder of this collaboration is a superb, cleverly played film which remains as so in this era as it did in the age of cinematic quality. Summed up at the last reel with an eloquent roll call for everyone who took to its stage it is expertly told and deserves its place up there with the best of British in the seventies horror genre.
Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole were set to play the famous duo but there were problems at the last and it was not to be.
Christopher Plummer has a few liveners to get him ready for the conviction needed to play the sleuth, it shows in a performance bristling with energy.
This being a partial Canadian production, I believe it was nomminated for some Genie awards(the Canadian version of the Oscars). I could be wrong, as it is just a faint memory. [Thanks to Kent]
know some Murder by Decree trivia that we could add? [Please
send it in]
The Elms house on the southern toe-path in Richmond was used for the psychic Robert Lees' home. The Victorian bridge nearby was used for a short scene involving the psychic and Inspector Foxborough. [Thanks to Andre]
Can you help? Do you know any of the Virginia filming locations used for Murder by Decree? [Please send them in]
As in Clarks earlier thriller Black Christmas, Carl Zittrer and Paul Sasa created the score, which is as subtle and eerie as it is traditional in suspenseful tone
Even more traditional was the music that originated from Scottish folk giving the film a grand feel with its highland guile, allowing a lighter hearted mood.
Soundtrack Available: Unknown
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