Is there a more richly mythologised period of recent history than the Victorian era? This is the period of time which gave us the Wild West, immortalised in hundreds of movies and novels, but closer to home (for us in the UK) is the concept of Britain as an imperial nation, and the source of hundreds of characters from fiction both literary and pulpy. Indeed, our conception of Victorian Britain is surely largely defined by its presentation in novels and films, with the boundaries between real life and fiction becoming oddly mutable as a result.
Certainly there’s no shortage of more recent metafiction in which these Victorian icons meet, in varying combinations – the champion probably remains Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau share their notes and Griffin, Moriarty, and Bill Sykes are part of the same criminal syndicate, while Hammer’s remarkable Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde sees the – er- conflicted researcher encountering Burke and Hare the grave-robbers (who have inexplicably relocated from Edinburgh to the East End).
What both these works have in common is that they tie in to the real world, by virtue of including another character who – in a strange way – straddles the boundary between fiction and reality. Anno Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde both present ‘solutions’ to the mystery of Jack the Ripper. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as the Ripper murders are one of the great mysteries of recent times, and TV shows from Kolchak to Babylon 5 have all had a go at ‘solving’ it. Most of these attempts are not intended seriously – but one of the mash-ups was, at least partly, and it remains an interesting film in other ways too.
Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree was released in 1979 and is set in London at the time of Ripper murders. The police appear to be baffled by the spree of savage killings, which makes it all the more peculiar that they have not followed standard practice in such situations and retained the services of London’s greatest investigator, Sherlock Holmes (here portrayed by Christopher Plummer).
However, a group of Whitechapel businessmen, conscious of the effect the ongoing panic is having on trade in the East End, approach Holmes with an eye to hiring him themselves. With the faithful Doctor Watson (James Mason) at his side, Holmes sets out on the trail of the Ripper, little realising it will lead him to the highest echelons of the British establishment…
Well, if you’ve seen From Hell, you will already know the solution to the Ripper crimes which Murder by Decree endorses: in fact, if you extract all the Sherlockian material from this movie, you do end up with something not too different to From Hell in many ways. The theory in question is certainly an interesting one (and arguably makes more sense than blaming a famous artist who was out of the country when some of the murders were committed, as one celebrated author has done). As a means of communicating this theory in a digestible and engaging way, Murder by Decree is clearly successful. But what about its merits as a film?
Certainly, the production values are quite impressive, although some of the modelwork and matte paintings used to create Victorian London give the place a fairytale quality which may not, strictly speaking, serve the story all that well. The tone of the thing is interesting: for much of its length it plays like a late-period Hammer horror, not short on Kensington Gore, with the Ripper’s coach emerging from a wall of fog in slow-motion like something from a genuine nightmare. The climax plays like a more conventional action movie, with Holmes and the Ripper engaging in personal combat, but even after this comes a lengthy (and rather talky) scene in which Holmes explains how he figured out what’s been going on to the cabal at the heart of the conspiracy.
That he’s managed to do so at all is quite impressive, partly because, in many ways, the plot of Murder by Decree is all over the place – the genuine facts of the Ripper killings are touched upon, but also added to the brew are Anarchist politics, Freemasonry, social comment and even a dash of the paranormal, courtesy of the inclusion of a psychic who identifies the Ripper’s address. It’s also a bit of a feat considering that, prior to this in the movie, the Great Detective has made none of the brilliant deductions he is most famous for, his methods seeming to rely on a mastery of forensic science, his own personal charm, and simply being in the right place at the right time.
Christopher Plummer is a fine and often-underrated actor, but his problem here is that he’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t bear much resemblance to the character Conan Doyle was writing about. The trappings are all there – the pipe, the violin, the chemistry set – and he’s never out of his ulster, but this is just superficial. The character seems to be more drawn from the Basil Rathbone version – he’s a jovial, energetic leading man, indulgent of Mason’s crusty, mournful Watson (I hate to say it, but Mason is too old, both as a Watson to Plummer – the actors are twenty years apart in age – and as Watson in general, given the good doctor would have been 40 at the absolute oldest in 1888). This is very much Holmes’ story, as Watson doesn’t get a great deal to do.
You might argue that there are taste issues to consider here, considering we’re talking about a film which takes a much-loved literary hero and mixes him up with the activities of a very real, horribly brutal and misogynistic serial killer – you wouldn’t show Inspector Morse catching Fred West, for instance. Certainly the murders here are much fouler than anything in Conan Doyle. But the film earns itself some credit for not buying into the picture-postcard view of Victorian London common to so many Holmes adaptations. The prostitutes of Whitechapel lead a convincingly horrible and wretched existence, and – provided you buy into the central thesis of the movie – the sympathies of all involved are clearly with the London underclass rather than the establishment.
The first time I saw this movie, I thought a sequence in which the plight of one of the girls moves Holmes first to tears and then to a violent rage did not ring true to the character. And it doesn’t – to Conan Doyle’s Holmes, at least. But in the context of this film, it does make sense. Using Holmes to express a sense of moral outrage at the corruption and hypocrisy of the British establishment is a novel direction to take him in, but in terms of this film, at least, it does work. This, if nothing else, elevates Murder by Decree above the level of simply being nasty exploitation.
Murder by Decree was hailed by the New York Daily Times’ critic as the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. I would certainly argue with that, on the grounds that in many ways this is a very inauthentic presentation of the character. But, if we think of it instead simply as a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, then I’m inclined to cut it a good deal more slack – it has interesting ideas, decent production values, a very strong cast (David Hemmings, Frank Finlay, John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold, and so on), and its heart is in the right place. (Which is more than can be said for the Ripper’s victims.) One of the classier Holmes movies, and possibly the classiest Ripper movie of the lot.