Bob Clark, 1979
Starring: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clarke, Anthony Quayle
"Justice howling at the moon."
Though Murder by Decree is widely ignored, I think it is one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes films ever made. It is not derived from any Conan Doyle story, but pits the world's great detective against the world's most infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. When Saucy Jack starts gutting prostitutes around Whitechapel, London is in an outrage. Scotland Yard fails to contact Holmes for help, but a group of disgruntled citizens "hire" him to take the case. He uncovers a link to the Freemasons, a royal scandal, a love affair gone bad, and a woman wrongly committed to an asylum. Though I generally hate the subgenre, this is a conspiracy film at heart. To give any more of the plot away would spoil Murder by Decree and we can't have that.
Helmed by Bob Clark, one of my favorite directors, this would make an interesting double feature with his slasher flick Black Christmas. Both films are heavy with atmosphere, though in Murder by Decree Clark is incredibly restrained, maintaining thrills and scares with suspense and mood rather than gore or violence. The tension and mystery are both helped along by some very claustrophobic POV shots, refusing to show us Jack even though we are forced to witness his crimes. It is truly a beautiful film, full of fog and darkness. Clark uses the impressive Victorian London set design almost as a stand alone character, framing as many shots as possible with gnarled trees, wrought iron fences, gas lamps, and other period staples.
This was an English/Canadian co-production and in addition to the Canadian Clark, the strong cast is almost evenly divided between the two countries. I would recommend the film simply for the dream team of Plummer and Mason as Holmes and Watson. Plummer's Holmes is not lifted directly from Conan Doyle's text. He presents a more sensitive, human Holmes, who is not afraid to mix humor with his trademark arrogance and icy resolve. James Mason is the absolute Watson. Mason doesn't play him as a bumbler or below-average intelligence sidekick, rather he emphasizes his medical skills and his steadfast, trustworthy nature, frequently providing Holmes with a dose of common sense. The rest of the cast is rounded out with some wonderful performances by Genevieve Bujold, Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, and David Hemmings.
The Holmes-Ripper plot was semi-popular at the time and Murder by Decree has a number of connections to other works of film and literature from the period. It has a close plot similarity with 1965's inferior A Study in Terror. There is another film from the same year that pits H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper, Time After Time, though this is more of a sci-fi thriller than a murder mystery. Plummer also played Holmes two years previously in the '77 made for TV film Silver Blaze, which is an adaptation of the Conan Doyle story of the same name.
Murder by Decree's original script by John Hopkins is said to be based on Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd's book The Ripper File, but it also bears similarities to Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight. Both books examine existing Ripper clues and attempt to connect the crimes to the upper echelons of British society, dipping all the way into Freemasons and royalty. These books and Murder by Decree were an obvious inspiration for Alan Moore's absolutely sublime comic From Hell and the abominable film adaptation starring Johnny Depp. For Sherlockians out there, also check out The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, a poorly named pastiche novel from the '70s by Michael Dibdin, which also sets Holmes against the Ripper, but manages to tie in Moriarty. There is a well-received more recent attempt at the same, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, by Lyndsay Faye.
Though unavailable to movie-lovers and Sherlockians alike for many years, there is a fairly good Anchor Bay DVD available. It has a restored print, though there are still some scratches and the sound is occasionally muddy. This DVD includes a handful of extras, namely a nice commentary track with Clark, who is more than eager to run through the film's production history. Murder by Decree comes highly, highly recommended. If you are only going to see one Sherlock Holmes film, this should definitely be it.