Ironically, fandom by and large is fascinated by minutae. “Ringers”, as Tolkien fans are sometimes called, are encyclopedic in their knowledge of Middle Earth and its history. The same goes for fans of Star Wars, Marvel and DC comics, Star Trek and Harry Potter. (And Twilight, too, but those little girls should be outgrowing that triviality soon.) These obsessions aren’t limited to fictional worlds either, as any Civil War re-enactor, WWII buff, or Renfaire griper will demonstrate at the drop of a date. If an enveloping history contains multitudes and layers, there is someone—or a club of someones—eager to explore it all.
1979’s Murder By Decree, directed by Bob Clark (whose own bizarre and diverse oeuvre--Black Christmas, Porky's, A Christmas Story--deserves its own graduate-level study), combines the obsessive loves of the “Ripperologists” and the “Sherlockians” by combining two fascinating off-shoots of Victorian London—Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, the world’s greatest detective vs. history’s most elusive villain. By bringing the fictional exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth and his real-world London into the seedier underside of a London even more real, director Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins merge the dizzying, labyrinthine details of both mythologies.
Cliff’s Notes for those unfamiliar with either scenarios: Sherlock Holmes is the world’s only “consulting detective”, a brilliant misanthrope and likely “highly functioning sociopath” (as he describes himself in his latest incarnation in the BBC’s Sherlock), finds joy only in pitting his vast intellect against baffling mysteries. One person in the world can stand to be around him: his only friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson. Under Doyle’s direction, Holmes and Watson embarked on dozens of adventures in the foggy, gaslamp-lit streets of London during the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria. In real life and during the exact same period (1888), an unknown man (or men) was running around the poverty-stricken slums of London’s Whitechapel district, murdering and mutilating at least five prostitutes and may or may not be responsible for another half-dozen more. The details surrounding the “Jack the Ripper” case have been sifted through not only by the police force at the time (headed by Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Aberline), but by obsessive-compulsive historians over the following hundred-plus years. Because the crime was never solved, it seems the best and most-natural fit to involve Holmes, in what will certainly be his greatest mystery!
Taking its cue from the popular scenario put forth by author Stephen Knight in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Holmes deduces that the five victims possess knowledge that could damage the Monarchy and are being silenced by a governmental assassins. With this game afoot, it’s up to Holmes and Watson to protect the last potential victim, Marie Kelly, and put a stop to the madness—even if it means bringing down the government and its shadowy Masonic machinations!
Despite even the best efforts of brilliant detectives throughout history, including FBI profiler John Douglas, who makes only a “best guess” in his book, The Cases That Haunt Us, and because we’re creatures who need to believe that someone has to be in charge, be they benevolent or malevolent, or else all is chaos, it’s too tempting to believe in a Machiavellian conspiracy involving Albert Prince Regent, an illegitimate child, and a quintet of prostitutes blackmailing the Queen, leading to their elimination by any means necessary. Mixing in the secretive Freemasons and adding a dash of occultism only sweetens the delightful stew. Despite a truckload of evidence against this story, it still makes for the most irresistible of solutions for many scenarists, not the least of which Alan Moore, whose holistic approach to the apocalyptic time of 1880s London resulted in the mad and wonderful graphic literature From Hell, and its bastard offspring film version featuring Johnny Depp as a too-young Abberline and Heather Graham as a too-clean Marie Kelly.
Placing the great Sherlock Holmes in the midst of one of the most notorious unsolved murders in history gives the viewer—obsessive or no—a sense of closure, if only temporarily. Murder By Decree, of course, wasn’t the first time Holmes was set upon the ripper’s trail. Other cases were recounted in the cinematically so-so (but excrutiatingly marketed—“Biff! Bang! Crunch! Here comes the Original Caped Crusader!”) A Study In Terror (1965, starring “Baron Munchausen" John Neville as a serviceable Holmes, and Frank Finlay as Lestrade—who also plays the Inspector in Decree). In print, we have the notorious and, to some, indefensible The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Diblin (in which Holmes himself is the Ripper!), as well as the better-received and Doyle-heir blessed Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lindsay Faye. In any of the above cases, the pairing is natural and even necessary. We as a species abhor loose ends but adore our climactic showdowns with our greatest heroes and villains. So both intricate narratives weave together quite beautifully without ever—or necessarily—being true.
At least, for the casual viewer.
For the obsessive “Ripperologists” and anal-retentive “Sherlockians”, Murder By Decree may prove a bit maddening. If the viewer happens to be both, by the time the end credits roll, sedatives may be required. Utilizing the much-debunked Royal/Masonic Conspiracy theory will already cause some pain, but it gives Hopkins script a great amount of breathing room. While Knight’s solution implicates 1st Baronet and Royal surgeon-in-ordinary Sir William Gull and his coachman John Netley, Hopkins changes their names to protect their maligned identities. A few events are shuffled around further and much more is made of the institutionalized Annie Crook (played here by a splendid Genevieve Bujold), alleged (by the theory) to have wed Prince Albert in a secret Catholic ceremony which would have eliminated him from the ascendancy to the throne.
More damning—or, okay, perhaps “darning” might be the better phrase—is the portrayal of Holmes and Watson by Christopher Plummer and James Mason, respectively. For hardened fans of the classic acerbic Holmes or the cinematically bumbling Watson (thanks ever so much, Nigel Bruce), the heroes in Murder By Decree may come as a complete—though not unpleasant—surprise. While the events of the case take place during the height of Holmes’ and Watson’s careers, their relationship is presented as comfortable and broken in. Holmes and Watson banter affectionately with each other (best exemplified in the “You squashed my pea, Holmes” scene -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPUHMuSxiEo) and seem more like a married couple than a crime-fighting partnership. It could also be argued that the actors are two old for the time-period, but that’s what you get for fighting with the experts. My personal biggest complaint is that Holmes does so little detective work. He acts on hunches and intuition, lets suspects go far too easily (as evidenced in the scene involving “psychic” Robert Lees—played here by Donald Sutherland—who is allowed by Holmes to avoid implicating either himself or the real culprit he “envisioned”).
But the movie excels in atmosphere—the thick fog of the streets, the dank horror of Bethlehem Hospital (aka “Bedlam”) where Annie Crook is held, the absolute tweediness of the costuming. And before one starts to think that Holmes might be too much of an old nellie, Clark stages an exciting climax pitting the Ripper’s sword-cane against the weighted ends of Holmes bolo-scarf. It also feeds us our cake and allows us to have it too, as an appeal to Holmes’ (characteristic, considering that he shot a "VR" for "Victoria Regent" into the wall of his apartment) sense of Queen-and-Country provides us with both the solution of the murders and the reason behind the Great Detective’s own silence regarding the matter.
What it all comes down to is exactly what lies at the nucleus of all movies: if you buy the premise, you buy the bit. If you’re a stickler and nitpicker, Murder By Decree may drive you absolutely batty. If your only Holmesian frame-of-reference is Guy Ritchie’s “Bam! Bang!” redeux with Robert Downey, Jr., you may find Clark’s take a bit too slow and old fashioned for your taste. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, if you’re neither a Sherlockian nor Ripperologist—or if you can divorce yourself from facts and canon—you may find yourself thoroughly entertained by Murder By Decree.