Murder by Decree

[9 February 2010]

By Brian Holler

International Man of Mystery

The career arc of director Bob Clark has to be one of the more baffling in the annals of film. With largely Canadian backing, the American director began working within the exploitation and horror genres in the early ‘70s as a means to break into the mainstream. His major contributions to popular culture have been threefold: first, a dubious sort of landmark in the original Black Christmas (1975), featuring Margot Kidder as a drunken sorority sister harassed on Christmas Eve by an obscene phone caller (calling from within the house yet, a device later employed in When a Stranger Calls).  This brutally cozy little flick was an early sleeper of a slasher film, presaging the glut of ‘80s holiday-themed horror by several years (Halloween didn’t come out until ’78). 

Another Christmas outing at the other end of the spectrum, perennial favorite A Christmas Story (1983), was another sleeper which didn’t catch on until after its initial theatrical run, finding its feet in a stint on cable. Its wryly narrated concoction of small-town, gritty coming-of-age tale suffused with pre-teen awkwardness was somehow universally relatable. Then came the odious and irredeemable Porky’s series, about which less said the better. 

Suffice it to say, later series such as the deathless American Pie films owe a debt of gratitude to Clark for launching the teen sex romp. At least two of his films have been remade or slated for remake (Black Christmas, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Porky’s, rumored to be helmed by Howard Stern). Hot on the heels of Holmes, Anchor Bay has brought Clark’s 1979 offering, half-B-movie, half-prestige pic Murder by Decree, to DVD.

Inspired by The Ripper File by John Lloyd and Elwyn Jones, Clark diffused his early horror sensibility into a thriller set in 1880s London. Conflating the Whitechapel murders and Sherlock Holmes seemed an ace move, though he wasn’t the first to get there (that honor goes to James Hill’s 1965 A Study in Terror).  It enabled Clark to decamp to London, working with a mostly British cast in a bid for respectability which mostly worked (and would later be squandered with Porky’s). 

“This is a fictional dramatization based on recent theories” about the Ripper murders, reads a title card. True, the ideas propounded herein may have seemed innovative in 1979. It’s a witches’ brew of freemasonry, rebel anarchist cadres, forced madness, psychic phenomena, secret rituals and conspiracy theories that go straight to the dark, maggot-infested heart of Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament. Nearly every male in the cast is potentially culpable in the murders or hiding something. Something is truly rotten in the state of Dear Old Blighty.

The story is told via conventional means, without any of the hallucinatory qualities which marked From Hell(2001)which riffed on very similar ideas. (Clark sniffs in the director’s commentary that he intentionally skimmed over Holmes’ purported “drug problem”, as this film wasn’t “about that”, perhaps alluding to the contemperanous Seven Percent Solution.)

The action begins with the famous sleuth (a simpering Christopher Plummer) and his sidekick Watson (James Mason) attending a concert which is late to start. All eyes are on the royal box, as the prince has kept his subjects waiting. When his dilly-dallying Majesty finally arrives to royal boos from the commoners below, Watson quells the hue and cry with his own counter-chant of “God Save his Royal Highness!”, eventually drowning out the plebes. “You’ve saved the day, Watson,” Holmes praises his friend. However, those words will return to haunt them by the end of the film, when a vast conspiracy encompassing all levels of society is unraveled by the redoubtable detective.

Later Holmes is importuned by a group of concerned local merchants, whose business has been adversely affected by the Ripper murders, to take on the case. The latest vivisection has taken place in Whitechapel, and Holmes takes a hard line with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Foxborough (David Hemmings), who for some reason has patently excluded him from the case this time out, effectively banning him from within sniffing distance of the prostitute’s freshly mutilated corpse. Holmes then absconds with Exhibit A: a discarded grapevine, which leads him on the trail of two women-who-know-too-much, Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold) and Mary Kelly (Susan Clark). 

Meanwhile, Hemmings’ character is willing to allow the Ripper’s victims to be sacrificed in order to achieve his own revolutionary ends, by undermining and exposing the government (I’ve said too much already).  As Holmes states in the film, “This makes you no better than the murderer.” 

The women’s fate gives the ending a twist of melancholy (albeit in the wake of some rather underwhelming revelations) as the septic tank of England’s most venerable and corrupt institutions remains firmly closed . Threat hangs in the air however, and, according to Clark, some Sherlockian scholars took exception to Holmes’ show of anger as uncharacteristic.

Also, the sensitive streak in Holmes and a thankfully non-bumbling Watson (although he does supply some comic relief) in Mason apparently run counter to traditional portrayals of the duo. Most “lay” viewers should, however, be able to luxuriate in the stellar cast of Limey greats (topped off by Sir John Gielgud as the Prime Minister and Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren) settled comfortably into their respective roles. The only shrill note is struck by Donald Sutherland as an out-to-lunch clairvoyant, the whole psychic subplot being a bit of a red herring.

While the film is never particularly frightening, Clark displays a workmanlike ability to create an atmosphere of palpable dread. Even seedy cod-Victorian London during the day, with its ever-shifting light patterns and labyrinthine streets, is given a sense of shuddery menace. The widescreen transfer highlights the judicious use of Steadicam and the seamless combination of sets, locations and miniatures give the film a vintage, handmade feel.

The extras are fairly lush on the ground, including a Clark director’s commentary with choice anecdotes about the cast (Peter O’Toole and Sir Laurence Olivier were originally to head the cast, but couldn’t get over their mutual hatred), comprehensive talent bios of Clark, Mason and Plummer, and extensive still galleries. Other goodies include a 12-page booklet, original one-sheet and the script as a pdf file. In all, a generous package that equals more than the sum of its parts.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/119701-murder-by-decree/