MURDER BY DECREE
In the late 1960s Nic Cohn published an account of popular music. The title of the book, A WopBopAlopBamBoom, was a reference to a great rock and roll hit by Little Richard. Cohn nominated Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan as the best record made in Britain in the 1950s. The argument for the surprising claim was simple. Everything else was rubbish. Something similar can be said for Murder By Decree. If the film is the best of the Jack The Ripper movies, the competition is not great. The Lodger and Lulu have merit and may even be masterpieces but although serial killers are important to their plots they do not deserve a place on lists of Jack The Ripper movies. Johnny Duncan could sing and strum, and Murder By Decree beats its competitors.
From Hell, which was made twelve years later, had more poetical ambition but that ambition was not realised. Murder By Decree is different. It aspires to nothing more than entertainment, something to be consumed like a satisfying but plain British dinner. The movie relies on competency and craftsmanship rather than inspiration and it sidesteps innovation. Indeed, the notion of having Sherlock Holmes investigate the Jack the Ripper murders had been tried before in the 1965 movie A Study In Terror. That movie patronised its working class characters and made the fatal mistake of allowing the talentless British Georgia Brown to perform two songs. With no sense of what was either amusing or thrilling the movie refused to come to life.
Murder Be Decree has sly light humour and intrigue. This unambitious movie feels like a victory for the technocrats over the poets. Perhaps in a film that features Sherlock Holmes this is it how should be, a celluloid echo of the science of Holmes and the no-nonsense values of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Murder By Decree is not perfect. Some of the interior scenes are routine, and the final confrontation where Holmes explains the aristocratic conspiracy could have been done in a quarter of the time. There are almost twenty minutes between the climax of the film and the final titles. Yet it is not difficult to forgive the transgression.
The plot is based on the theory in the non-fiction book Jack The Ripper The Final Solution. According to the author Stephen Knight, there was an aristocratic conspiracy. Knight alleged that the Duke of Clarence fathered a child and that the mother Annie Crook was hidden in a mental institution. The deceit was known by five prostitutes who were murdered to protect the secret. The Duke of Clarence was an unimpressive individual but the theory has holes. For example, the child was conceived when Annie Crook lived in Britain and the witless Duke was wasting his days in mainland Europe.
Providing we ignore the facts, the theory makes an entertaining tale, which is why it has been used more than once by moviemakers. From Hell in 2001 and Jack The Ripper, a TV drama from 1988, both recommended the Knight account as the solution. Murder By Decree adds Sherlock Holmes, so it should feel even more opportunistic. But the script is interested in its characters and there are subtle references that share knowledge of the actual history of the crimes and their investigation. The makers of Murder By Decree have taken time to think about what they are doing. Nothing in the movie feels cheap or cynical, and in a Jack The Ripper movie that is rare.
John Hopkins wrote the screenplay. He came to fame in the 60s because of his tight scripts for Z Cars. Hopkins does not overwrite. Back then playwright Dennis Potter was heralded for his vision but Hopkins had the superior craft and technical skill. Boosted by his success on Z Cars, Hopkins was allowed by the BBC to write a four play series called Talking To A Stranger. Each of the plays tells what happened in the same weekend but from the point of view of a different character. Talking To A Stranger is regarded as a television masterpiece. In 1979, when he worked on Murder By Decree, Hopkins had acquired plenty of experience. His work was uneven but he was also prolific and versatile. Hopkins was not the equal of Harold Pinter but he always had his moments. There are a couple in Murder By Decree. Watson is struggling to lift the last pea off his dinner plate. Holmes, always the lateral thinker, borrows the fork of Watson to squash the pea. The doctor is offended. He had wanted to eat the pea while it was still whole. Apart from being humorous and a welcome break from essential exposition the short scene defines the relationship between the two very different men. Later, Watson visits a London pub to find a witness amongst the East End. He talks to a prostitute who thinks she has attractions that her peers lack. She is proud of her full set of teeth but during the conversation the prostitute realises that one of her tooth has loosened. A simple idea explains a precarious livelihood and the defiance and lopsided delusion that the poor need to persist. For once the prostitutes in Murder By Decree are not patronised and reduced to being chirpy cockneys. There is conflict between the women, and in a subsequent scene Hopkins is able to describe quickly what it must be like for a poor woman to be dependent on a hopeless male. What possessed a seasoned professional like Hopkins to extend the final scene is a mystery.
If the script is sturdy, the accomplished cast take it to another level. Christopher Plummer leaves no room for doubt as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason adds real dignity to the modest contribution of Doctor Watson. The script is well written but it is hokum. The actors could be excused for being frivolous but they treat their performances as serious work. They grace the film with their presence. There are also dignified cameo performances from Frank Finlay and David Hemmings. Geneviève Bujold appears as Annie Crook for one scene only. She is discovered by Holmes in the asylum. The emotional scene between the shocked and upset Holmes and the ruined Crook could have unbalanced a modest film but the two actors ensure we are affected by a tragedy that is not real but typical.
Bob Clark directed the film and Reginald H Morris was the cameraman. Neither managed milestones in their careers but something went right when they combined for Murder By Decree. Perhaps the craftsmanship of Hopkins and the presence of gifted actors inspired Clark and Morris to remember their own technical skills. The shots of Parliament behind the Thames evoke the paintings of Whistler. For once the fog is not white. It does not have the authentic and sickly yellow tint but it is gloomy. In early scenes we see the face of the assassin but like the vague witnesses of the Ripper we know we cannot identify him. Indoors, the photography is less impressive but there the focus is on the actors, and Morris still leaves his mark with a memorable wide-angle shot that is filmed through a mirror. Holmes talks to three visitors who stand at the back of the room. The open carriage journeys through Victorian London not only give the movie visual distinction but reveal Holmes and Watson as gentlemen at ease with the city around them.
The plot may be based on nonsense but it does no harm to the British people if the Royal Family is portrayed as a shower of violent hypocrites, the pinnacle of the social exploitation that marred Victorian society. And if the Royal Family had nothing to do with the Ripper murders, there is enough in the history of our monarchs to justify a movie suggesting this particular family would not be averse to slaughter. The script of Hopkins is as harsh with the radical politicians. The left wing Inspector Foxborough is a man who welcomes the Ripper murders because in his opinion it will precipitate social change. Holmes condemns Foxborough as a heartless man too willing to sacrifice innocent working people. This gives the film political balance, and it is consistent with how a man like Sherlock Holmes would think. Radical politics would have been beyond the great detective but, like Conan Doyle, Sherlock was capable of civilised compassion. The condemnation of Foxborough, though, does feel glib, especially as the judgement by Holmes is repeated in the overextended fourteen minute scene at the end of the movie. People adopted radical politics in 1888 for a good reason. They were horrified by the plight of the poor. At least we are given the satisfaction of seeing three powerful men humbled by the final revelations of Holmes. The consolation is that the powerful will always be paranoid about the threat of masses and that gives them real discomfort. Fourteen minutes, though, is still too long for it to be explained.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.