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The Strange Things Boutique




DVD. Studiocanal.

Murder by DecreeBoasting an all-star cast, this Canadian-British co-production is probably the best (and certainly the last interesting) thing that director Bob Clark did – a slickly made gothic horror that brings together two staples of Victorian culture – the fictional Sherlock Homes and the all-too-real Jack the Ripper, resulting in one of the best cinematic stories featuring either character.

While not the first pairing of Holmes and Saucy Jack (that came in 1965’s A Study in Terror, a solid enough film in its own right), Murder By Decree is by far the most interesting. Based on the theories in Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper – The Final Solution – already filmed for a BBC TV version earlier in the decade and later the basis of another mini series starring Michael Caine and From Hell, the story takes the theory of the Ripper being connected to the Monarchy and the political establishment (widely sneered at by Ripperphiles and Monarchists, but certainly as valid a hypothesis as any other unproven idea – and until the government allow the release of secret Ripper papers, one that will continue to have traction – after all, why should paperwork relating to murders committed almost 125 years ago remain hidden unless they contain embarrassing information?) and connects it so seamlessly to the world of Sherlock Holmes that you can’t help feeling that these characters were made for each other.

Opening up with the Ripper’s third murder, the film is less about the crimes – shown in brief, dreamlike slow motion, deliberately vague shots – than the motivation behind them and the conspiracy to cover them up. Hired by anti-government radicals (much to the disquiet of Dr Watson, played by James Mason as a slightly naïve, sometimes confused but ultimately decent chap), Holmes (Christopher Plummer) finds himself getting caught up in a world where all sides are out for their own self-interests – it’s clear that the radicals don’t really care about the women being murdered, but see the killings as an opportunity to cause political change, while the higher ups in the police like Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle) are more interested in covering up evidence that links the crimes to the establishment and the Masons than in stopping the killings.

Murder By DecreeWhether you want to take the film as an entertaining fiction or a compelling explanation of the crimes, Murder By Decree is mightily impressive. The look of the film captures the seedy world of Whitechapel in 1888 – or at least how we all expect it to look – and Clark directs with a sure hand, keeping a tight reign on what could easily become a messy, overly complicated conspiracy thriller. Plummer is astonishing as Holmes – a far more human Holmes than we’ve tended to see, both brilliant yet torn by emotion and anger as he uncovers the truth. He's the Holmes that others have hinted at but never revealed. With an excellent supporting cast – David Hemmings, Frank Finlay, Genevieve Bujold amongst them – the film reaches levels of tragedy and horror that no other Holmes film has achieved.

The ending of the film has been criticised as a cop-out – but I can’t see any other way to bring the story to a finish, given that we know that the identity of the Ripper has never been revealed. The scenes involving Donald Sutherland as psychic Robert Lees also seem out of place – not only does Sutherland rather oddly overact, but the scenes add little of value to the film. But they don’t do any real harm either.

Tense, tragic and often chilling, Murder By Decree might well be the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation yet made; it’s certainly the best Ripper film. Essential viewing, even if this new disc is a bit of a missed opportunity – here is a film that is crying out for special edition treatment, but this new release is thoroughly bare bones, without even a trailer. Obviously, it looks much better than the surprisingly shoddy prints that turn up on TV from time to time, and if you don’t own a copy, this is a fine time to rectify that mistake. But given the sterling work being done by Studiocanal with their Hammer titles, you do wish a restored, extras-laden edition of this film would emerge on Blu-ray.






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