An impressive remastering of Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree can introduce new audiences to the compelling intertwining of fictional and historical icons: Holmes vs. Ripper.
There’s something reassuring about the light repartee of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson after an opening credit sequence of eerie orchestral music and slow, creeping pans through a foggy London in Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree. The murder-mystery combines two seminal figures of 1800s England: intrepid detective Holmes and ‘Jack the Ripper’, and so, while the dynamic of Holmes and Watson offers a sense that everything will be resolved in the end, the famously unsolved Ripper murders add an extra layer of tension and anticipation for what the film has in store. And the rerelease of Murder by Decree on Blu-ray and DVD offers new audiences a chance to experience one of the seminal Holmes adaptations in the best quality possible.
After the murder of several prostitutes in Whitechapel, London, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and his companion Dr John Watson (James Mason) are approached by members of the local community who are dissatisfied with police inaction. In their quest to uncover the truth, they find themselves embroiled in an investigation that involves the highly secretive Freemasons, medium Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland), and famed serial murderer ‘Jack the Ripper’.
As with James Hill’s A Study in Terror, Clark’s film uses Conan Doyle’s characters without directly adapting a story. It’s a compelling and entertaining intertwining of iconic fictional and historical figures that is well crafted, performed and scripted, even if it does feel a tad overlong and lags a bit by the end. The Blu-ray offers a stunning rendering of the film in widescreen with a crystal clear picture, with the sound remaining relatively clear too, barring a few instances of muddy dialogue.
Plummer’s Holmes is a softer, less abrasive version compared to some other portrayals. His is a more emotional Holmes, one that grapples with the depravity and gravity of the case he’s investigating, buoyed by the warmth and camaraderie with Mason’s Watson as the film treads dark, chilling waters. A note at the beginning of the film accompanies this rerelease, alerting the viewer that it “reflects historical attitudes which audiences may find outdated or offensive”. It’s a self-aware addendum to a film that casts most of its women as sex workers or in the ‘madhouse’.
Overall, Murder by Decree is in the top tier of Sherlockian adaptations. Plummer’s humanity and the addition of the ever-popular true crime Ripper case ensures Bob Clark’s film remains an intriguing prospect for murder-mystery fans and cinephiles alike.
Murder By Decree is available to buy on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from 28th June 2021.