At London's Royal Opera House, the famed detective Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and his faithful companion Dr. Watson (James Mason) are out for the evening, though Holmes is growing impatient with the amount of time it is taking the Prince to arrive so the the entertainment can begin. Eventually the Prince deigns to enter the Royal box, but the reception is not entirely a welcome one as the audience in the Gods make no secret of their displeasure with him. Watson is shocked, and rallies the others to drown out the jeers and boos, but as this is going on a murder is being committed which the crimefighting duo will be drawn into solving...
There's a message during the end credits of this film that proudly announces that its plotline is based on the latest theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper, for that is who Holmes and Watson are pitted against here. They had faced him before in a different screen adaptation, A Study in Terror, but the concept proved irresistable and producer-director Bob Clark came up with a film that was pretty lavish in its depiction of Victorian London. So why did Murder by Decree come across as a big budget television special? Was it because Arthur Conan Doyle's creation belonged on the small screen?
More likely it was because the plot was not really opened up and tended to take place in locations that were not above the money of the B.B.C. or I.T.V., and the overall impression is that a lot more imagination than the simple "Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper" way in to the story was necessary to make the drama and thrills take off and fly. Clark had proven himself adept at suspense before, but here his efforts seemed hampered by John Hopkins' stuiffy script, with only Plummer really putting in the work to bring some life to the production.
Unfortunately, he came across as miscast (Peter O'Toole, the original choice, would have been more interesting), and the attempts to render a compassionate Holmes are a little embarrassing. When our hero visits a poor soul (Genevieve Bujold) banished to an asylum as part of a huge conspiracy, he ends up in tears and flinging himself at the establishment's director in rage, not exactly the manner in which most people want their Sherlock to behave. Plummer also gets to prove his man of action credentials in a near-climactic tussle that would not be out of place in one of the regular James Bond movies.
Although it's a neat idea, I wonder how good a match the classic detective and the real life serial killer are, for they are at odds with each other. The reason the Ripper endures in both history and fiction is that he was never caught and therefore comes with a lot of baggage about nineteenth century social hypocrisy, the failings of the authorities and plain and simple chills. Holmes on the other hand always solved his cases, and so here has to be crowbarred into a plot where he has to pretend he has not uncovered the scheming that brought the killings to prominence and has to keep his mouth shut, all less than satisfying. Not only that, but every male guest star is saddled with some remarkable wigs and facial furniture to act through, which can be a distraction. Murder by Decree is a nice try, but does not do justice to either real life or fiction. Music by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer.
American born, Canadian-based writer, producer and director with a varied career, he rarely stopped working in the industry from his 1970s horror Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things onwards, with cult classics like chiller Deathdream, Black Christmas (the first of the North American slasher cycle), Murder by Decree (a Sherlock Holmes mystery), sex comedy Porky's and its sequel, and A Christmas Story (a cult comedy that has become a seasonal favourite) all winning fans. He was responsible for such derided films as Rhinestone and the Baby Geniuses movies as well. At the time of his death in a car crash he was working on a remake of ...Dead Things.