Murder by Decree (1979)

Bob Clark always surprises me. How can the same director create Porky’sA Christmas StoryBlack ChristmasChildren Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream? Here’s one more movie that doesn’t seem like it belongs in his list of films: a Jack the Ripper movie where the real-life killer battles with Sherlock Holmes.

Written by playwright John Hopkins (Thunderball) and based somewhat on Elwyn Jones’s book The Ripper File and the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hopkins kept Holmes’ detective skills and scientific abilities while cutting out his drug use. Hopkins had a history of editing. He was removed from the movie version of Man of La Macha for deleting most of the songs from his script!

Peter O’Toole and Sir Laurence Olivier were originally cast as Holmes and Watson, but the two actors could not overcome their differences.

Instead, Christopher Plummer (Starcrash) and James Mason (Salem’s Lot) play Holmes and Watson here, but they aren’t the characters you’ve seen in other films. Holmes is more human and caring, while Watson’s medical skills take over instead so that he appears as anything but the bumbling fool that other actors portray him as. Mason would only take this role if he could play Watson this way and even went so far as to write two of his scenes.

David Hemmings (Deep Red) shows up as a police inspector; Susan Clark from TV’s Webster is Mary Kelly; Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, the same role he did in A Study in Terror; Anthony Quayle (who was also in A Study in Terror) plays Sir Charles Warren; Donald Sutherland is British spiritualist Robert Lees, who claimed to know who Jack the Ripper was and John Gielgud plays the Prime Minister.

With the police unable to stop the murders of Jack the Ripper, Holmes is approached by some concerned citizens who ask him to investigate. Soon, Holmes divines that the victims are all connected with Annie Crook, an institutionalized woman.

Much like the later From Hell, Freemasons get involved to protect their own. Even worse, Inspector Foxborough, the man in charge of it all, wants to the government to fall when they can’t solve the case.

This film was shot in England at the same time as The Shining and Alien (which was shot in the very same studio).

Of all the Ripper films I’ve watched this week, this one looks the best. It has that 70’s color look that I love so much mixed with some gorgeous visuals of London. I’ve always loved both Plummer and Mason, so seeing them play such classic characters was a real joy.

I love the scene where Holmes wins over the Chief Inspector with the Signs of Masonry, such as the Duegard of the Entered Apprentice (right hand placed palm down, placed over the left hand held palm up), the Sign of the Entered Apprentice (drawing the right hand from left to right across the throat), the Real Grip of a Master Mason (the handshake with the thumb and little finger extended) and the Sign of a Fellow Craft (drawing the right hand across the body from the left breast to the right hip).

These Signs all refer to the penalties for those who reveal secrets to outsiders, such as having your throat slit, your chest torn open and your heart ripped out. This refers to Hiram Abiff, who is the character of a lesson that third degree Masons must learn. The chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple, Hiram is killed by three men in the very temple that he has designed when he refuses to reveal the Master Masons’ secrets. This is to teach Masons the importance of fidelity and the certainty of death. When Holmes reveals that the Chief Inspector is a Thirty-Third degree Mason, he is able to speak directly to him about the fact that he’s actively covering up facts and turn the tables on the man.

It also points to the Masonic implications of the Ripper murders, with the throats of each woman being cut and their bodies being presented in ways that echo the way the three killers of Hiram were punished.

In my week of Jack the Ripper movies, I can honestly say that this was the best that I watched. It’s also the best Sherlock Holmes movie I’ve seen and one that does the best job of showing why Holmes and Watson have remained steadfast friends and worked so hard to defend the people of England.

 

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