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Murder by Decree

1979, Starring Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland, Susan Clark. Directed by Bob Clark.

The classic movie foils of good and evil. Darth Vader vs Luke. Bond vs Blofeld. Taylor vs Zaius. Godzilla and Jet Jaguar vs Megalon. Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper? Okay, so the last one is kind of far fetched. One is a famous fictional character that appears in countless books and films. The very archetype of the brilliant detective. The other is a real legendary serial murderer who has never been identified.

Bob Clark made this film in the late 1970s, after a slew of genre films like Black Christmas. Although Murder By Decree reflects his roots in low budget horror, it seems to be striving somewhat outside the genre that Clark was so familiar with.

Like many of Bob Clark's films in which someone is being stalked, Murder by Decree's pastiche of fiction and reality begins with POV shots as someone prowls in the shadows watching a prostitute. Of course this is Jack the Ripper, who the audience manages to catch a glimpse of as a pair of eyes slide along from behind fence, a shot that is almost exactly the same as in Black Christmas. When Jack finally gets his nerve up, he approaches the prostitute and, well, rips her.

Then it's off to the heroes of the film: Christopher Plummer plays the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and James Mason appears as Dr. Watson. On visiting the crime scene, the pair is approached to take on the case of the dead prostitute. Using Holmesian cold logic to unravel cryptic clues, they stumble on to a Masonic conspiracy. Holmes travels around Victorian London, visiting the gigantically mustachioed psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) as Watson hangs out with prostitutes until he can finally make contact with Mary Kelly, another streetwalker who apparently has some knowledge of the murder. Holmes, worried about the danger to his person, is packing some kind of loaded scarf weapon, which he demonstrates to Watson by smashing a bottle with his long brown ascot.

As Watson and Holmes get closer and closer to exposing the Ripper, they begin stumbling on disturbing cannibalistic scenes and Holmes resolves to capture the killer. Soon he comes face to face with the villain the audience already knew, Jack the Ripper, who he engages in a rousing sword fight. All of this is tied up neatly with a slightly extended afterword in which all the conspiracies, motives, and identity of the killers are explained. Everything except for the killer scarf.

I found it a bit difficult to make it through the cat and mouse portion of the story, which takes up a considerable amount of this two hour film. The audience knows that the killer is Jack the Ripper in the first 5 minutes of the film, and although we don't really know why Jack is killing the prostitutes, or who he actually is, the emphasis is definitely on the somewhat tedious chase. The film redeemed itself for me in the final 20 minutes, when Holmes begins to truly understand the nature of the conspiracy and witnesses some of the strange rituals before leaping to action as an expert swordsman.

One thing I found odd about this film is the depiction of Holmes. Although he does solve some enigmatic clues, this is not the classical "brilliant" Holmes. This Sherlock Holmes is more of a man of action, both emotional and physical. Though, not a very Canadian film (it was mostly shot in the UK), Murder By Decree represents an important transition period for Clark that would bring many of his most popular Canadian films to the screen in the next five years.

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