|The nineteen-seventies was, among other things, the decade where the conspiracy movie came into its own, with seemingly a Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View or Winter Kills being released every month, even every week. Some of these made up fictional schemes for the powers that be to contrive, though there was a contingent of works based on real life conspiracies like Executive Action or All the President's Men that were based in fact, though the latter had more fact than the former. Arriving at the close of the era, Murder by Decree wanted to have it both ways, by regarding a real crime through a fictional lens.
The fictional characters it adopted were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the definitive detective duo of Victorian times right through to the present day. Now, while nobody has suggested Batman investigating the Zodiac Killer or Miss Marple hunting down Jack the Stripper, the appeal of Holmes tracking contemporary Jack the Ripper is undeniable: an infallible deductive mind would, naturally, be the ideal weapon to work out who Jack really was, and solve a case that in 1979 was approaching its centenary. That the Ripper is no closer to being exposed has been worried at for even longer, with new suspects thrown up as each decade goes by.
Now, in the television series and subsequent book this was based on (which had no connection to Holmes, but did have a connection to the popular BBC TV police series Z-Cars), the culprit was suggested to be William Gull, a physician to the Royals and according to subsequent tellings, a sexual psychopath who liked to dissect prostitutes in London's Whitechapel. You see that in Michael Caine's commemorative 1988 miniseries Jack the Ripper (the murders occurred in the Autumn of 1888), and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's densely-packed graphic novel From Hell and its subsequent adaptation starring Johnny Depp in 2001, along with other written efforts.
This was, of course, utter rubbish, Gull was entirely innocent of the crimes and only became fashionable as a suspect when Stephen Knight's 1976 solution was intent on fingering the toffs for the murders, which appealed to the grudge-holding socialist in everyone lacking their privilege. Jack the Ripper was by no means the only murderer in Victorian London at the time, assuming he was one person, but he did garner the most publicity and as the years passed by with him escaping scot free it was irksome that the authorities were unable to catch him, hence the big idea that they had somehow been part of a cover-up, a very nineteen-seventies concept of the infamous case.
Bob Clark was the director and screenwriter of Murder by Decree, known at that point for his horror movies like Black Christmas, though in the next decade for comedy fare like A Christmas Story and Porky's, but here he managed to get away with lifting Knight's research, no matter how dubious it had been factually, by putting it in the mouths of a fictionalised Sherlock mystery. Sort of like how Dan Brown got away with adapting others' work for The Da Vinci Code a number of years later by presenting the findings as factual and therefore in the public domain, despite any perfunctory inquiry into these facts revealing them as the invention of imaginative writers with a pseudo-historical leaning.
For that reason, Murder by Decree should be pretty hard to take, and though Clark changed various names and neglected to mention others, Sherlock's ultimate theory as to what had actually happened was intended to hold water inasmuch as solving the case. Yet if you approached it that way you were going to be led up the garden path as far as the truth went, so better to regard the film as sheer fiction from beginning to end, a conceit that rested on a pair of unusual readings of Holmes and Watson. Unusual in that Holmes was depicted as an emotional man, not some creature of absolute logic, and his relationship with Watson one of deep affection, though stopping short of what the twenty-first century would term shipping.
Christopher Plummer was Holmes and James Mason Watson, where you could tell the actors were getting on well and that translated into one of the warmest depictions of the sleuth ever seen, quite apart from what later talents would do with him, where the autism diagnosis never seemed far away, at least in a popular savant misconception of the condition. At times, Clark took it too far: Sherlock, on meeting a victim (Genevieve Bujold) of the conspiracy locked in an asylum, attacks the head of the establishment and bursts into tears, which was meant to demonstrate dramatic importance but looks kind of daft. Yet Murder by Decree was, like television spin-off Sweeney!, a rare British try at the Hollywood conspiracy movie from the seventies - all right, it was part-Canadian, but it did play better on a second viewing when the guest stars like Donald Sutherland (as a real life suspect and psychic) or John Gielgud (as the Prime Minister) did not play like novelty turns so much, as you were able to lose yourself in the complex plot and appreciate the gloomy Victorian evocation that bit more.
[Studiocanal release Murder by Decree on a spiffing Blu-ray with these special features:
New: Audio commentary with Film Journalist Kim Newman and Crime Fiction Historian Barry Forshaw
New: Interview with Film Journalist Kim Newman.]