I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Much as I love Holmes, I’m even more fascinated by the macabre Jack the Ripper conspiracies. How scary to think that this person actually existed and not only were they never caught, nobody truly knows the identity either. Naturally combining Sherlock and the Ripper is a recipe for me to sit up and take note. In this post I’m going to share a little known gem from 1979 called Murder by Decree, which is one of my favourite films.
This is not the first time Holmes has gone up against the Ripper. It happened in A Study In Terror (1965), which featured a rather young Dame Judi Dench as well as Barbara Windsor before her “Carry on” career really took off. For me, the main difference is that Terror is almost entirely fictitious (aside from using a few familiar names), whereas Decree actually weaves in many of the known facts about the Ripper case.
What do I love about this film?
Firstly, you have the first-rate cast – Christopher Plummer plays as a very different “human” Sherlock Holmes (incidentally he played the role rather differently two years earlier in Silver Blaze). James Mason is a wonderful near-perfect Watson (even if it can be argued he is a tad old). Here he is presented as an intelligent fellow who grounds Holmes, rather than the bumbling Nigel Bruce stereotype so prevalent until this film. The chemistry between the two is brilliant, all I need to say is “pea scene”. An interesting story about the film is that originally Holmes was going to be played by Peter O’Toole and Watson by Laurence Olivier. However the two actors had a history and didn’t get along together. Things fell through, meaning that both Plummer and Mason were cast instead. You then have some solid support from the likes of Sir John Gielgud, David Hemmings, Anthony Quayle (who was also in A study in terror), Donald Sutherland and Frank Finlay (perhaps even more interestingly also in A study in terror playing the same role – Inspector Lestrade).
There is also a mesmerizing turn by Geneviève Bujold in one particularly memorable scene. Incredibly “that scene” was shot within a morning.
Next you have the script, written by John Hopkins whose other credits include the James Bond film Thunderball. It creates some wonderfully rich characters and some truly memorable sequences. These are elegantly mixed together with the appropriate elements (part Holmes, part fact, part fiction, some politics and social commentary on the times, emotion, tension and mystery all with a splash of excitement and humour). I think one of the films stronger points is the fact the film concentrated on the victims more than most Ripper films up to this point.
Next there is the atmosphere. The Anglo-Canadian production reminds me very much of the strongest work Hammer films did in their heyday. There is an impeccable score (more on that towards the end). There is some lovely miniature work (give me miniatures over CGI any day of the week). The sets are fantastic, no doubt where the vast majority of the film’s modest $4 million budget was invested. These were built at both Elstree and Shepperton Studios. The whole thing is steeped in “ye-olde foggy London towness”, complete with gas lamps, cobble-stones, claustrophobic alleyways, eerie wharfs and clattering horse-drawn carriages. At night it feels a truly sinister place to be, the stuff of nightmares! I would also like to single out the lighting on the film. If only modern-day films took as much care and attention to detail when lighting their scenes.
The final cherry on top is Bob Clark‘s wonderful direction. He is a director I have a great deal of respect for. His work is extremely diverse, admittedly some of his films work better than others (I believe I read somewhere he is the only director to have films in both the top 250 and the bottom 100 on IMDB!). His credits include Porky’s, Black Christmas, the cult classic A Christmas Story and Turk 182!. There is much striking imagery here, but the nightmarish visuals are where the film really excels. Some of these are imported from Clark’s earlier work on Black Christmas. Black Christmas if you haven’t already heard of it is yet another hidden gem, essentially one of the first slasher films. Black Christmas pre-dates the film famed for kick-starting the genre Halloween (which copies chunks of it), by a good four or so years (just be sure to avoid the remake). Scenes he brings back to good effect include a startling “POV” stalking shot and a disturbing eye-ball close-up.
Other notable scenes includes a fish-eye slow-motion shot of a horse and carriage coming through the fog towards the screen and some particularly eerie shots looking through a dingy fire-lit bedroom window which really lets your imagination run-riot. He also puts a few real locations to good use also, most notably Clink Wharf. Then there are the exception performances he manages to pull from his stellar cast as well.
All this said, it is far from a perfect film! After the showdown, the ending exposition goes on for far too long and is at times heavy-handed. The Donald Sutherland scenes (much as I love him) are out-of-place – almost from a different movie. Some of the humour feels poorly judged (eg. Mason’s interaction with “the ladies” to track down Mary Kelly, more hokey than jokey). There are a few plot holes, the story gets a bit convoluted at times. The editing needed to be just a bit tighter. Perhaps Holmes needed to do a bit more sleuthing. Purists are going to argue that Plummer is completely wrong in the role, one scene in particular humanizes the character which is clearly not in keeping with Conan Doyle’s character. To be honest, I can easily overlook this – there are so many different interpretations of the character now, including the latest Robert Downey Jr take – which perhaps isn’t so wildly dissimilar. Plummer’s Holmes is perfect for this particular story. It might even be fair to say that Decree is actually a better Jack the Ripper film than it is a Sherlock Holmes film (although I don’t necessarily agree with this).
I don’t want to spoil too much more about the film, all you really need to know is that it is Sherlock Holmes tracking down Jack the Ripper! Although the film often gets compared against A Study in terror, it has far more in common with From Hell starring Johnny Depp. Both use the same well-loved but completely barmy conspiracy story. But Decree did it over 20 years before and is (for me) by far the superior film. The characters have more heart, which is sorely lacking in From Hell (in more ways than one). Even taking aside the “Heather Graham” factor (I still have issues here), From Hell is a let down if held alongside it splendid original source material – Alan Moore’s revered graphic novel. Plus it is very much a Hollywood vehicle aimed more at the MTV crowd – quick-cut, flashy, over-stylised, unsubtle and leaving far too little to the imagination. Saying this, Murder by Decree is definitely one of the more grisly Holmes outings around. Even now it still retains power, hard to believe it was rated PG in the States upon release. The UK has recently reclassified it from a 15 to a 12. The perfect ambience would be to sit and watch this on a dreary autumnal Sunday night, with absolutely no light except for a small fire flickering in the corner of the room.
Speaking of which, part of the reason I love this film so much has to do with “where I was at” when I first saw it. My parents were just starting to leave me on my own in the house and go off to various social events/clubs in the evenings. So what does a young teenager do? He tracks down Mum and Dad’s video recorder of course to see if they have recorded anything they wouldn’t ordinarily let him watch. I stumbled onto this of course. It was the first really truly “bleak” story I’d ever seen, and I was watching it in pitch black whilst being all alone. I remember being pretty shaken-up by the time they returned, maybe even more so when I realised it was based on real-events.
Speaking of real-life happenings, sadly some of you may already be aware of the terrible event which occurred in April 2007. Tragically both director Bob Clark and his son Ariel were killed in a vehicle accident by an unlicensed driver who was intoxicated. Completely devastating, my heart goes out to the family for such a loss!
I guess it has always been my ambition to make a film such as this (perhaps now as some kind of tribute). Obviously I don’t want to make exactly the same story (or more accurately the same conspiracy), as this has been done. But something along the same lines: people on the tail of “Saucy Jack” with the same “ye-olde-London” atmosphere. If there are any screen-writers out there who might be interested in collaborating on such a project, please please get in touch (damn I wish I was a screen-writer sometimes!).
Meanwhile all the interest in “Jack” is showing no signs of slowing. Obviously the series Whitechapel is doing fairly well, there is a new series called Ripper Street which will be on later in the year. I even noticed just in the local newspaper this weekend a play this weekend. East-end tours around the Whitechapel district, new books covering a different conspiracy theory, even video games (such as “Sherlock Holmes vs Jack The Ripper” which I did buy, may even find the time to install it and play one day!). In terms of productions, my next favourite on the subject is the 1988 TV series with Michael Caine and Lewis Collins. I’m also extremely fond of The Two Ronnies sketch series written by Spike Milligan – The Phantom Raspberry Blower (which is clearly inspired by the events). Remember that?
Even the new Simon Pegg movie has a touch that it might be in some way related (that is if you read the synopsis).
For the remainder of this post (and if you are still reading – well done!), I want to chat a bit about the score for Murder by Decree. Clearly this film left a mark on me, but not nearly as much as the music. I love this score, it was one of the first times I recall really sitting down and noticing the music (in a good way of course). It’s one of my favourites for sure. I remember having to walk home down an alleyway from school after watching the film a couple of times and not being able to shake some of the creepy themes out of my head. Simply put – it scared the cr@p out of me walking down that alley afterwards, especially if it was a foggy evening!
The score was actually a collaboration between two Canadian composers – Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer, both of whom have worked on some of Clark’s other films. It has sinister creepy parts, it has upbeat parts, exciting parts and a wonderful tune for the end credits. The film won five Genie awards, one of these was for the score, well deserved! Sadly the score has never been made available. A while back I even wrote to Paul Zaza on his site asking him about it. I pretty much resigned myself to the fact we’ll never get to hear any of it except in the movie.
My interest in the film has been rekindled because they have recently re-released it on DVD (presumably to cash in on the successes of the recent Guy Richie movies). If you are able, try yo get your grubby mitts on the Anchor Bay version (which has since been discontinued), rather than the recent Studio Canal release, as it contains a better picture transfer and some extras (including a Bob Clark commentary track). Personally I am still hoping they may release a Blu-ray version at some point. In my travels reading DVD reviews, I stumbled onto this:
Now this site is well worth checking out because not only is it great fun, it also highlights a few other little-known gems. When the actual review started, I noticed that the review was using parts of the score. How? I needed to know, so asked directly, as you do!
He then passed on a link (below) which made my entire month! This was something I thought I’d never get to hear – a small sampler of the Murder by Decree score. Please note that there is still an awful lot of great music missing (eg. the “Mystery” theme which seems to accompany Lees story – bizarrely that sub-plot seems to have inspired a track of its own). Even so, the suite gives you an idea of the score and I’d love to know if anyone else loves it also! Please be aware that there may be a couple of spoilers in the slide-show:
The one thing which I noticed was that the score had some Jaws-esque vibes about it (whilst having its own identity also). The first kill cue (around the 1 minute mark) definitely has something “Jaws” in style. I also get a splash of “Chrissie’s death” at about 1:35.
The two parts in this suite which affect me most come shortly after this. The haunting woodwind melody which begins just before the 2 minute mark is essentially “the victim theme”. It is punctuated with a creepy harp/piano to signify the ripper’s presence or mind-set lurking somehow. Ultimately it builds up to the full “ripper theme” at just after the 3 minute mark. This is a brilliant piece of nightmare music (here only hinted at for around 15 seconds or so), you shouldn’t let this music into your head! The strings swirl and slide around in a dissonant cluster and the creepy harp/piano chime towards the end. Perfection!
The other tunes to single out is the exciting showdown (around 4 mins in), which is called “the chase” but includes material from “the fight”. After this (at 5:15) comes the gorgeous end-credit piece, a Scottish Lullaby (as quoted from the commentary track). It accompanies the old-style ending perfectly and provides heart, uplift and decency from all the darkness which occured earlier in the film.
I’d like to personally thank whoever uploaded this, I have absolutely no idea how they came across the material. But thanks! I know it’s not the full version (I would dearly love that!), but it is far more than I ever thought I’d get to hear. Meanwhile, I still live in hope that this score will get the proper release that it deserves – one day!
I would also be curious to know how Carl and Paul worked together, how the work was split and who was responsible for which parts. It’s an amazingly rich and cohesive piece of scoring. Which brings me neatly to what my next blog post will cover. It’s “10 questions” with composer Dan Watts. Both he and his brother Sam compose the music for The Sarah Jane Adventures (the kids Doctor Who spin-off), yet another musical composing collaboration.