Putting Sherlock Holmes on the track of Jack the Ripper is unquestionably tempting; the Ripper murders occurred at a time when Holmes would have been an ambitious thirtysomething detective and quite receptive to a complex and challenging case. There has never been a positive identification of the Ripper, nor any explanation (other than the obvious: he died, emigrated, was incapacitated or imprisoned) for the abrupt termination of the killings. Drawing Holmes into such an intriguing, open-ended puzzle has invited the talents of authors Ellery Queen, Michael Dibdin, Edward Hanna, Carole Nelson Douglas and Lyndsay Faye.
Holmes vs the Ripper has been the subject of a couple films as well, and one that is both the most and least satisfying is the 1979 film Murder By Decree. Here, the plot exploits one of the more colorful theories: that the murdered women had knowledge of an illegitimate child who was the result of an affair (or unofficial marriage) between the Duke of Clarence, second in line to the throne, and the lowborn Annie Crook. Defenders of the heir confine Crook to an asylum and pressure her to reveal the child’s whereabouts while they systematically kill off the prostitutes who were privy to the liaison.
The most laudable aspect of the film – in fact the only laudable one – is in the casting. Christopher Plummer (Holmes) and James Mason (Watson) are on the somewhat mature side, but there is a wonderful compatibility that is not often (read: “almost never”) depicted in translations of the Canon. Mason does make one appreciate that Watson may be the harder role to pull off; with fewer props on which to string a performance – no pipe, no violin, no disguise, no displays of agility or temperament – an accomplished actor has to flesh out the dimensions of character without sinking into caricature. The fact that Mason can express his indignation at Holmes’s “squashing a fellow’s pea” without lapsing into the blustering inanity that was the default mode of other actors (read: “Nigel Bruce”) is commendation enough. Plummer is equally engaging – without ever lapsing into uncharacteristic sentimentality, his performance hints at the “great heart as well as of a great brain”: commanding, compassionate, humorous and completely authentic, even when saddled with the deerstalker and Inverness.
There is an impressive supporting cast as well: Donald Sutherland, David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, Frank Finlay and particularly Susan Clark as Mary Kelly, and Genevieve Bujold as Annie Crook; their scenes with Plummer are the most poignant moments of the film. (As an interesting side note, Finlay, who portrays Lestrade here, also portrayed Lestrade in another Holmes vs the Ripper film, the 1965, A Study in Terror; Quayle, who here is Sir Charles Warren was Doctor Murray in the ’65 film).
As for the everything else: watching this again (I had seen it years ago), I realized what is unsatisfying about it. For a film that offers an intriguing theory about the Ripper that brings together a royal conspiracy and a vicious serial killer with literature’s most famous detective, the film is rather suspenseless. Perhaps it is the jarring score that forecasts every crime so relentlessly that the crime itself becomes almost anticlimactic. Perhaps it is the reticence with which the crimes are rendered – one can be shocking without being explicit. And, perhaps, it is the awkward angling of the exterior shots to camouflage the use of sound stages. At any rate, it remains just good enough to make a viewer wish it had been better.
Which Austen character would have enjoyed Murder By Decree? Colonel Brandon would certainly have admired Holmes for risking his life and reputation in a just cause; Frank Churchill would have understood keeping secrets out of self-preservation, and Mary Bennet may have drawn a useful lesson from the prostitutes’ conspiracy: that one false step can involve a woman in endless ruin.
And three degrees of Austen: Particularly easy here, since Donald Sutherland, who plays the psychic Robert Lees, was Mr. Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.