After BLACK CHRISTMAS came BREAKING POINT (20th Century), a big budget “WALKING TALL clone” starring Bo Svenson and Robert Culp that Bob describes as “the only film I had made up to that point I view as unsuccessful.” Alas, to film critics of the day, contemptuous of horror and other “exploitation” fare, it was the only of his films at that time worth praising.
It is England in the Autumn of 1888 and Queen Victoria still rules over the British Empire. Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) the legendary private detective and his loyal companion and chronicler, the earnest Dr. Watson (James Mason), are enjoying an opulent first night at the opera in London’s fashionable West End. Meanwhile, in the squalid jungle of the East End of London, a prostitute is being horribly murdered. The dreaded killer, commonly known as Jack the Ripper for the gruesome manner in which he mutilates the bodies of his victims, has struck again. The sickly miasma of fear is as palpable as the autumn fogs which envelop the slums. The forces of law and order seem powerless to stop the savage butchery. Holmes is approached by shadowy figures to take on the case. Although Police Inspectors Foxborough (David Hemmings) and Lestrade ( Frank Finlay) more than welcome his assistance, Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), the Commissioner of Police from Scotland Yard, actively does not.
The master criminologist is guided in his pursuit of justice, through the seamy Victorian underworld, to the psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) who fearfully points him in another direction. Holmes and Watson, constantly in danger for their lives and liberty, become not only the grand masters but also the pawns in this lethal game of hide and seek. They search out and are found by the hapless Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), a girl of the streets, whose only crime is the knowledge of a fatal secret, which she will protect at all costs. She in turn leads them to Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), a servant who made the mistake of marrying above her station, whom even the illustrious detective cannot protect from herself.
The hunters and the hunted stealthily move through the mist-shrouded maze of Whitechapel’s cobblestone streets where every shadow instills fear. Watson is violently attacked by, and Holmes at last comes face to face with, the Ripper. As he inexorably unravels the mystery, Holmes crosses swords with Lord Salisbury (John Gielgud), the Prime Minister of England, and finds himself threatened by the macabre power of a secret society and the all-pervasive, long reaching might of the Establishment. He is challenged by no ordinary murderer but one with influential and determined friends and what he has to stop.
The idea of Sherlock Holmes tackling the Ripper case is hardly a new idea now, nor was it in 1978 when Bob Clark (Co-producer, story and director) started piecing together his story for Murder by Decree. This is first and foremost a Ripper film rather than a Holmes film as Holmes simply provides the vehicle for telling the story. We had last seen Holmes tackle the Ripper in the 1965 film A Study in Terror which featured John Neville as Holmes. In an odd twist, two actors from the previous film, one as the same character, would also appear in the new one. That version, as satisfying as it was, didn’t actually take into account much of the popular Ripper mythology that had sprung up around the unsolved case.
The script, based partially on the findings of a BBC docu-drama called Jack the Ripper (1973 TV series), while fictional, was meticulous in its research, down to the names, places, and even the grape stem clue found at the scene of one of the actual slayings. DECREE offers up the theory that Big Bad Jack was not a random psycho but a government stoolie covering up the marital indiscretions of The Royal Family.
By 1978, the theory, much expanded on in Stephen Knight’s 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution had made its mark and ridiculous conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons and the Royal family were a hotly debated topic. Apparently, Clark and scriptwriter John Hopkins (Z Cars, The Offence), felt that having Holmes rooted in a true historical case would add a certain depth to the characters. They were determined to create a more fully realized personality for Holmes. Giving him a greater level of emotion.
“I first came up with the idea of the film when I heard about that very first theory printed by a British journalist saying the Duke of Clarence was the killer. I thought, what an incredible notion for a movie. That theory was soon discredited and the theories that we’re following are much later ones. I really didn’t want to make a film to prove any history, I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing a “what if” history. That’s why I brought Sherlock Holmes into it, who is a semi-fictional character. He’s not real, but so many think he is. By bringing him into the story, we’re saying in effect that we’re not claiming this is fact.” Director Bob Clark asserts.
Fictional 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes and real life 1800s psycho Jack the Ripper have been paired in film before, in 1956’s A STUDY IN TERROR and in Paul Naschy’s 1972 effort 7 MURDERS FOR SCOTLAND YARD (EL DESTRIPADOR DE LONDRES), but these films had no part in the development of MURDER BY DECREE, originally called “Saucy Jack Meets Sherlock Holmes’. “I had loved the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes and Watson films,” he relays, “and was intrigued by the concept of them meeting Jack the Ripper. A book had just been written about the true identity of the Ripper that I had read a review of. And the film’s concept was one my Canadian horror movie backers could easily grasp.”
Clark described his choice and reasoning in casting Plummer and Mason. “The relationship between the two men appealed to me deeply. This is a passionate and caring Holmes; I wanted to get through his traditional reserve. I have aimed for a humanizing of the characters. First of all, we were looking for two men who really do have a relationship between them. Although I loved the Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce teaming, what I didn’t like was Holmes continually patronizing Watson without really enjoying him as much as he should. With Christopher, we’ve gone for a very warm, vital Holmes, a man who cares very passionately. Any Holmes up to now would never have a tear in his eye. Well, Christopher does in this, and when he sees some wrenching or pathetic things, it moves him. Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a very intellectual, brilliant egotistical man. We’ve kept that ego, that’s still there. Christopher has depth and strength, he has brilliant flashes. He’s currently the most Holmesian of all actors around. And it’s that kind of cold aristocratic Plummer that we’re playing against in this picture. We’re going very much against what has been Chris’s image and I think it will surprise and please a lot of people. James has created a much more intelligent Watson, still a bit of a fustian old soldier type, because the movie Watson is invariably that image. But James is not stupid, his character has got a good sense of humor. He’s pretty quick on the uptake yet he remains a step behind Holmes at all times naturally. But he has center stage himself several times, he does some pretty good sleuthing on his own and he’s never befuddled or patronized by Holmes. He’s much more perceptive, which I think is a necessary updating.”
“I have approached the character of Watson as an intelligent friend of Holmes. He is often portrayed as a bumbling joker but he was supposed to be a medical doctor and Holmes would never have shared his life with an idiot.” – James Mason on the playing Dr Watson
Christopher Plummer also comments on the script’s approach to Holmes: “It gives Holmes the opportunity to be human. It’s easy to play him as supercilious, rather snobbish, but that’s not what I intended to do. I hope people like him the way I play him.” James Mason adds his comments on the subject of the good Doctor and his relationship with Holmes, “I am supremely suited to the role of Dr. Watson because it is a part that is completely within my range. I don’t see Watson as a buffoon. I think he was dependable, full of common sense, discipline and dignity. Holmes on the other hand was rather weird. Watson needed sterling qualities to be with him. Holmes daily behavioral pattern was that of a rather strange individual. “
“I don’t think anybody will ever get tired of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think the public will ever let him die just as they wouldn’t let Conan Doyle kill him.” – Christopher Plummer
While Murder By Decree is not a Canadian production, (it is actually an Ambassador Films Production produced in cooperation with the Canadian Film Development Corporation and Famous Players Ltd. and released by Avco Embassy Pictures Corp) it did however utilize a number of Canadian stars alongside the lead in key roles. Amongst them are Donald Sutherland as the psychic Robert Lees, Genevieve Bujold as Annie Crook, Susan Clark as Mary Kelly and Chris Wiggins as Dr. Hardy. All of which handle their performances admirably. Rounding out the cast are UK actors Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren (who played a radical doctor in A Study in Terror), David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough, Sir John Gielgud as the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade (reprising his role from the A Study in Terror). It is a stunning cast in every way, and likely the most star-studded of any Holmes production to date.
Interview with Director Bob Clark
How did Murder by Decree come together?
CLARK: That I generated myself. I came up with the story, and brought the production together.
When MURDER BY DECREE was first announced, it was under the title SHERLOCK HOLMES AND SAUCY JACK. What made you change the title ?
CLARK: Everyone hated that title. In England, even though that’s what he was called at the time, it has a slightly comic meaning. In the States, no one had any idea what it meant, which I actually considered to be a plus because they would have to ask. MURDER BY DECREE gives just enough away and it does invoke a response.
Why did you choose John Hopkins to write the script ?
CLARK: We had to have an English writer seeing as the film was produced under an Anglo-Canadian pact. It was either John or Anthony Shaffer, but I met John in New York and I liked him-and as it turned out we had a great rapport. There were six re-writes in all as we kept changing the story. I first came up with the story when I heard about the theory that the Ripper was the Duke of Clarence. But that theory was soon discredited and the theories that we followed are later ones. Jack the Ripper is not the whole point behind the plot, but who is trying to hinder Holmes’ investigation. Radicals and Socialists are helping him, Monarchist organizations are trying to stop him and a couple of secret societies are involved, all, I must add, based on facts. It is more an adventure/intrigue than horror. The horror story evolves into a CHINATOWN or Watergate situation. There won’t be much blood as we’re going in for terror. Actually there is very rarely any blood in my films, even though people don’t believe that. People love murder mysteries and this will be subtler than most. After BLACK CHRISTMAS I was offered a lot of films along the same lines. I was going to do a film for Warner’s, PREY, a John Carpenter script, but it was cancelled due to casting problems.
Are you familiar with a film called A STUDY IN TERROR, directed by James Hill in 1964? It has a theme similar to MURDER BY DECREE.
CLARK: I didn’t even realize it had existed until I found out Frank Finley had been in it. I’d heard it was an above-average film, but when I saw it by and large I was quite disappointed. It has not stood the test of time. The techniques were very Hammer and obviously someone had pretensions for it to aim higher than that. I’m told the director left the film due to the fact that he was told he would have a lot of money to do it, but ultimately he didn’t and he had to compromise. It clearly belongs in the genre and does not rise above it.
What about the move from low budget features to the larger budgets you have now?
CLARK: Well, it’s still the same pressure. All it means really is you have higher paid stars and more value goes up on the screen. It isn’t hard at all. Our designer has done an incredible job on the sets, they add even more production value than I could ever possibly calculate. We have done as much location as you can in modern day London. We had to build the East End docks as they no longer exist in the Victorian state.
What about working with such an impressive cast ?
CLARK: Well, I spent time with Plummer and Mason as I thought I’d be awed when shooting began, but they expect to be directed and I’m delighted to be the one who has to direct them. I first wanted either Olivier or Mason to portray Watson but I can only say that it is for the good of the film that James agreed to do it. I thought of Peter O’Toole originally for Holmes, and he was scheduled, but it was one of those questions of timing. Chris Plummer was my second choice, and he is superb at putting across all the warmth and concern I envisioned for the character. Each one of the actors contributed to the final good of the film. Bujold is the best young actress working today. She is astonishing, and what she does here is really memorable. David Hemmings is a terrific actor and he is getting much better with age. Finlay gets great mileage out of a small role. Susan Clark manages a fabulous Irish accent-and what more can you say about working with Gielgud ? It was a joy. Films are ultimately about people, people who give off sparks, and these actors give off something more than that.
Were there any ego problems during filming?
CLARK: God no, everyone was just great. James Mason—what can you say about him? He was a perfect gentleman, and a marvelous actor.
You drew your best reviews for Murder by Decree, but the film really didn’t catch on at the box office. Any idea why?
CLARK: I don’t know, to tell the truth, I didn’t think much about it. It’s a great film. I quite rightly regard it as my best work, my biggest triumph so far.
Since Murder by Decree, you haven’t done anything even remotely close to the horror genre. Why is that?
CLARK: I wanted to move on. I’d done horror films. Still, I’m glad I did horror films. They’re the greatest training in the world. Making horror films requires a great deal of editing discipline and attention to rhythm. I think some of my early films are my best work. I’ve no regrets.
From Baker Street To Whitechapel – Recreation of Victorian England and its people
Not only is the cast of a high caliber, the production itself is remarkable. Elstree Studios was home to the construction of a vast complex of streets, cobbled alleyways, a square and a courtyard as well as the busy thoroughfare of Whitechapel’s main street. At the time, this was the largest set ever built, taking 100 men over 8 weeks to construct, in England on a studio sound stage. 4,000 square feet of cobblestones were laid in sheets each three feet by one and a half feet, made of reinforced concrete. 30 molds were made from which two batches were produced daily, taking 6 men 30 days to manufacture, using 20 tons of cement and 150 tons of sand. And finally, stale fruit and vegetables were blended with Fuller’s earth, combined with manure and then strewn along the cobbled streets. Three different types of brick were cast for the buildings and 5,000 sheets were made, each being 6 by 5 feet. 10 men spent eight weeks casting the 150, 000 square feet of bricks and tacking them to the walls. Responsible for the concept and execution of the set was Production Designer Harry Pottle, who ensured that every detail was authentic to the period, from unique tin match boxes to a lily decorated urn visible in an Undertakers window.
Set Design Drawing by Harry Pottle for Murder By Decree, 1978
Meanwhile, at Shepperton Studios, on their largest sound stage, an authentic recreation of the London docks was erected, complete with a river Thames flowing by. This set took 50 men two months to construct. A 100-foot wharf was made from Victorian railway ties. To recreate the murky look of the Thames, a tank, 120’ wide by 90’ long was built requiring 36 hours to fill with half a million gallons of water. All because Bob Clark was insistent on total authenticity.
“We were trying to get a flavor of the London of Gustave Dore. But he was about 30 years to early for us, we studied his drawings and engravings then updated our interpretation.” – Production Designer Harry Pottle
The effort appears worthwhile on screen when combined with actual location shooting. Along with the aforementioned Royal Academy and Wyndham’s Theater were locations which included Clink Street in the East End of London, the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for a recreation of Park Lane and finally the exterior of 221B Baker Street was actually a quiet backwater stretch of Barton Street. It is an impressive picture particularly as it was made on a total budget of $5,000,000.
Assassinio su Commissione Italian Lobby Cards
The attention to detail extended right through costuming and makeup as well. For a change, the prostitute victims of the Ripper were actually of the right age and dressed as the ragged drabs that they were. Unfortunately, the usual gaff of having Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat while in the city is committed throughout the film. He is also saddled with a rather improbable pipe. Sadly, these appear to be necessities of Holmesian filmmaking life, as producers and directors seem to think that the general viewing audience expects the stereotype to identify the character. Christopher Plummer comments on the look of Holmes in the film “I had my hair streaked to make him warmer looking. In the Sidney Paget drawings he had slicked down hair, very sinister looking. If the audience don’t like you, you’re dead. Unfortunately, he has that costume he is identified with. Hamlet can come on in brown velvet – Holmes has to wear that damn hat and pipe.”
Interview with Score Composer Paul Zaza
Murder by Decree has your classy signature sound. What you and Carl cooked up was very different there from Black Christmas, that collection of atonal sounds and discordant effects.
PAUL ZAZA: Well, Murder by Decree was anything but Black Christmas. It was Sherlock Holmes. It was 1888. Whitechapel, London. It needed real music. Acoustic music. To put an electronic score on that would have been all wrong.
So at that point, Bob Clark knew you from Carl’s work on Black Christmas?
ZAZA: Yes. He was totally cool with both Carl and myself working on Murder by Decree. His attitude was, “You guys figure it out. Just don’t screw it up.” Bob’s head was much more into what angle he was going shoot James Mason and Christopher Plummer when they’re coming down in the carriage. Or what lens he’d use on the camera when Jack the Ripper is chasing them…that’s what he was worried about.
So you hired a full orchestra?
ZAZA: Yes. We went to London and hired the Royal Philharmonic. I was scared shitless. This was the biggest thing I’d ever done. You know, I was a kid in my twenties, standing there and conducting the Royal Phil. I had it all written out – and I crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s and thought, “This should work.” You never know until you put the baton down and you hear the first bar played. I had the big producers from New York in there, and Bob Clark. There were ninety musicians out there and the pressure was on. But I put the baton down and we conducted the first cue – and it was absolutely glorious. It was just beautiful.
It’s probably the most beautiful of all the Zaza scores we listened to as we prepped for this interview. It has a breadth of scope to it. In particular, the music for the closing credits – a theme of sorts for Annie (Genevieve Bujold) in the film – that’s a wonderful piece.
ZAZA: Thank you. Yes, it’s really one of the best things I’ve done. And of course, it’s one of the best films Bob ever did.
Is Murder by Decree one of your proudest achievements as a film composer?
ZAZA: I think so. It’s a score that’s very pure and it works. It was one of the few films in which almost everything that I wrote got used. They didn’t change it much. In almost every other film, when the directors and the producers start to get “creative” – they really butcher it up and slice and dice it into tiny pieces. They’ll have a favorite cue and they’ll end up using it twenty-five times in the film.
But Murder by Decree pretty much plays the way I wrote it. That’s a symbol of how good it is.
ZAZA: It’s also a symbol of how times have changed. Back then, if something worked and it was good, you just went with it. Whereas now, it’s filmmaking by committee. You get these boards of directors micro managing, everybody has a say in the music.
You won the Genie Award (the Canadian version of the Oscar) for Best Score for Murder. What was that like? Did it open doors for you?
ZAZA: Canada is a funny place. If this were an Academy Award, my phone would have been ringing off the hook for the next ten years. The Canadian film industry has a very strange attitude. Their attitude is “Oh, he’s too expensive now. We’d better not call him.”
ZAZA: Yeah, in fact…I probably noticed that my phone got real quiet after I won the Genie Award and I couldn’t figure out why. But I still managed to drum up some work.
Sherlock Holmes – Christopher Plummer
Dr. Watson – James Mason
Robert Lees – Donald Sutherland
Annie Crook – Genevieve Bujold
Inspector Foxborough – David Hemmings
Mary Kelly – Susan Clark
Sir Charles Warren – Anthony Quayle
Lord Salisbury – Sir John Gielgud
Inspector Lestrade – Frank Finlay
Dr. Hardy – Chris Wiggins
Mrs. Lees – Tedde Moore
William Slade – Peter Jonfield
Sir Thomas Spivey – Roy Lansford
Carrie – Catherine Kessler
Henry Matthews – Geoffrey Russell
Makins – Roy Pember
Elizabeth Stride – June Brown
Catherine Eddowes – Hilary Sesta
Executive Producer – Len Herberman
Co – Producer – Rene Dupont
Co – Producer/Director – Bob Clark
Director of Photography – Reg Morris
Screenplay – John Hopkins
Production Manager – John Davis
Production Designer – Harry Pottle
1st Assistant Director – Ariel Levy
Costume Designer – Judy Moorcroft
Sound Mixer – John Mitchell
Camera Operator – Jimmy Turrell
Continuity – Marjorie Lavelly
Chief Makeup Artist – Peter Robb-King
Chief Hairdresser – Colin Jamison
Editor – Stanley Cole
Wardrobe Supervisor – Ron Beck
Construction Manager – Ken Pattenden
Property Master – Andy Andrews
Gaffer – Maurice Gillett
Special Effects Supervisor – Michael Albrechtson
Production Assistant – Marilyn Clarke
Casting Director – Irene Lamb
Production Accountant – Andy Birmingham
Still Photographer – Graham Attwood
Unit Publicist – Linda Levy ( Fred Hift Associates)
Music – Paul Zaza/Carl Zittrer
REFERENCES and SOURCES
Horror Fan 40