It is interesting that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes on the case of Jack The Ripper appears to pop up over and over again. Whether the attraction comes from the fact that they’re both from the same time period and location or from the challenging prospect that the world’s best detective takes on the world’s most notorious, unsolved mystery, I don’t know. But the formula typically works and in "Murder By Decree" we get one of the most impressive versions of this scenario. Anchor Bay Entertainment has prepared this 1978 star-studded movie for release on DVD and we gave it a good check-up.
It is the year 1888 and Jack The Ripper is turning London’s Whitechapel District into a bloody pool of fear and horror. Although officials never approach him, a group of local storeowners ask Sherlock Holmes to get on the case and bring the Ripper to justice.
Slightly reluctantly Holmes and Watson take on the case and they begin to follow the leads they find scattered all over London. But the deeper they get into the case, the stranger and murderous it becomes. Soon Holmes suspects that these are not simply the murders of a madman, but that there is system within the madness.
Despite the fact that the story is fictional and does not exist in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s repertoire of Sherlock Holmes stories, the screenplay manages to capture many of Holmes’ idiosyncrasies as outlined by Doyle in his writings. Holmes’ violin play, his preference for disguises and his leaning towards solitude are all very well covered, as are his more obvious traits, such as smoking the pipe to kickstart his deductive brainpowers.
While Christopher Plummer may not be your immediate choice for Sherlock Holmes, over the course of the film he manages to make the character his own and convinces with his play. James Mason on the other hand is the perfect Dr. Watson from the first frame to the last. Seeing him in the role makes you wonder how anyone could ever have cast a different actor for this part. Mason IS Dr. Watson with his subtle, understated play. But also the other members of the cast are absolutely convincing. Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees, John Gielgud in a short appearance as England’s Prime Minister, Genevičve Bujold and Susan Clark as worn-out Whitechappel whores, they all have a remarkable credibility that increases the film’s overall appeal and perceived authenticity.
Remarkable is also the movie’s cinematography. Shot on a small budget at Shepperton Studios in England, the film convincingly brings to life Whitechapel. Though matte-paintings are clearly recognizable as such in many instances, the overall atmosphere of the film nicely captures London’s foggy streets and the narrow, littered mews of one of London’s poorest districts at the time.
The transfer of the movie that Anchor Bay is delivering on this DVD is spectacular. The print is virtually free of defects and the image reveals an immense amount of detail. The movie is held very dark at times and the transfer manages to finely reproduce these subdued images. Blacks are solid and never break up but the black levels are also so well balanced as to retain all detail and definition in the shadows. As fog rolls through the streets of London, the transfer captures the atmospheric layers with ease and reproduces every nuance of the image meticulously. Edge-enhancement is at a minimum and no signs of distracting ringing artifacts are visible as a result. The compression has been handled carefully to ensure that all the image details remains intact even during moments when the entire image is moving.
The DVD contains a monaural Dolby Digital track that is also nicely reproduced. It gives away some of the film’s age through its somewhat limited frequency response, but overall this track is perfectly matching the movie’s presentation. The suspenseful music and the well-written dialogues all stand out nicely without ever drowning each other out.
A commentary track by director Bob Clark is also included in this release. It is a commentary that is full of insightful moments and a lot of historic details on the real Ripper case, as well as Clark’s recollection of the actual production. Clarks is not extremely talkative at times and there are moments of silence in the track but he makes up for it by delivering valuable information whenever he gets back into discussing the picture.
The DVD also contains an extensive gallery with still images and posters, featuring over 70 nicely reproduced images. A second gallery, dedicated to the shooting of the film is also included. It features 36 images from the set as well as a few original storyboards from the film. The movie’s theatrical trailer and extensive cast and crew biographies can also be found on the DVD. You can even find the movie’s complete screenplay as a PDF-file on the disc, accessible from the DVD-ROM drive in your computer.
The DVD is rounded out by some extensive liner notes by Anchor Bay’s own Michael Felscher, in which he covers Ripper films in general as well as this production in particular.
"Murder By Decree" is a great adaptation of the material and Anchor Bay is once again delivering a spectacular version of the film in beautiful anamorphic widescreen glory. It is a wonderful movie that truly deserves the best treatment and Anchor Bay did just that. Give it a spin when you’re in a the mood for some suspenseful murder mystery featuring two of the world’s most notorious masterminds… each on their own side of the law, of course.