Murder by Decree (Bob Clark / United Kingdom-Canada, 1979):

A fond homage to the heyday of Hammer Studio, and a canny transmuting of Victorian Britannia to the tail end of the politicized '70s. Bob Clark lays out The Lodger's gaslit London streets and surveys them through his convex lens for the distorted POV of one Jack the Ripper. Coach, black horse, and top-hatted, faceless driver come out of the mist as if out of Murnau, before Clark cuts to a parallel world of royal pomp, where news of the killing of streetwalkers are shrugged off. Christopher Plummer, with pipe, violin, and morphine syringe with bent needle, is the Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle wrote about, James Mason as Watson offers an endearing tribute to Albert Bassermann, with a smuggled dash of Humbert Humbert as he finds his finger caught between a back alley tart's teeth. Clark sets his compositions around the performers, with Anthony Quayle's and John Gielgud's imperial officiousness and David Hemmings' closet radicalism ("We can bring this decadent monarchy to its knees!") as the extremes; in between there's the muted torment of psychic Donald Sutherland and Geneviève Bujold's tremulousness in the asylum, which cracks the great detective's façade of reason into tears. Lavish 1880s re-creations hardly cramp Clark's sense of the visceral -- an enduring vision is etched when a gutted victim is pushed out as the Ripper's carriage passes the camera and a near-subliminal flash gives you the culprit's contours. The climactic j'accuse, where Holmes switches his inquisitive skills from individual crime to societal order, reminds you this was made in the decade of classic conspiracy pictures; the slaughter of Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), glimpsed through foggy windows that yield to infernal, accusatory flames, reminds you this is also an unofficial sequel to Black Christmas. With Frank Finlay.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home