Review Date: November 19, 2008
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 11/18/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Bob Clark graduated from fringe horror director to A-list artist in 1979 with the prestigious Sherlock Holmes update, Murder by Decree
. Itís tough to imagine in a yearís time he could go from directing a film with top billing by Bo Svenson to juggling a cast of giants like Christopher Plummer, Donald Sutherland, John Gielguld and David Hemmings. Bob Clark did it though, and though heíd go on to even greater commercial success with his following two pictures, heíd never work with a cast as pronounced as the one he did on Murder by Decree
. Critical Mass released the film years ago to coincide with their special edition of Black Christmas
, but now that Anchor Bay has partnered with them here in Canada, itís being given life anew. Letís take the magnifying glass to this Jack the Ripper caper.
Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer
) is a hot young gumshoe looking to prove his detective ability. Heís got an ace assistant, Watson (James Mason
), but has been primarily relegated to small claims cases. When Jack the Ripper starts his reign of terror on Londonís East End though, Holmes is given just the case he needs. A man in shadows has been kidnapping and slicing prostitutes on the fog-laden streets, letting their blood flow down the cobblestone. The murders keep happening, but the conventional police force canít seem to make any headway in the case. Sherlock starts his nosy ways and much to the condemnation of Inspector Foxborough (David Hemmings
), he makes progress quick.
A clairvoyant recluse, Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland
), has been seeing premonitions of the infamous killer, and confides his story with Sherlock. Itís still hazy, but all signs point to some deceit in the highest ranks of public office. Thereís an incarcerated call girl, Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold
) with a tragic past and a disturbed mentality. Then thereís the one woman she confided her story in before she went cuckoo, Mary Kelly (Susan Clark
, wife of Bob). Mary becomes a target, and itís up to Sherlock to offer protection. Time is running out thoughÖhe has to crack the case.
Murder by Decree
continues Clarkís almost unprecedented string of hits from all genres that would run nine films from 1972 to 1983, effectively ending the second he let Stallone into a taxi cab in Rhinestone
. Although the film is completely different in subject matter from Black Christmas
, itís Clarkís contemporary way of telling a story and his astute attention to character that establishes it, first and foremost, as an auteur piece. Much has been made of Stephen Kingís way of humanizing his characters before subjecting them to inexplicable horror, and if there is a film equivalent, itís certainly Clark. Even when his cast is spouting Olde English, he provides them with an emotional liquidity with the audience that never seems alienating. This is one of the few costume dramas that feels both historically accurate and casually contemporary. Most directors play their period pieces to the haughty back row, but Bob Clark goes for the laymen in the cheap seats.
Christopher Plummer, probably Canadaís most underrated icon, is bubbling with life as Sherlock, and his repartee with Watsonís James Mason is pitch perfect. Rather than esteemed colleagues, the two always come across as jovial friends, and itís only Bob Clark that can derive slight moments of spontaneous humor in a movie about killing prostitutes. You get the sense with these two actors that they are living their characters as they go, rather than adhering to the tried and true parameters of their long canonized characters. Hemmings is perfect as the slimeball, finally finding himself comfortable with being a heavy after years of trying to recreate past success as his breakthrough Blow-up
lead. Sutherland, Canadaís other underrated legend (count the Oscar nominations between him and Plummer), is suitably crazy here, as he was a few years ago in Bertolucciís 1900
. John Gielgud makes an antiquated leader, and Bob Clarkís wife shows surprising range as the strumpet. She was so good, I guess, that Clark decided to cast her again as a prostitute in Porkyís
The character touches are all Clark, but there are other aspects that give the film itís familiar directorial flourish. The wide-angle street stalking scenes certainly recall the effective first-person camera work in Black Christmas
. Even if the film is PG, it has some pretty disturbing murder sequences. Again, Clark was a master of balancing humor and horror without ever making either feel out of place throughout the length of his films. Canadian connoisseurs will certainly recognize the musical contributions of Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza as a precursor to their next yearís Prom Night
. The main piano string is strikingly similar, and similarly effective.
Still, with all the fine collaborators, the standout thing throughout Murder by Decree
is again Bob Clarkís handling of the subject matter. In story itís certainly faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle capers, with a layered story and a tell all resolve. As a whodunit puzzler, itís no doubt a fun ride. Itís the small touches that Clark adds to make it feel contemporary, though, like the energetic performances, kinetic camerawork and middle brow sensibilities that make it accessible to all. The whole sequence when Watson ends up lured into a trap with a prostitute is at both times comical and tense, and signature Clark. In his prime he could walk the tightrope like no other, and between funny and scary, old and new, Murder by Decree
hits all the right notes.
Murder by Decree
sleuths its way onto DVD in progressive scan in this fine 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. After a short bit of investigation, the sterling restoration is immediately noticeable. There is nary a spec to be found on the print, aside from the occasional hair inherent in the actual footage. It looks very clean, and for the most part fairly sharp. Thereís detail on the bricks that comprise the England sets, and up close the fine lines can be seen on the actorsí faces. Thereís a layer of grain present thatís fitting with the stocks employed at the time, so itís not quite as clear as one would hope. Still, the colors are a very flattering brown hue, which gives it a nostalgic warmth. Even still, colors still resonate, like all those flashy reds from the harlotsí costumes. The transfer is the same as the original 2003 release, but hey, if it ainít brokeÖ
The film is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and Dolby Surround 2.0 It sounds very clear in both, and this restoration actually has a few nice ambient effects as well. There are times when itís a bit flat, but at least hiss is kept to a minimal. Very solid overall.
Considering Bob Clark was tragically killed by a drunk driver a few years ago, his sole audio commentary here has more resonance now than it did before. Clark is a master, and this track is just crammed full of useful information for all aspiring directors to pay thought. Even during the credit sequence heís just rifling through the names and how he knows them or what theyíve done in their careers. Once the actual film starts up, he shares all his secrets in making the film Ė like which scenes were miniatures, how the fog effects were achieved, and so forth. Whatís better, though, is that Clark expands on individual anecdotes and offers forth his theories on directing in general, from how to deal with characterization to his feelings on cutting, violence and the like. Itís one of the best tracks Iíve heard in some time, and even if at the time he was stuck directing dreck like Karate Dog
, he still had a fine knowledge of the craft.
The disc is rounded off with a bunch of slighter supplements. Thereís a trailer, a few galleries, some talent bios, and for DVD-ROM users, the entire shooting script. Considering the caliber of the cast, it would have been nice to see a retrospective on the film, or even just a documentary comparing the different iterations of Sherlock over the years, but Clarkís commentary alone is worth the price of admission.
Murder by Decree
is a splendid suspense-mystery with a sterling cast, inspired camera work and a provoking blend of fact and fiction. What sets it apart, like all of Bob Clarkís other classics, is his strong attention to character and his ability to make even the most archaic of settings seem completely contemporary. The image quality certainly helps make the film seem relevant today, with a fine transfer. The sound too, is solid. Bob Clarkís commentary is a movie making crash course, and a must listen for film fans. This is the same disc that was originally released in different clothing in 2003, but if you donít have it yet, this release is a must. Itís exemplary, my dear horror fan.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - B
- Running time - 2 hours 4 minutes
- Rated PG
- 1 Disc
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Dolby Surround 2.0
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary with director Bob Clark
- Still galleries
- Theatrical trailer
- Screenplay (DVD-ROM only)
- Talent bios