The notion that the Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 were the work of a complex conspiracy that involved the Freemasons, the British government and the royal household of Queen Victoria was popularised by Stephen Knight in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Knight’s book, first published in 1976, suggested that the murders of a series of women in the Whitechapel area of east London were staged by the establishment to cover up a secret marriage between Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, and the working class Annie Crook, a marriage that resulted in the birth of a child that would in theory have been third in line to the British throne. Knight wasn’t the first to suggest that the killings were the work of a cabal of shadowy establishment conspirators – Thomas E. A. Stowell’s 1970 article Jack the Ripper – A Solution? was the first to suggest that the killer had aristocratic roots, hinting very heavily – though stopping short of actually naming him – that Albert lay at the heart of the matter. In 1973 the BBC drama documentary Jack the Ripper employed the unusual tactic of casting two of the leading characters from the hugely popular police drama Z Cars (1962-1978), Detective Chief Superintendents Barlow and Watt (Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor) as modern day investigators looking into the murders, their findings being shown in dramatised sequences, and it too pointed the finger at royal connections in its final episode.
Though compelling, the theory has been widely discredited but the attraction of a vast conspiracy launched and supported by the highest echelons of British society has proved hard to resist. Perhaps the most famous fictionalised version of Knight’s hypothesis was Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic book From Hell (first published in Taboo magazine between 1989 and 1999) but they were beaten to the punch by Bob Clark’s British/Canadian co-production Murder by Decree, released just three years after Knight’s book was first published. It was the first of four film or television takes on the Ripper murders to use the royal family/Freemasons conspiracy angle, the others being the TV mini-series Jack the Ripper (1988), television film The Ripper (1997) and the big-screen adaptation of From Hell (2001).
Z Cars creator John Hopkins’s screenplay – which, according to the credits is actually based on the book The Ripper File by John Lloyd (co-writer of that 1973 BBC drama documentary on which the book is based) – takes it’s cue as much from James Hill’s A Study in Terror (1965) as from Knight by pitching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr John Watson into the mix. As the film begins, the Ripper has already claimed two victims and Holmes (Christopher Plummer, replacing the originally cast Peter O’Toole) and Watson (James Mason) are drawn into the investigation when they are approached by a citizens’ committee from the east end desperate to bring the murders to an end. Helped by the psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) and hindered by an increasingly complex network of Freemasons withing the police and the government, Holmes comes to realise that the killings are being committed to cover up the truth of a royal indiscretion.
Clark had cone a long way from his low-budget debut, the zombie film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972). Dead of Night (1974) (aka Deathdream) made good on the promise shown in his crude but effective debut and the classic Black Christmas (1974) laid much of the groundwork for the slasher cycle that was to follow a few years later. Murder by Decree was his biggest film so far, benefiting from a relatively lavish $5 million budget, genuine London locations and a stellar cast mostly giving excellent performances. Plummer, who had previously played Holmes in the British TV film Silver Blaze, adapted by Julian Bond and directed by John Davies for ITV’s The Sunday Drama strand in 1977, takes an unusual approach to the Great Detective, one that still gets under the skin of the most hardcore Conan Doyle purists. His is a more compassionate and emotional Holmes than we used to – his tearful and angry response to the fate of Crook (Geneviève Bujold), confined to an asylum by the conspirators, abandoned by the man she thought loved her and slowly driven mad by her experiences, was of particular concern for some. But it would have painted Holmes in a pretty poor light had he learned of her appalling fate and simply shrugged it off the way we normally expect Holmes to do. His uncharacteristic reaction – born as much from his frustrations at his inability to help her as anything else – and Bujold’s excellent performance help to establish the film’s emotional core, making Murder by Decree unexpectedly moving.
Plummer very nearly has the whole show stolen from him by Mason, who certainly waltzes off with several scenes, particularly a charming moment involving his last pea on the plate and Holmes’ rather brutal if pragmatic solution to his problem. Among the supporting cast are Frank Finlay, reprising his role as Inspector Lestrade from A Study in Terror, Anthony Quayle – who was also in Hill’s film – as the impressively bewhiskered Commission of Police, Sir Charles Warren, David Hemmings as the secret radical Inspector Foxborough, Susan Clark as the doomed Mary Kelly, John Gielgud in an extended cameo as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and a host of character actors familiar to British television viewers of the time.
Though beautifully shot by Reginald H. Morris, lavishly designed by Harry Pottle and costume designer Judy Moorcroft and afforded an excellent score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer, Murder by Decree isn’t without its faults, many of them inherited from Knight’s frankly ludicrous conspiracy theory. It’s never clear, for example, why the British establishment should have been running so scared from a gang of drink-addled East End prostitutes – if it came down to it, it would have been their word against that of the government and it’s not hard to see how well that would have gone for them. Hopkins and Clark also have the not inconsiderable problem of the inconvenient fact that the Ripper’s identity has never been revealed to contend with. This results in a lengthy climactic monologue from Holmes who not only has to spell out the mechanics of the complex conspiracy but agree to keep what he has learned to himself for the protection of Annie’s child. The scene showcases Plummer’s talents perfectly but it feels too long, too clunky and too convenient a way to get around the fact that in real life we never did find out who committed the appalling crimes of Autumn 1888.
For some, these are problems too large to overlook and that’s fair enough. For some of us though, they pale compared to the film’s many virtues. Clark gets plenty of mileage from the stereotypically fog bound streets and wharfs of Victorian London (built at Shepperton Studios) and there are several moments of genuine horror among the convoluted sleuthing. The brief glimpse of the Ripper’s eyes, pupils unnaturally dilated, are unsettling in the extreme and the glimpse inside the charnel house that the joint killers Sir Thomas Spivey (Roy Lansford), the film’s equivalent of Knight’s Sir William Gull, a doctor employed by the royal household, and his sidekick William Slade (Peter Jonfield) have made of Mary Kelly’s lowly hovel is gloriously nasty.
Murder by Decree will no doubt continue to divide viewers, particularly those with special interests in either Holmes, the Ripper or both. But despite its flaws, it remains a powerful thriller, its conspiracy as convincingly sketched as is possible given how outlandishly silly it is (don’t think about it too much or it simply crumbles away to nothing) and the fantastic cast are worth the price of admission alone. John Neville’s excellent Holmes in A Study in Terror may be closer to Conan Doyle’s original but Plummer’s revisionist take on the role is an interesting one and, fun though James Hill’s earlier film is, Murder by Decree remains the most satisfying of the Holmes-vs-Ripper tales.