Murder by Decree

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Murder by Decree
Murder by decree poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBob Clark
Produced byBob Clark
René Dupont
Written byJohn Hopkins
Based onThe Ripper File
John Lloyd
Elwyn Jones
Sherlock Holmes characters by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
StarringChristopher Plummer
James Mason
David Hemmings
Susan Clark
Music byPaul Zaza
Carl Zittrer
CinematographyReginald H. Morris
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures
Release date
1 February 1979 (Canada) 1979 (UK)
Running time
124 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish (romagnolo)
Budget$5 million[2]
A still from Murder by Decree showing the Goulston Street graffito containing the word Juwes, which is portrayed erroneously as a Masonic term.

Murder by Decree is a 1979 British-Canadian mystery thriller film directed by Bob Clark. It features the Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who are embroiled in the investigation surrounding the real-life 1888 Whitechapel murders committed by "Jack the Ripper". Christopher Plummer plays Holmes and James Mason plays Watson. Though it features a similar premise, it is notably different in tone and result to A Study in Terror. It is loosely based on The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd.

The film's premise of the plot behind the murders is influenced by the book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, by Stephen Knight, who presumed that the killings were part of a Masonic plot. The original script contained the names of the historical suspects, Sir William Gull and John Netley.[3] In the actual film, they are represented by fictional analogues; Thomas Spivy (Gull) and William Slade (Netley). This plot device was later used in other Jack the Ripper-themed fiction, including the graphic novel From Hell.


After the Metroplitan Police fail to apprehend the serial killer Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes is approached to investigate the recent murders of prostitutes that happened in the Whitechapel district of London. Helped by Dr. Watson and the medium Robert Lees, Holmes discovers that all the victims were in one way or another related to Annie Crook, a woman locked in a mental institution.

Things get complicated as members of the police hierarchy and also several politicians, all Freemasons, seem to be protecting one of their own. Furthermore, Inspector Foxborough, the policeman who is in charge of the case, is in fact the secret leader of the radicals, a political movement waiting for the British government to fall because of its incapability to solve the Whitechapel murders. Holmes must rely on his skills to find and confront the murderer.


The film was directed by Bob Clark and written by playwright John Hopkins, who had also scripted the Bond thriller Thunderball. The script was partially inspired by Elwyn Jones's book The Ripper File.[4] Hopkins referenced Conan Doyle's work, particularly Holmes' deduction and science skills but downplayed other aspects of the characters, such as Holmes' drug use in favour of making them more likable and human.[5]

While the Ripper's victims and methods are referenced the film is not totally historically accurate, notably Frederick Abberline, the officer in charge of the real case is not mentioned at all.[6] However Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister at the time the film is set, while Sir Charles Warren was head of the Metropolitan Police.[7] The pressure from the government on the police to solve the Ripper murders and the internal conflict are based in fact.[8] The presence of the psychic Robert Lees, spiritual advisor to Queen Victoria, and his apparent knowledge of who the Ripper was is also factually correct to the story.[9]

The film stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson respectively, and presents a largely different version of Holmes from the Basil Rathbone movies of the 1940s, with the aesthete still prevailing, yet tinged with humanity and emotional empathy. Plummer stated that he tried to make Holmes more human and caring and did not want to imitate other actor's portrayals of Holmes.[10] James Mason's Watson is also a departure from previous incarnations; although he may appear at first to resemble the bumbling Nigel Bruce version of the character, he soon shows his level head and scientific and medical training to be as valuable assets as they were in the original stories. Interestingly, Plummer was Nigel Bruce's cousin.[11] Like Plummer, Mason wanted to play up Watson's skills and avoid the bufoonish way the character had been portrayed before.[12] Mason received especially good reviews for his performance.[13] Both actors were apparently cast after initial plans to feature Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson fell through. Plummer had earlier portrayed Holmes in 1977's Silver Blaze.[14]

The supporting cast includes Donald Sutherland, Susan Clark, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings and Geneviève Bujold. Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, a part he had previously portrayed in the similar 1965 film A Study in Terror in which Quayle had likewise played a supporting role. Finlay would continue his association with Holmes by appearing in an episode of Granada TV's Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett.[15]

The film was shot on location in London in 1978. The interior sets including a vast Victorian era street were created at Elstree Studios. The docks set was built at Shepperton Studios.[16] Clark used many of the same camera and lighting setups to create the atmosphere and particularly the killer's point of view perspectives that he had pioneered when making Black Christmas.[17]

$3 million of the budget came from Canada, $2 million from the U.K..[2]


Upon release in the Unites States, the film made $8,234,000 at the box office.[18]

The film was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1980, of which it won five, including Best Achievement in Direction (Bob Clark), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Geneviève Bujold) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Christopher Plummer).

Variety gave the film a positive review, lauding Plummer and Mason and stating that the movie was the best since the Basil Rathbone series.[19]

Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times in February 1979, gave the film a positive review:

The film, directed by Bob Clark, based on an original screenplay by John Hopkins, makes use not only of the theory that Jack the Ripper was actually the Duke of Clarence, son [sic][a] of Queen Victoria, but also of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who are apparently in the public domain, or at least available for assignments outside the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.

With Christopher Plummer as a charming, cultivated Holmes, a fellow who reveals himself to be a man of unexpected social and political conscience, and with James Mason as an especially fond and steadfast Watson, "Murder by Decree" is a good deal of uncomplicated fun, not in a class with Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven Percent Solution," but certainly miles ahead of many other current films that masquerade as popular entertainment.

Mr. Hopkins's screenplay is funny without being condescending, more aware of history, perhaps, than Conan Doyle's mysteries ever were, but always appreciative of the strengths of the original characters and of the etiquette observed in the course of every hunt.[20]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, was actually Queen Victoria's grandson.


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  2. ^ a b Lee, Grant (13 Jan 1979). "FILM CLIPS: Canadians Shooting for the Big Leagues". Los Angeles Times. p. b10.
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  20. ^ Canby, Vincent (February 9, 1979). "Film: 'Murder By Decree' in Foggy Old London:Ripper Redux". The New York Times. Retrieved November 6, 2017.

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