Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree is a 1979 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 somewhat different in tone and result to A Study in Terror. It is loosely based on The Ripper File by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd.

Murder by Decree
Murder by decree poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBob Clark
Screenplay byJohn Hopkins
Based onThe Ripper File
John Lloyd
Elwyn Jones
Sherlock Holmes characters by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Produced byBob Clark
René Dupont
StarringChristopher Plummer
James Mason
David Hemmings
Susan Clark
Anthony Quayle
John Gielgud
Frank Finlay
Donald Sutherland
Genevieve Bujold
CinematographyReginald H. Morris
Edited byStan Cole
Music byPaul Zaza
Carl Zittrer
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures (in the United Kingdom through Columbia-EMI-Warner Distributors[1])
Ambassador Film Distributors (Canada)[1]
Release dates
Running time
124 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
Budget$5 million[3]
Box office$1.9 million (Canada)[4]

The film's premise of the plot behind the murders is influenced by the book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), 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.[5] In the actual film, they are represented by fictional analogues: Thomas Spivy (Gull) and William Slade (Netley).[5] This plot device was later used in other Jack the Ripper-themed fiction, including the graphic novel From Hell.


After the Metropolitan 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 companions of 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 scripted the Bond film Thunderball (1965).[5] The script partially was inspired by Elwyn Jones's book The Ripper File.[5] 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.[7]

The film stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. 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, saying "This is a passionate and caring Holmes."[5] 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. Like Plummer, Mason wanted to play up Watson's skills and avoid the buffoonish way the character had been portrayed before.[8] Mason received especially good reviews for his performance.[9] Plummer had earlier portrayed Holmes in 1977's Silver Blaze.[5]

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 portrayed in the similar film A Study in Terror (1965), in which Quayle also played a supporting role.[5] Finlay continued his association with Holmes by appearing in an episode of Granada TV's Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett.[10]

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.[5]

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


Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "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 movies that masquerade as popular entertainment".[11] A review in Variety called it "probably the best Sherlock Holmes film since the inimitable pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940s series at Universal. Unfortunately, it also shares some of the defects of those films, i.e. slow pacing, an improbable story line, and an undue emphasis on odd characters."[12] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote that its "biggest problem is its script, which runs on for a full 120 minutes with no place to go. We see a couple of murders, meet a psychic (Donald Sutherland) and a long-suffering woman trapped in a psychiatric prison (Genevieve Bujold), then the story doubles back with recapitulation after recapitulation. The film has at least two false endings. I mistakenly put on my coat with one reel to go. All of this is a shame, because the cast is excellent."[13] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Unfortunately, under Bob Clark's uninspired, plodding direction, Hopkins' elaborations make for a slow and ponderous film, despite a starry cast and some scary moments. Not helping matters is Christopher Plummer's rather colorless Sherlock Holmes. The one real joy in the film is James Mason's warm, loyal, sometimes dense Dr. Watson."[14] Lawrence O'Toole of Maclean's declared, "If you were to look for the right word to describe Murder By Decree you would have to go into the archives, lift it lightly from its resting place, and dust it off. The word? Splendid."[15] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated, "While never as playful or ingenious as Nicholas Meyer's screenplay for 'The Seven Per-Cent Solution,' Hopkins' mystery is crisp and chilling right up to the denouement. At that point it might be wise to edge toward the exits, since the solution leaves much to be desired."[16] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote that the film was "not a new idea" but declared it "a decided success. Christopher Plummer and James Mason seize their roles like a couple of happy musicians handed prize antique instruments: their duets are by turns droll, lyric and touching."[17]

The film was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1980, of which it won five,[5] 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).

The film was the fourth highest-grossing film ever in Canada, with a gross of $1.9 million.[4] On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a rating of 85% from 13 reviews.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Murder by Decree". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 8 October 2021.
  2. ^ "'Hollywood' opening set for Toronto". The Globe and Mail. 24 January 1979. F.13.
  3. ^ a b Lee, Grant (13 January 1979). "FILM CLIPS: Canadians Shooting for the Big Leagues". Los Angeles Times. p. b10.
  4. ^ a b "Canada-Only B.O. Figures". Variety. 21 November 1979. p. 24.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. pp. 121–126. ISBN 9780857687760.
  6. ^ Robert Cettl (2003). Serial Killer Cinema: An Analytical Filmography with an Introduction. McFarland & Company. pp. 297–298. ISBN 978-0-7864-1292-1.
  7. ^ Holler, Brian (9 February 2010). "Murder by Decree". PopMatters. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  8. ^ "Sherlock Holmes on Screen: "Murder by Decree" (1979)". 4 February 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  9. ^ Sweeney, Kevin (1999). James Mason: A Bio-bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 188. ISBN 9780313284960.
  10. ^ Monty, Scott (3 February 2016). "Remembering Frank Finlay". I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (9 February 1979). "Film: 'Murder by Decree' in Foggy Old London". The New York Times. C1.
  12. ^ "Film Reviews: Murder By Decree". Variety. 24 January 1979. 22.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (20 March 1979). "Holmes film: The violence is 'Murder'". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 7.
  14. ^ Thomas, Kevin (9 March 1979). "Holmes Vs. Ripper; Watson Vs. Pea". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 23.
  15. ^ O'Toole, Lawrence (12 February 1979). "Elegant, my dear Watson". Maclean's. 54.
  16. ^ Arnold, Gary (30 March 1979). "'Decree': Crisp Chiller". The Washington Post. B1.
  17. ^ Ansen, David (26 February 1979). "London Fog". Newsweek. 81.
  18. ^ "Murder by Decree". Rotten Tomatoes.

External linksEdit