Murder by Decree (1979) REVIEW


TITLE: Murder by Decree
CAST: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark and Donald Sutherland

Ripperologist JON REES casts his expert eye over Sherock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper flick, Murder by Decree

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper is a well used concept, the subject of books, films, comics and even video games.

But none of them do it quite as well as Murder By Decree.

Even the plot isn’t very original – it’s a variation of the old Royal/Masonic Conspiracy story (as most Jack the Ripper films are) – but it is a charming film.

Christopher Plummer portrays Holmes with an appropriate level of disconnection and know-it-all-ness, which makes the resolution and his emotional reaction even more touching.

Murder by Decree
Murder by Decree, with James Mason, Frank Finlay and Christopher Plummer

The supporting cast is also great – with an eerie performance of Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees and a great turn from James Mason as a particularly stiff upper lipped Watson – who starts off as a Nigel Bruce-esque bumbling oaf but soon shows that he is more than a match for Holmes. (One of my favourite moments is when Watson is making enquiries with a prostitute on Mary Kelly and inadvertently is accused of being Jack the Ripper himself!) Great efforts are taken to develop the (sometimes strained) friendship between the two men.

There are some quite creepy moments, such as the opening shots of the black hansom slowly progressing down a dark cobbled street and the foggy night scenes in Whitechapel.

The sanatorium scene where Holmes futilely questions an insane Annie Crook is quite disturbing.

Coupled with some blood and gore during the murder scenes, at these times you could almost be forgiven for almost mistaking it for a classic Hammer Horror, but it is far more rich than that.

Of course, it’s not very factually accurate, nor does Holmes look quite right in his supposed trademark deer stalker and cloak when leaving an opera house surrounded by men in top hats and tails, and he looks quite conspicuous in that outfit when attending shadowy cloak and dagger meetings (especially as Holmes was a master of disguise and blending in).

But despite those minor gripes, this is a great film – a good Holmes story, Jack the Ripper film and not a bad horror.

Be warned though, the film gets far darker than the average Sherlock Holmes story and there is no happy ending here.


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