Murder by Decree (1979)
Murder by Decree (1979)

Genre: Mystery Running Time: 2 hrs. 4 min.

Release Date: February 9th, 1979 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Bob Clark Actors: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold




urder by Decree,” originally titled “Sherlock Holmes and Saucy Jack” (a more unique but less fitting, almost comical title), is a relatively bland tale of the legendary gumshoe in his pursuit of Jack the Ripper in London, 1888. It’s directed by Bob Clark, the director of such diverse projects as “A Christmas Story,” “Porky’s,” and “Black Christmas,” here apparently trying yet another different genre. But this incarnation of the clue-collecting duo is only occasionally intriguing, mostly derivative of previous Sherlock films, and regularly annoying in its pacing, length, and humdrum process of unfolding the plot.

A citizen’s committee, headed by radicals, wants the notorious Jack the Ripper stopped. His terrorizing slaughters take place in a poorer part of town, allowing for a solution to proceed un-expedited by Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), the head of Scotland Yard and the man responsible for the safety of the city. The revolutionaries approach famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and his trusty assistant Doctor Watson (James Mason) for aid, but the master detective embarks on the case without accepting definitive employment as requested. The attacks are becoming more frequent and more grotesque, like ritualistic sacrifices.

Clues are discovered, including a cryptic message on the wall of a narrow alley, wounds on the body of an informant, and Robert Lees’ (Donald Sutherland) otherworldly visions. But Warren and the police, who seem to be protecting a secret or plotting a conspiracy, continually impede Holmes’ progress. He’s constantly being followed, attacked, or having his subjects spontaneously disappear, following one person after another to tie together grasping bits of information – from the Black Horse Tavern, to back streets, to hospitals, to asylums.

Holmes is appropriately British, classically garbed, calculating, well-spoken, pipe-smoking, disguise-donning, violin-playing, and always calm. Watson is agreeably old, grey-haired, not entirely foolish but certainly not superior to Holmes’ intelligence, and definitely not a master of martial arts – and both men still have time to squabble over a squashed pea for odd comic relief. Jack the Ripper’s attacks are filmed in first-person, accompanied by “Jaws”-like suspense music and the agony of his victims stretched across their faces in slow motion. The permanent fog and frequent darkness provide the perfect atmosphere for murder and mystery (along with authentically filthy street folk and disheveled, ugly English prostitutes). But the blood and violence is at a minimum, especially for a movie about incredibly brutal killings marked by mutilation – not that excessive bloodshed would be appropriate for Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales.

The major flaw with “Murder by Decree” is the pacing, which can’t match the sharp, quick intellect of Holmes. Oftentimes the conversations drag overlong, most noticeably when he clavers with the secretive Charles and the insane, stuttering Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold). Even a lengthy chase sequence through the murky streets of London doesn’t heighten the tension or pick up the speed, largely because it’s followed by an explanatory sequence in front of the Prime Minister (John Gielgud), wherein Holmes explains all the remaining events the audience needs to know for the story to be complete (coupled with flashbacks and chronological details). Further details lead to final discoveries and a higher body count, but by the end, the resolution can only be as satisfactory as the preceding mystery – which was dreadfully mediocre.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10