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Film / Murder by Decree

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"We've unmasked madmen, Watson, wielding scepters. Reason run riot. Justice howling at the moon."

A 1979 mystery film directed by Bob Clark, starring Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson. This is the one where Sherlock Holmes hunts down Victorian London's most notorious killer Jack the Ripper, again.note  The plot of the movie is clearly influenced by Steven Knight's 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which has influenced scores of works based of Jack the Ripper, most notably From Hell by Alan Moore.

London is in a state of panic. While Whitehall worries about radicals and anarchists threatening the established social order, a mysterious serial killer stalks the slums of Whitechapel going after prostitutes. Scotland Yard is baffled, so naturally they call in Sherlock Holmes... except, they don't. The new police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), is adamant that Holmes not be let anywhere near the case, much to the frustration of Inspector Lestrade (Frank Finlay). Realizing something is seriously wrong, Holmes and Watson take up the case regardless and uncover a conspiracy that may rock the Empire to its very core.


Also in the cast are Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees, Sir John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough, Susan Clark as Mary Kelly, and Geneviève Bujold as Annie Crook.


  • Ambiguous Situation: How much involvement the Prime Minister and the Royal Family have in the Ripper murders. The Prime Minister is adamant that Queen Victoria was not involved in any way, and Holmes doesn't want to believe she was involved. As for the Government, Holmes doesn't know how directly they were involved - only that their Catholic prejudices egged Dr. Spivey on.
  • Arsenal Attire: Holmes weaponizes his trademark scarf by weighing it down and swinging it like a cudgel.
  • Band of Brothers: The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and Sir Charles cover up the Ripper murders because they feel obliged to due to the Ripper being a fellow Freemason.
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  • Canon Foreigner: There was no Inspector Foxborough in Doyle's writings, nor in the real Ripper case.
  • Casting Gag: Frank Finlay had played Lestrade in the other film where Holmes faces off against the Ripper — A Study in Terror.
    • Sir John Gielgud who played Holmes in a radio series for the BBC opposite Ralph Richardson as Watson.
  • Clothing Combat: Holmes weaponizes his trademark scarf by weighing it down and swinging it like a cudgel
  • Freak Out: The normally stoic Holmes is appalled at the abuse Annie Crook has been put through at the asylum to the point he assaults the chief doctor snarling at him to let her go!
  • Gentleman Snarker: Holmes and Watson. It's about the only way Watson can cope living with Holmes.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Sir Charles Warren is made into an incompetent buffoon actively hampering the investigation. The real Sir Charles while a talented military officer was ill-suited for the job of police commissioner. And he was constantly criticized by the liberal press and even the Government to point he actually quit his post during the Ripper case.
    • Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister.
    • Prince Victor Albert. Maybe Queen Victoria
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The fact Sherlock Holmes hasn't been called by Scotland Yard to help with the Ripper case clues the Great Detective in that something is very wrong, if Scotland Yard refuses to have him consult on such a high profile case.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Donald Sutherland doesn't attempt to put on a British accent as Robert Lees, instead using his natural Canadian accent.
  • Public Domain Character: Naturally for a Ripper film. We have Sir Charles Warren - the Police Commissioner, Lord Salisbury - the Prime Minister, and medium Robert Lees. Oddly the actual detective who worked on the case, Inspector Abberline is nowhere to bee seen.
  • Scarf Of Asskicking: Holmes weaponizes his trademark scarf by weighing it down and swinging it like a cudgel.
  • The Voiceless: Not once does the Ripper ever speak on screen.


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