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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 social and political 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.


  • Adaptational Heroism: Bob Clark and Christopher Plummer portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a more compassionate figure, as shown in his warm friendship with Watson, his sympathy to Annie, his rage at the doctor who imprisoned her, his offense over the government's involvement in these murders.
  • All for Nothing: Robert Weverka's novelization has Holmes disputing the justification of the government's actions to resolving what they thought was the threat to the monarchy. Annie Crook's Catholic child by the Duke of Clarence & Avondale would never been a serious claimant: the Royal Marriage Act 1701 would have rendered the marriage invalid and the Act of Settlement 1772 mandated a Protestant as a successor to the throne. Thus, the threat that led to these horrible crimes only existed in their paranoia.
  • 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.
  • Bedlam House: To keep her out of the way, the conspirators have Annie Crook confined to a barbaric asylum far out in the country. Even the normally stoic Holmes sheds Manly Tears on seeing her plight.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Ripper and his accomplice are dead, but in a Foregone Conclusion Holmes is unable to save any of the Ripper's victims and Annie Crook is left lobotomized. Warren is disgraced by his handling of the situation but the other government officials involved in the cover up escape any consequences. However, Holmes is able to pressure them into leaving Annie Crook's child alone.
  • Call-Back: At the end of the film, Holmes plays on his violin a musical piece played at Catherine Eddowes' funeral.
  • 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.
  • Clothes Make the Legend: The film expresses Holmes at wearing the traditional Deerstalker cap and Inverness Coat, having him wear it to the Opera instead of a Top Hat and Opera Cloak (which the canonical Holmes would have worn instead).
  • Clothing Combat: Holmes weaponizes his trademark scarf by weighing it down and swinging it like a cudgel
  • Cool Old Guy: Dr. Watson gets lured into a trap by a prostitute and her thief beau. Watson defeats the thief.
  • Destroy the Evidence: When an inscription The Juwes are the ones who will not be blamed for nothing turns up on an alley wall near the murders, Sir Warren orders the message destroyed. He claims the message will blame the Jews for the crime and start a race riot in the neighborhood. In truth, the message is implicating the Freemasons, and Warren is protecting his fellow members.note 
  • 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.
  • A Handful for an Eye: When Holmes walks in on Slade and Spivey murdering Mary Kelly, Slade tosses a handful of hot coals in Holmes' face.
  • He Knows Too Much
    • Polly Nichols, Liz Stride, and Annie Chapman were killed for knowing what Mary Kelly told them about the child.
    • Makins the Citizens Committee Member for making the 'Juwes' message and telling Holmes to check on it.
  • 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
  • I'll Kill You!: Holmes gives this warning to Foxborough
    Holmes: If she dies, and you come under my hands again: Expect no mercy. You have my word for it.
  • Karma Houdini: Although 'Jack the Ripper' was punished, the official higher-ups complicit in Annie Crook's imprisonment and the murders suffer none.
  • Manly Tears: Holmes sheds tears over Annie Crook's situation.
  • Murder by Mistake According to the novelization, Catherine Eddowes was mistaken for Mary Kelly.
  • Never Suicide: Holmes is told that Annie Crook committed suicide. Holmes does not believe it.
  • 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.
  • Noose Catch: The Ripper is hanged when he gets tangled in a cargo net and strangles himself.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Dr. Watson notices a used syringe. Holmes indulging in his cocaine habit? No. The detective was just using it to empty his pipe.
  • 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.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: Sherlock Holmes admits to a belief in spiritualism. In canon, Holmes is a firm atheist on the subject (although the author was a devoted spiritualist).
  • 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 be seen.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: A poor prostitute gets a church funeral and a procession?!? Actually, Catherine Eddowes was given such a display through the charity of an undertaker named Charles Hawkes.
  • Roman à Clef: Several real people involved in the Ripper Case (or suspected to be involved) had their names changed for this film. Sir Thomas Spivey is based on Sir William Gull. William Slade is based on John Netley. Inspector Foxborough is based on Ripper Investigator Frederick Abberline.
  • Scarf of Asskicking: Holmes weaponizes his trademark scarf by weighing it down and swinging it like a cudgel.
  • Secret Relationship: Catholic Housemaid Annie Crook becomes the attention of a handsome guest at her employer's house. He seduces and marries her and she bears him a daughter. Of course, since the man turns out to be the Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward (or "Eddy"), the Duke of Clarence & Avondale, a Protestant and second-in-line to the Throne of England, this relationship has to be kept secret.
  • Sword Cane: The Ripper employs this weapon.
  • Tempting Fate: A prostitute tries to prove her worth to Dr. Watson by showing she is still in possession of all her teeth. Suddenly, she breaks a tooth.
  • The Voiceless: Not once does the Ripper ever speak on screen.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Foxborough is willing to sacrifice Mary Kelly to prove the government's involvement in the Ripper murders.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Holmes' second meeting with him, Robert Lees is absent for the remainder of the movie, with no resolution to the subplot.
  • Who Dares? When the Prime Minister takes offense to Holmes' words, Holmes responds that his offense is based on being himself offended.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The purpose in causing so much suffering and death is to locate and kill Annie Crook's child fathered by the Duke of Clarence and Avondale.
  • You Monster!: Watson and Holmes give different views on Foxborough and his willingness to sacrifice Mary Kelly for the sake of radical change.
    Watson: He is out of his senses. He doesn’t know what he is saying.
    Holmes: Oh Yes he does, Watson. He knows full well. He knows exactly what he is doing. A man devoid of conscience. As guilty as the murderer himself.