Murder by Decree (1979)

UK/Canada (“a United Kingdom/Canada co-production”), 1978
120m [USA], 124m
35mm film, Metrocolor

A British/Canadian horror film directed by Bob Clark. Frank Finlay appears as Inspector Lestrade, a role he played in the earlier / film A Study in Terror (1965).

Plot Summary

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are drawn into the brutal series of prostitute murders in 1888 . As the killer – dubbed Jack the Ripper – hunts down his last victim, Holmes races against time to save her life. Along the way he uncovers a monstrous conspiracy that reaches even the highest echelons in the land…


Directed by: Bob Clark
© Saucy Jack Inc. MCMLXXVIII [1978]
Robert A. Goldston presents a film by Bob Clark. A Highlight Theatrical Production Corporation Limited and Murder by Decree Productions production. Produced with the assistance of The Canadian Film Development Corporation, Famous Players Film Company, Wow!! Entertainment Inc. A Robert A. Goldston presentation
Executive Producers: Len Herberman
Produced by: René Dupont and Bob Clark
Original Screenplay by: John Hopkins
Based on “The Ripper File” by: John Lloyd and Elwyn Jones
This motion picture is a fictional dramatisation based on recent theories concerning the infamous crimes committed by the alleged “Jack the Ripper”
Director of Photography: Reginald H. Morris
Editor: Stan Cole
Music Composed by: Carl Zittrer & Paul Zaza
Sound Recordist: John Mitchell
Costumes Designed by: Judy Moorcroft
Chief Make-up Artist: Peter Robb-King
Chief Hairdresser: Colin Jamison
Special Effects: Michael Albrechtsen
Production Designer: Harry Pottle

Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes)
James Mason (Dr John H. Watson)
David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough)
Susan Clark (Mary Kelly)
Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren)
John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)
Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade)
Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees)
Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook)
Chris Wiggins (Doctor Hardy)
Teddi Moore (Mrs Lees)
Catherine Kessler (Carrie)
Terry Duggan (Danny)
Peter Jonfield (William Slade)
Roy Lansford (Sir Thomas Spivey)
Ron Pember (Makins)
Ken Jones (dock guard)
June Brown (Ann Chapman)
Hilary Sesta (Catherine Eddowes)
Anthony May (Lanier)

Alternative Titles

Asesinato por decreto – Spain
Assassinio su commissione – Italy
Kauhun oppitunti – Finland
Meurtre par décret – France
Mord an der Themse – Germany
Morderstwo na zamówienie – Poland
Murha tilauksesta – Finland
Saucy Jack Meets Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes and Saucy Jack
Sherlock Holmes: Murder by Decree
Verschwörung im Nebel – Germany

See also
From Hell (2001)
Jack the Ripper (1988)
The Ripper (1997)
A Study in Terror (1965)


Variety 24 January 1979 p.22
Murder By Decree” is 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. […] The film's charm derives mainly from John Hopkins' literal, deadpan script that makes no attempt to either mock or contemporize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary creation. […] Clark covers the dangling plot threads with particularly sharp editing by Stan Cole, a massive period recreation job by Harry Pottle and Ken Pattenden, and expressive costuming by Judy Moorcraft. All the British-based tech credits are strong, although the dialects seemed particularly atrocious, given the proximity of the locales. […] Mason almost steals the pic with his harrumphing Watson, and a digression with a squashed pea is the film's comic highlight. Bujold, Quayle, Hemmings and John Gielgud are all employed to good effect. – from a review by Poll

Monthly Film Bulletin vol.47 no.554 (March 1980) p.50
Christopher Plummer and James Mason, doing their professional best, make a likeable, playfully idiosyncratic Holmes and Watson. But at every turn one feels this to be a bogus, shadow-boxing yarn – there is simply no conviction to the masonic mumbo-jumbo-which the fastidious, spiritual Conan Doyle would never have countenanced. […] Shying away from an exposure of the cover-up, Holmes anti-climactically bewails the prospect of forever having Mary Kelly's death on his conscience, and then promptly consoles himself with the thought that Watson's stout-hearted rectitude is an antidote to the world's villainy. The film runs to several sumptuous set-piece location sequences, and a cast top-heavy with ‘names', several of whom are used to negligible effect. Frank Finlay, as Lestrade, seems always to be unsuccessfully elbowing his way into the proceedings. Although often cliched (heavy breathing on the soundtrack, a subjective camera tracking through cobbled alleys), the murders are depicted with a certain murky, Grand Guignol style; and the last, in particular, with Holmes bursting in to find the two men with bloody hands and mad, floured faces mutilating the corpse with masonic symbols, produces the required frisson. Of the performances, apart from the two principals, only Genevieve Bujold, as the distressed Annie Crook, succeeds-by sheer underplayed concentration-in overcoming the enervating effect of the surrounding hokum. – from a review by John Pym



  • Cinema Canada vol.3 no.54 (April 1979) pp.49-50 – review (by John Hofsess)
  • Film Review vol.30 no.2 (February 1980) pp.34-35 – review
  • Film Score Monthly vol.8 no.7 (August 2003) p.47 – illustrated DVD review (The laserphile: creepy capsule round-up by Andy Dursin)
  • Films and Filming vol.26 no.4 (January 1980) p.18 – illustrated preview
  • Films and Filming vol.26 no.6 (March 1980) pp.31,34 – review (by Julian Fox)
  • Films in Review vol.30 no.4 (April 1979) pp.243-244 – illustrated review (by Tom Rogers)
  • Flesh and Blood no.5 (September 1995) pp.43, 44 – illustrated credits, reviews (by Eric McNaughton and John Hamilton)
  • The Hollywood Reporter vol.255 no.4 (22 January 1979) p.4 (USA) – credits, review (by Robert Osborne)
  • Monthly Film Bulletin vol.47 no.554 (March 1980) pp.49-50 (UK) – credits, review (by John Pym)
  • Necronomicon no.1 pp.10-13 – illustrated review
  • Psychotronic no.16 p.53 – review
  • Radio Times vol.246 no.3213 (15 June 1985) p.23 – article
  • Screen International no.144 (24 June 1978) p.1; 10 – illustrated article (A new Holmes and Watson); credits
  • Screen International 5 January 1980 p.20 – advert
  • Screen International no.227 (9-16 February 1980) p.4 – note (Films for registration)
  • Screen International no.229 (23 February-1 March 1980) p.2 – note (West End openings)
  • Screen International no.231 (8-15 March 1980) p.2 – note (West End openings)
  • Screen International no.231 (8 March 1980) p.46 – note
  • Séquences no.96 (April 1979) pp.25-26 – review
  • Variety 24 January 1979 p.22 (USA) – credits, review (by Poll)


  • Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror (2nd edition) p.331 – credits, review
  • English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby pp.270, 358
  • Film Review 1980-81 by F. Maurice Speed (ed.) p.137
  • The Films of the Eighties by Robert A. Nowlan and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan p.376
  • Horror and Science Fiction Films II by Donald C. Willis p.267
  • Horrorshows: The A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre by Gene Wright p.18 – illustrated note
  • Serial Killer Cinema: An Analytical Filmography by Robert Cetti p.296-299