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Murder by Decree

(Meurtre par décret)

Year: 1979
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 124 min
Producer: Rene Dupont
Executive Producer: Len Herberman, Robert Goldston
Writer: John Hopkins, Elwyn Jones, John Lloyd
Cinematographer: Reginald Morris
Editor: Stan Cole
Sound: John Mitchell
Music: Carl Zittrer, Paul Zaza
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Frank Finlay, Geneviève Bujold
Production Company: Highlight Theatrical Production Corporation Ltd., Ambassador Films Ltd., Sands Films Ltd. (U.K.)

It is autumn of 1888 and Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (James Mason) are sleuthing the streets of London in search of the infamous Jack the Ripper, who is slaying prostitutes in the Whitechapel district in a ritualistic fashion. Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle), the new superintendent of Scotland Yard, tries to keep Holmes off the case. But Holmes persists, driven on by taunts from a psychic, Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland, playing a real-life character who assisted in the actual investigation), and intriguing new evidence provided by Annie Crook (GeneviPve Bujold), the discarded mistress of an upper-crust gentleman who is a suspect in the killings.

The most elaborate and expensive Canada-U.K. co-production mounted to date, Murder by Decree offers a splendid, detailed period reconstruction of Victorian London, complete with swirling fog and rattling hansom cabs. The dense story, which interweaves the fictional Holmes with actual facts of the Ripper case, is based on the unfounded (but popular) notion that Jack the Ripper was a member of the Royal household. Christopher Plummer is particularly effective as Holmes and James Mason gives what is perhaps the best screen portrayal of Dr. Watson. (The two leads were brought in to replace Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier, who were unable to overcome their intense dislike of each other.) Featuring strong supporting performances from Donald Sutherland, GeneviPve Bujold and Susan Clark, the film tries very hard to please, but it is overly long (the French-language version released in Quebec was shortened to 109 minutes) and suffers from an unsatisfactory, pat ending.

The film was nominated for eight Genie Awards and won five for Lead Actor (Plummer), Supporting Actress (Bujold), Direction (Bob Clark), Film Editing (Stan Cole) and Music Score (Carl Zittrer, Paul Zaza).