Jack the Ripper
If you ever visit Ye Olde London Town, try and fit the Jack the Ripper walk into your itinerary. Ideally you should do it in spring or autumn, so that when you start out it’s daylight. But as you wander deeper into the backstreets of Whitechapel it gets increasingly dark (and if you’re lucky, a tad foggy). That way, as you find yourself in the one spot on the tour they can say with certainty that the Ripper stood, it’s fully night. It’s a chilling moment, something notably absent from 1959’s Jack the Ripper. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film, just a rather silly one.
(If you haven’t seen the movie, gentle reader, proceed with caution: I’m going to reveal Jack the Ripper’s identity! Children, those with heart conditions, the elderly and anyone with an allergy to spoilers should proceed no further).
The year is 1888, the place, London (Shepperton Studios to be exact). A cloaked figure stalks the streets, angrily searching for a lady of the night named Mary Clarke. When he is unable to find her another drunken floozy falls victim to his knife. Assistant Commissioner of Police Hodges (Jack Allan) is thus subjected to the Victorian equivalent of being chewed out by those no-nothing pencil pushers from City Hall. He passes on his displeasure to investigating officer Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne), who finds an unlikely ally in NYPD detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson). Lowry, sporting an astonishing rockabilly quiff, came over from America to see if he could help the case while at the same tome bolstering the US box office take. Lowry’s quiff is truly spectacular, as if a member of the Brian Setzer Orchestra had gone back in time to help find the killer. Which would be awesome, actually.
The Ripper’s victims are taken for autopsy to the Mercy Hospital for Women, which has become the centre of a fair amount of frenzied activity. As the latest unfortunate woman arrives, surgeon-on-duty Dr. Tranter (John le Mesurier) is nowhere to be found. Tranter’s ward Anne (Betty McDowall) is filling in for the hospital’s almoner, while disfigured, mute surgical assistant Louis (Endre Muller) has developed something of a crush on a patient named Kitty Knowles (Barbara Burke). As if that wasn’t enough, the Ripper has struck again, prompting the drunk who finds the body to exclaim in his best RADA Cockney accent, “Gor blimey, the Ripper! ‘e’s done ‘er in!”
With another body brought in, everyone has to wait for the coroner and Governor of the hospital, Sir David Rogers (Ewen Solon). Rogers isn’t terribly impressed that there’s an American on the case, though Tranter comes around when Lowry saves Anne from the angry mob outside the hospital. For some reason Tranter is unusually disturbed by the sight of the corpse. Anne meanwhile is rather taken with Lowry and agrees to show him around the city. Anne has some progressive theories about how social deprivation and societal indifference is allowing the Ripper to stalk the lower classes with impunity. But before things can get too heavy, they go off to a cancan show.
There’s a new girl in the show (which is described rather dubiously as the Ballet Montparnasse), and a lecherous toff in the crowd (Bill Shine) takes a, well, shine to her. Hazel (Jane Taylor), the new girl, is sent off to the toff’s hotel with fellow chorus girl Maggie (Dorinda Stevens, Horrors of the Black Museum). However Hazel is horrified by the brute’s advances and flees into the streets. And an unfortunate encounter with the Ripper.
A local troublemaker named Blake (George Woodbridge, Dracula) has been hanging around being a nuisance for much of the film. He spots Louis carrying a bag of medical instruments and assumes he must be the killer, goading the inevitable mob into an attack. The police seem to share the opinion of the mob that the culprit has been found, however Lowry and O’Neill have doubts. The stage door keeper at the theatre (Charles Lamb) overheard the Ripper’s demands for a woman named Mary Clarke, which rules out mute Louis. Investigating further, they discover the father of a Mary Clarke, a woman of ill repute who he says has disappeared.
Anne meanwhile is stalked by a mysterious man with a medical bag, but it turns out to be another doctor from the hospital, Urquhart (Gerard Green). Anne is heading to see Kitty Knowles who has now been discharged from the hospital. Anne has discovered that Kitty is actually Mary Clarke, a fact which is soon revealed to Sir David as well. HE is the Ripper, sent insane with rage after his son, who was in love with Mary/Kitty, killed himself having discovered she was a prostitute. Sir David is able to seriously injure Kitty/Mary, but is interrupted by Lowry before he can do the same to Anne. Fleeing to the hospital, Sir David tries to escape through an elevator shaft, but becomes trapped. He is crushed by the slowly-descending car, which prevents O’Neill from officially labelling him as the Ripper. For some reason.
Jack the Ripper was no stranger to cinema, having cropped up as early as 1927. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was the first thriller made by a young director named Alfred Hitchcock. I wonder what became of him? The Lodger started out as a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, in which a married couple of unemployed servants are forced to rent rooms to a man they increasingly suspect is notorious serial killer ‘The Avenger.’ The book is a frustrating experience, written from a viewpoint that the upper class can clearly do no wrong. The homeowners only fell on hard times after leaving positions of service with a procession of saintly, benevolent gentryfolk. They dismiss irrefutable evidence that makes it REALLY BLOODY OBVIOUS their lodger is the killer, because they don’t think a gentleman could possibly commit such horrible crimes. Belloc Lowndes might have meant this as an observation of the social norms of the day, had she not offered a cop-out ending in which the killer is actually an escaped lunatic merely posing as a gentleman.
Lowndes claimed she got the idea after hearing someone at a dinner party say that their cook and butler had rented rooms to the Ripper. It’s more likely she was inspired by two popular accounts from shortly after the murders, both from people claiming to know where the Ripper had lived. One of these stories, that of the Blatty Street Lodger, may actually have concerned the most likely Ripper suspect, Francis Tumblety.
Like the book, Hitchcock’s film renames the killer ‘The Avenger’, played (OR IS HE??) by stage legend Ivor Novello. Hitch and his wife/screenwriter Alma Reville thankfully abandon much of the couple’s pained handwringing and arguing, adding an attraction between the couple’s daughter and the houseguest that would carry over into later versions. The Lodger is also the first appearance of a distinctive Hitch trait; the killer only targets blondes. Ivor Novello wrote and also toplined a 1932 sound remake (released in the US as The Phantom Fiend) which unlike the silent original was a major commercial flop.
By 1944 things were less circumspect, and that year’s Hollywood version of The Lodger with Merle Oberon, George Sanders and Laird Cregar mentioned the Ripper by name. This was an impressively staged adaptation complete with musical numbers and sets that simply dripped Victorian gothic, despite being firmly based on a Hollywood soundstage. The high percentage of Brit cast members added authenticity, while the ill-fated Cregar gave a stellar performance as the suspicious tenant. Ironically, while the film was allowed to name its killer the Ripper, the Production Code banned any allusion to prostitutes. Thus the Ripper has an irrational hatred of actresses instead.
The fledgling Hammer Studios made an early foray into the Gothic horror arena with 1950’s Room To Let. This was based on a different source, a play by Margery Allingham, though it still centred on a mysterious houseguest in an upstairs room, a doctor (Valentine Dyall) who may be the Ripper. Pudding-faced British B-movie regular Jimmy Hanley (father of future Hammer glamour girl Jenny Hanley) also appeared. For a movie that isn’t a remake of The Lodger, well, it’s a pretty darn good remake of The Lodger.
Constance Smith, the female lead from Room To Let, got a more official go-around in another remake, 1953’s Man in the Attic. This was based largely on Barre Lyndon’s script from the 1944 version, but overall it’s a shabby mess. The cast and production are several rungs below that of the earlier version, and the few cast members who do sport English accents are of the Dick Van Dyke Hollywood Cockernee school of acting. At least Jack Palance, sounding resolutely Pennsylvanian, is good value as the mysterious houseguest. Despite the ever-so-slightly racier musical numbers, Constance Smith mostly demonstrates that she’s no Merle Oberon. The film even recycles footage from the 1944 version, and the addition of a car (well, coach) chase at the end can’t do much to save it.
With the explosion of Gothic horror in the late 1950s thanks to Hammer, producers Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker were able to take a different approach with their Ripper film, even putting the villain right up there in the title. Prior to this, attempting to do so was a definite no-no for the British Board of Film Censors. However with the Board becoming slightly more permissive after the addition of the new X certificate, Berman and Baker felt able to make the suggestion, which was duly accepted. For more on the producers I refer you to Blood of the Vampire.
The script came from regular Berman/Baker collaborator and Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, a welcome name around these parts. Coming hot on the heels of both Blood of the Vampire and The Revenge of Frankenstein, Sangster presents yet another mad doctor, yet another hospital and yet another deformed hunchback with an unhealthy interest in the female lead. To Sangster’s credit, in all three of the aforementioned films the elements are combined effectively enough to feel different. I assume it was simply a case of Jimmy finding a winning formula and deciding to stick with it, combined with the punishing B-movie schedule of knocking out approximately eight scripts a week. Plus in these rarefied times when we can watch anything on a whim with our Youfaces and Blutube, it’s easy to forget that these films would play in the local fleapit and then vanish, so similarities were less prone to leap out at the viewer.
Sangster dismissed the notion that he’d done any research into the case, preferring not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. However there’s clearly a significant influence from the earliest full-length book on the Ripper crimes, Leonard Matters’ The Mystery of Jack the Ripper from 1929. Manners was an Australian-born journalist who speculated that the killer was a prominent doctor whose son had caught syphilis from the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Manners claimed that this doctor had confessed on his deathbed in Buenos Aries, an account of which the author said he found in a local newspaper. Though this is patently a load of old cobblers, Sangster’s script sticks closely to Manners’ ‘theory’.
Since the evidence in the case suggested the murderer had some medical knowledge, Sangster throws in several sinister doctors as potential suspects. I can’t swear to it, but it sounds very much like John Le Mesurier provides the voice of ‘the Ripper’ when he attacks, even though it’s ultimately revealed to be Ewen Solon’s character doing the killing. Interestingly the whole ‘cancan girls’ sequence seems to be borrowed from the 1944 version. Sangster even manages to sneak in some social commentary on the unfairness of the Victorian class system, a welcome addition after the aristocratic leanings of The Lodger novel, though it’s definitely secondary to the action.
Sangster’s version of the investigating officer is entirely fictional though. Here rather than the famous Inspector Percy Abbeline we have Irish actor Eddie Byrne. Known mostly for playing military men, barmen and coppers, the same year Byrne played brusque Irish Inspector O’Neill in this film he also starred as brusque Irish Inspector Mulrooney in Hammer’s The Mummy. To add some transatlantic appeal for the US box office is Lee Patterson. Actually a Canadian and known mostly for American TV and the occasional British film, Patterson adds good looks and exciting, historically-dubious hair to the mix. The remaining cast are fairly unremarkable, though seasoned character players like Le Mesurier and Solon (both in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles) prove their worth. The female cast in particular don’t do much to distinguish themselves except for the occasional topless shot in the uncut European version.
Shooting alternate ‘stronger’ scenes for the permissive European or Asian markets was allegedly quite common back in the day, though there are many more rumours than actual examples. Supposedly there’s a version of The Mummy where the Egyptian handmaidens are topless, and if you search the web you’ll find unclothed stills of Hazel Court from The Man who Could Cheat Death (but crucially the footage itself remains stubbornly absent). For existing ‘continental versions’ you must look to independent producers like Richard & Alex Gordon’s Devil Doll, or Berman and Baker’s The Flesh and the Fiends and this movie. Though the naughty parts are tame by modern standards, there’s still a slight frisson from the thought of how racy they must have been back in the day.
The film’s direction is credited to both Berman and Baker, which typically saw Berman handle the directing and Baker the cinematography. They do a solid job, but lack the flair of a Terence Fisher or John Gilling. The sets and design are effective enough, with one rather nice FX shot of the London skyline (it must have cost a reasonable sum because we get to see it a number of times). Perhaps because of the black and white photography or maybe for the lack of a real acting heavyweight like Peter Cushing, André Morell or Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit, the film feels very much like a B-movie. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but Jack the Ripper lacks the kind of atmosphere that elevates the best of Hammer or Amicus.
The only real misstep is the ending; originally the script had Sir David dismembered after falling into some machinery. The censors refused to even consider this, so the elevator-crushing was devised instead. The idea was that the killer’s blood oozing up through the floor of the car would be the only part of the film shown in colour, an effect achieved by having the set painted to give a false ‘monochrome’ effect. It doesn’t really work, and the death of the most infamous killer in British history is reduced to a sad little gloop of paint.
Hammer never made a full-fledged Ripper film, so Sangster’s input here is about as close as we got. Even so, elements of the story (along with somewhat misplaced Scottish body snatchers Burke and Hare) found their way into Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a favourite of mine among their latter-day productions. Hands of the Ripper, another 70s gem, introduced a young woman possibly possessed by the Ripper’s murderous spirit. Berman and Baker’s film isn’t in the same league as this one, which is a highlight of Hammer’s twilight years. And there is a slightly queasy undertone that comes from horrific real-life murders forming the basis for all this silliness. But for all that, there’s still much to enjoy if you like sexy fifties starlets, reliable British character actors and spectacular quiffs. After that there was no stopping Jack. He returned to movies many times, appearing by himself or crossing paths with everyone from Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells to Jackie Chan’s sister and the crew of Babylon 5. But of course, we all know who the REAL Ripper was…
Release Year: 1959 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall, Ewen Solon, John Le Mesurier, Barbara Burke, Jane Taylor, Dorinda Stevens, Endre Muller, George Woodbridge, Bill Shine, Garard Green | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Hammond | Director: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman | Cinematography: Robert S. Baker | Music: Stanley Black