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The story of Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate audiences. The famous 1888 London serial murder case was documented in detail, killing by bloody killing. Forensic evidence, including photographs of the murder sites and the victims, are a matter of public record. As the killer's identity was never discovered the case is still controversial, with scores of hypothetical solutions. Social reformers used the killings to bring attention to the horrible living conditions in crowded lower-class areas of the city. Author Jack London wrote scathing essays based on his observances of poverty and squalor in Whitechapel, the district where the Ripper killings took place.
Early adaptations used the Ripper as a mysterious phantom; censorshp prohibited anything more than sideways allusions to the gruesome specifics. The book The Lodger was one; Alfred Hitchcock had his first major hit with a film version. Censorship prohibited more graphic treatments of the case until the late 1950s, when horror films were suddenly allowed to show more blood. A very popular 1959 film version by the Baker/Berman team followed a favorite (and sexist) theory, that a mad doctor was purposely murdering prostitutes as payback for the corruption of his son.
Most of these thrillers used the murders as a starting point, or as only a facet of an escapist fantasy. In one B&W film the culprit ended up crushed in an elevator shaft, with a color insert of blood oozing into the elevator car from below. More than one fantasy pitted The Ripper against Sherlock Holmes. Some recent versions make The Ripper into a misunderstood madman, and concentrate on psychic slayings with giallo trimmings.
The most satisfactory historical effort so far is this lavish two-part TV miniseries from Euston Films, Thames Television and Lorimar. It was produced for the centennial of the killings -- what a thing to celebrate -- and made news for its rare TV appearance by Michael Caine. Caine praised writer-producer-director David Wickes, for whom this was actually a second go at the story. Wickes had directed a previous English TV show on the same subject in 1973, that was applauded for sticking to the facts of the case.
The Jack the Ripper miniseries has its factual flaws and anachronisms but by and large is an exciting and complex large-scale recounting of the murders. The three-hour running time gives plenty of elbow room to sketch out political elements of the story usually omitted, such as the activities of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. A couple of the characters helping the police are prostitutes. Opportunistic newspapermen, social agitators and bigots get involved, complicating the investigation. For added sensation, the witty script pulls in the sensational contemporary stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Chief Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Michael Caine) must climb back on the wagon when he's assigned the Whitechapel murder case, a horrific mutilation murder. Under the watchful eye of his superiors, Abberline and his partner Sgt. George Godley (Lewis Collins) engage the help of Robert Lees, a psychic (Ken Bones), prostitutes Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly (Susan George & Lysette Anthony) and sketch artist Emma Prentiss (Jane Seymour), a previous sweetheart of Abberline's. As the murders mount so does the pressure to put an end to the case -- public uproar is turning ugly. Fred and George investigate the famous American actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), who nightly transforms from Jekyll to Hyde before terrified audiences. But the only consistent clues that Abberline can put together point in a very sensitive direction --- to someone involved with the Royal Family.
Some of Jack the Ripper's chapter fade-ups (where commercials once were) begin with crane shots over period streets accompanied by "Masterpiece Theater" - type music cues. The film itself is smartly written, like a Prime Suspect show set in 1888. The dapper Fred Abberline must answer to closed-mouthed bureaucrats concerned that he'll get drunk and fumble the case. Out in the streets he's confronted by coarse working men, arrogant criminals and Marxist agitators. A nervy reporter (Jonathan Moore) openly fans the flames of scandal. Abberline is inundated with opportunists, gadflies and obstructionists. Adding to his troubles, the local police are anxious to discredit him as well.
The movie is fairly discreet when it comes to blood and gore but doesn't shy away from verbal descriptions of the mutilated bodies. In addition to the famous, "Yours Truly" note, a victim's kidney is delivered in a cardboard box. Abberline obtains assistance from a noted medical authority (Ray McAnally) on the nature of madness, then completely obscured by superstition and bad information. The psychic's visions are presented in frightening Roschach-like patterns superimposed on the screen.
Numerous actors serve as transparent red herrings, while Inspector Abberline pursues the case as best he can. Local police cynically "round up the usual suspects" to give the impression that they're doing something constructive. Fred's superiors remove bodies and clean up a murder site in an attempt to keep a lid on a case that can cost them their jobs. When a shoemaker's apron is found at a murder site, the police are forced to lock up leather workers to protect them from lynching by the Vigilante Committees.
Jack the Ripper's smart script allows Michael Caine to up the tension with periodic fits of temper, intimidating witnesses and reacting to diplomatic roadblocks. Although the story stays true to the facts, it leaps to its own conclusion and presents a guilty party. Depending on what you read -- the web overflows with people selling books advancing and dismantling theories -- it's not a bad guess. The last act becomes especially tense when we realize that one of the more likeable characters is going to become the final victim, the one that ended up the subject of one of the most appalling crime scene photos ever published. Although we're given a flash cut of that horrific tableaux, this version generates its nervous thrills without directly dramatizing the actual killings. Director Wickes instead marshals tried & true suspense techniques -- loud music, shadowy figures and close-ups of the Death Coach being prepared for the street. With Michael Caine's solid performance upping the excitement, the show literally gallops to an exciting finish.
The presence of Michael Caine helped producer Wickes attract a superior cast. Armand Assante is properly suave as the high-toned actor. He's greatly aided by some anachronistic but startling makeup effects. Jane Seymour is on hand to offer a romantic possibility for Abberline, and Susan George and Lysette Anthony are women of the night terrified at the thought of becoming the Ripper's next prey. Cult actor Michael Gothard (Herostratus, The Devils, For Your Eyes Only) plays George Lusk, the rabble-rousing leader of the Whitechapel Vigilantes. I think Gothard has more dialogue here than in the rest of his filmography put together.
The Warner Archives Collection's DVD-R of Jack the Ripper looks much better than I remember the original TV broadcast, with reasonable color and an encoding rate that only weakens during the main title sequence. Although technically meant for 1:33 TV screens the picture masks off nicely to a better-looking 1:78.
The show's two parts are on separate discs, with part two beginning with a re-cap of the first half. The disc has no Archives promo montage but also no extras. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jack the Ripper rates:
Dear Glenn, congratulations as always on the sheer fabulousness of your Savant site and your reviews.
I thought you might be intrigued to know that there is a little more to the production history of David Wickes' production of Jack the Ripper.
Wickes had in fact originally started the production, made to coincide with the 1888 centenary, with Barry Foster (already popular for playing Dutch detective Van Der Valk on UK television in the 1970s and the Ripper-like murderer in Hitchcock's Frenzy of course) in the Abberline role in a smaller budget version, shot mainly on videotape in the studio with location material filmed on 16mm film as per the custom of the day (for example The Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries starring Edward Petherbridge made around the same time). They shot for ten days in September/October 1987 for what would have been a two-hour TV special.
Extracts from the ten days of shooting of the first version with Foster are included in the extras on the UK release (from Anchor Bay, as it then was). When Lorimar and CBS became interested in screening the miniseries with a major star attached, the earlier production was scrapped and remounted starting in February 1988, this time as an all-film effort aimed more specifically at the US market and with Caine, Seymour and Assante et al now attached.
The UK disc also has an audio commentary featuring Wickes and others and includes comments on the shutting down of the initial production and the firing of the cast and crew before starting anew. All the best, Sergio Angelini
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