Skip to main content

Do you want the killer, or will anybody do?

Jack the Ripper
(1988)

Euston Films’ production marking the 100thanniversary of the Jack the Ripper murders was a prestige piece. It brought Michael Caine to the small screen (and a Golden Globe, two years after his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and a year after narrowly missing a Best Supporting Actor Razzie win for Jaws: The Revenge) and garnered huge ratings. Its liberal helping of suspects and royal intrigue ensured it was a must see, and I well recall being gripped over the course of its three hour span, desperate to find out who the Ripper really was. With hindsight, it doesn’t quite bear out that glowing endorsement, alas. The essentials of the tale still muster interest, of course, and Michael Caine is very watchable, giving vent to some full-on Caine shouting But, perhaps as a consequence of its co-production status, Jack the Ripper too often resembles an over-spruce and over-played American vision of Victoriana.


Indeed, at certain points I was put in mind Caine’s own Disney Muppets Christmas Carol of a few years later, and the leading by the nose narration reminded me of Bill Murray staging a dreadful version of Dickens’ story in Scrooged. It would be easy to put this lack of rigour at the door of a glossy, ratings-conscious ITV network, but this is a far cry from the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes that had been running to great success around the same time (although the latter came from Granada, while Thames co-financed Jack the Ripper).


Production company Euston Films was best known for Dennis Waterman (or rather, John Thaw and George Cole) hit series The Sweeney and Minder, but had also produced the original choice for Abberline, Barry Foster, in Van Der Valk and the very good Reilly Ace of Spies with Sam Neill, so they weren’t just making knockabout contemporary London fare. Writer Derek Marlowe had previously penned two episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, although co-writer and director David Wickes (the “nicest, fastest director I’ve worked for” noted Sir Michael, obligingly) had directed all sorts including Public Eye, The Sweeney, and The Professionals; notably lacking on the period drama front, though, which might explain why Jack the Rippernever looks less than incredibly set-dressed.


And over-lit, when it’s not bulging with London fog (street scenes, and street walker scenes, here could easily be intercut with Joe Dante’s “Was Jack the Ripper in fact the Loch Ness Monster?” from Bullshit or Not? in Amazon Women on the Moon). Cinematographer Alan Hume was by no means inexperienced, though, having worked on a host of films and TV including The Avengers, Legend of Hell House, The Land That Time Forgot, Octopussy and Return of the Jedi; presumably he was just giving his director what he wanted.


The production started out as a significantly less sumptuous affair, with the aforementioned Barry “Frenzy” Foster (curiously, his replacement Caine had turned down the chance to star in that picture, which he found distasteful, leading to Hitchcock never speaking to him again; this was before he made The Hand, or Dressed to Kill) in the lead; CBS and Thames Television came into co-finance, wanted a big name to lead, and suddenly the cast became bigger, more colourful and more like an American mini-series; US TV darling Jane Seymour (as Abberline’s love interest!), Lewis Collins, Armand Assante, all took roles, while others merely filtered over from the original version (halted mid-shoot). John Cameron’s intrusive and distracting score similarly smacks of the overblown grandiosity of US TV doing British period piece.


Intrusive and distracting can often be levelled at the cast too. Big fan as I am of Michael Caine, he’s not exactly doing anything intricate here that would justify his $1m fee. In fact, his decision to adopt the familiar Caine snarling fury at regular intervals seems to galvanise his co-stars to similarly over-emote (Captain Zep II in particular falls prey to this in a final confrontation scene). His Abberline is introduced as an alcoholic nursing a hangover in the cells, passed over for promotion thanks to class barriers (very Caine, that) but once the game’s afoot nothing’s stopping him and his dogged Watson (Collins’ Sergeant George Godley).


The possible suspects aren’t so much teased out as thrown into the proceedings with wild abandon, inspected up and down, deliberated on, then re-deliberated on. While three hours might seem slim to address the case with any diligence (From Hellfloundered trying to condense Moore’s comic book), Jack the Ripper is victim to constant repetition and over indulgence of its potential offenders.


Who include Prince Albert Victor (Marc Culwick), Marxist vigilante George Lusk (Michael Gothard), American stage star Richard Mansfield (Assante) and, stepping up the royal connection again, psychic to the queen Robert James Lees (Ken Bones).


 Also, a brace of doctors, Dr Henry Llewellyn (Michael Hughes) and Dr Theodore Dyke Acland (Richard Morant, the second Captain Zep – Space Detective). But not, in a sign of the script’s lack of finesse, his father-in-law and eventually revealed culprit, Sir William Gull. The introductory voiceover (courtesy of Michael Jayston, and later also Patrick Allen) announces that “our own story is based on extensive research” but in conclusion “Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view. We believe our conclusions to be true”. Well, believe them to be good TV, at any rate.


Which they might be, if Wickes had ensured the proceedings rattled along at a fair enough clip. While the fascination with Mansfield and Lees is initially intriguing, it quickly becomes laborious. Bones has the kind of face that would be right at home in ‘30s Universal horrors, and his Lees is more theatrical than actual actor Mansfield, but raking and re-raking over his and Mansfield’s potential involvement is tiresome.


Armand sports a nice bald wig at one point, but his stage transformations into Mr Hyde transformation (if it seems clear what inspired the Wickes and Caine’s follow up Jekyll and Hyde collaboration, apparently Wickes was offered Hyde during the planning stages of Jack) entirely lack verisimilitude, with cuts to obvious prosthetics as the audience gasps in horror (it’s the kind of thing, like Now You See Me, that undermines the entire conceit, since it should be about engineering feasible deception rather than obviously cheating). Generally, the tenuous suspicion here feels more about making room for a big American name than any remotely credible involvement in the crime (likewise, his soapy connection with Jane Seymour’s artist Emma Prentice).


Eventually it serves to undermine Abberline’s nous that he keeps coming back to this felllow, the same with the petrified Lees (portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the decade-earlier Sherlock Holmes solves the Ripper case, Murder By Decree), whose red herring status appears to be entirely Wickes’ doing; while Lees did offer Scotland Yard his assistance, his visionary involvement is based on a discredited 1895 piece in The Chicago Herald, one that appears to have lain the seeds for many of the later conspiracy theories, as it identified a doctor who treated the royal family as the perpetrator, revealed after Lees led the police to his door. His visions are superimposed flourishes of a highly lurid nature, all garbled faces and spinning wheels, hearkening back to ’30s Hollywood gothic horror. Notably, Lees is at once marked as a faker and also allowed to be accurate in his second sight.


But these are more melodramatic characters, so their beefed up involvement is understandable, to an extent. Unfortunately, it means the script slacks off on really attacking the main subject in any depth. George Lusk, over-played by Gothard, becomes a continual annoyance, parading his band of justice seekers around like something out of a school play (his character is very different to the peaceable actual person). Still, even he’s less grating than Jonathan Moore’s clichéd over cocky newshound Bates, who seems to have been been watching old B-movies for notes.


Less time is spent on police surgeon Llewellyn, despite his botching of the initial autopsy, and we are told wasn’t the royals after all; Prince Albert wasn’t in the country at the time (so that’s a relief!) Elsewhere, Lysette Anthony (Mary Kelly) and Susan George (Catherine Eddowes) deliver the traditional period routine of happy cockney hookers. There are some strong performances here, though. Jon Laurimore (Count Frederico in Doctor Who’s The Masque of Mandragora) is a marvellous bane to Abberline’s efforts as naysaying Inspector Spratling. 


Hugh Fraser delivers a fine nervy performance as the beleaguered Commissioner of Police Sir Charles Warren and the likes of Harry Andrews, T. P. McKenna and David Swift are also solid. And while George Sweeney (Speed in Citizen Smith) is very broad as accomplice Nettley (almost everyone here is playing very broad), it does at least fit the character’s sense of self-inflation.


The standout is easily Ray McAnnally’s Gull, though. Even though his character is, as mentioned, overly couched as the innocent and respectable theoretician, McAnnally essays him so scrupolously that the flaws in the writing coalesce into a believable character; Gull’s likeable, sympathetic, and since we only see him maddened once, it’s easier not to be filled with the rage over his actions that consumes Caine’s Abberline.


 Establishing the perp as Sir William Gull runs with the Royal Family link of prior conspiracy theories, but doesn’t address the masonic side. Perhaps because it had been dealt with so completely, in the 1976 film Murder by Decree, which substituted Gull for fictional royal doctor Sir Thomas Spivey? This gained modern cachet in the 1960s, propagated by Thomas E A Stowell claiming Prince Albert was implicated.


It was then addressed in the 1973 Jack the Ripper BBC serial (two episodes of which were directed by Wickes, so he had Jolly Jack brewing for a decade and a half) in which Softly, Softly’s detectives considered the possibility that Gull had acted as the Ripper, assisted by John Nettley, in order to murder prostitutes with knowledge of the illegitimate offspring of Prince Albert Victor. Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, published in 1976 follows a similar trajectory. Later, Alan Moore’s From Hellwould also finger Gull as the culprit. With regard to the masonic links, the Freemason’s United Grand Lodge of England has claimed Gull was not a mason. But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?


As set out here then, the conclusion of the case is less engaging than Murder By Decree’s gran masonic plot. Gull, a victim of dementia following a stroke, has been establishing himself as a self-study for multiple personality. It’s a rather facile explanation that seems to come from the Robert Bloch school of pop-psychology. So the establishment cover-up is really rather innocent, for the good of the people, and the royal connection is quelled; it turns out that it isn’t nearly such a wicked web from the crimson ground up. Quite who knew what about Gull when to order the "fastest inquest I've ever known", the blood washed away from crime scenes and Abberline being told (straight off the bat) "I can't win" is unclear, though.


The real Frederic Abberline believed the ripper was George Chapman (he’s not in the list of suspects here), a Polish serial killer, although Chapman was a poisoner rather than a mutilator, so not nearly so unsavoury. Walter Sickert doesn’t feature in this telling either, although The Final Solution suggests he was an accomplice in the murders; Patricia Cornwell later broke into a gallop with this theory. Wickes filmed four additional alternate reveals to keep the secret intact (Lusk, Spratling, Arnold, and Sir Charles Warren), probably to no avail for anyone remotely familiar with the popular theories of the last two decades since it would have been clear exactly where this was heading (or anyone familiar with the principal that wherever the finger is conspicuously not pointing is a probable doer).


I’m sure Ripperologists roundly scoff the theory Wickes embraces, but its easy to see why it has become the most popular fictional one, the trappings of royalty and conspiracy providing a fertile ground for intrigue, deception and cover-up. Even if it was intended to avoid repetition of other fare, though, missing out the masonic connection rather deflates the potential twists and turns of the tale. Consequently, this often feels more like a standard issue Agatha Christie mystery than one of integral rigour or depth. While it bears repeating that it went down incredibly well with viewers (to the tune of 23.5 million), Jack the Ripper has not aged well. You’d be better off letting Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes solve the case.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).