As popular as Jack the Ripper has been in literature and non-fiction, he has enjoyed almost the same level of success in the movies. The Ripper has been a constant figure of cinematic fear and terror stretching back to the days of the silent film. Visually, the concept of the Ripper is appealing to all types of film makers from the symbolism of a near-Hitchcock to the current rage of slasher films. Like his literary counterpart, the film Ripper is unlikely to ever lose his popularity.
The main difference between Ripper films and literature is the fact that the majority of the films have to do with the actual case in some shape or form. There are departures from this generalization but the emphasis is upon the original murders and the London of 1888.
The first Ripper film appeared in 1926 in Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes famous novel, THE LODGER. A silent movie, it starred the famous silent film actor Ivor Novello who ordered that the script be changed from its original ending. Novello demanded that his audience would not accept him as the villain and had the script rewritten so that his character could be found innocent at the end. Hitchcock was reportedly upset at this change but lacked the clout to refuse. His previous two films were still on shelves gathering dust and he desperately needed a hit. He counted on Novello's reputation to make the movie a success but later came to understand that the audience could sympathize more easily with an innocent man than a guilty one on the run. This concept would repeat itself throughout Hitchcock's cinematic career. The movie was shot in an atmospheric, symbolist style which is strongly reminiscent of the early German cinema of the 1920's and the work of F. W. Murnau in particular. Apparently this was too much for the distributor who placed it next to Hitchcock's other films on the shelf.
The producer, however, could ill afford having three films collecting dust and turned to a film cutter named Ivor Montagu for help. The film was recut with many of the titles edited out and the title backgrounds redrawn to appear more sinister. Some select scenes were reshot and the movie was released to an eager public. The response was enormous and helped rescue Hitchcock's other two movies from obscurity.
Hitchcock's THE LODGER is an atmospheric, chilling movie with many of what would later become classic Hitchcock touches. The film's most famous scene is a shot of the Lodger pacing back and forth in his room through the floor on which he paced. This was accomplished by replacing the floor with inch thick plate glass and created an entirely unique scene and it instantly brought Hitchcock to the attention of both the public and the critics.
THE LODGER would be adapted for the screen several times over the coming years. After the advent of talking pictures, Novello decided to refilm the movie in sound. Hitchcock was unavailable so Novello retained the services of director Maurice Elvey. The film was a frame by frame recreation of Hitchcock's version but was still amazingly successful. Released in England in 1932, it actually received better reviews than the Hitchcock classic it so laboriously copied!
The next adaptation would come in 1944 with famed Hollywood heavy Laird Cregar playing the infamous Lodger. This version returned to Lowndes original script and Cregar was revealed to be the Ripper. This version, which has become something of a cult classic, was panned by critics and laughed at by audiences when it first appeared. Like the original novel, it took some time for it to find its audience. Since then, many have noted the eerie performance by Cregar who died unexpectedly in his early twenties.
Another Lodger adaptation, this time entitled THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, appeared in 1954 with Jack Palance in the title role. This movie has little to recommend it despite a fine performance by Palance. The plot remains true to the novel but the technical limitations of the movie rob it of any true value. To begin with, none of the principal actors or actresses even attempt a British accent and the casting of Frances Bavier (later to become Andy Griffith's Aunt Bee) is too jarring to modern viewers to be taken seriously. Added to this is the fact that the sets were extremely limited. In one particular scene, the two constables are seen walking up and down the same exact street several times!
In 1965, Ellery Queen's A STUDY IN TERROR was adapted for the screen by Columbia Pictures**. It varied from the novel primarily in that the framing story involving Queen was totally omitted and only the Holmes portion was retained. This resulted in the movie accepting the theory that Ellery disproves in the closing chapter of the novel! the film suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the novel. The details of the Ripper case are hopelessly confused or ignored and the conclusion is unbelievable. Not helping this situation was an incredibly wooden performance by John Neville as Holmes. His Holmes is but a shadow of Rathbone's and derives much of its characterization from the great actor. The plot revolves around a Lord Carfax who has been murdering prostitutes in order to find a particular one named Angela Osbourne (who, of course, never appears in any other Ripper book or movie) who had brought his brother to ruin. The movie is only notable for its being one of the first to bring to the public the idea that one of aristocracy committed the murders and paves the way for some of the later features.
Jack would appear briefly in several television shows in the 1960's and 70's. Most notably in the "Knife in the Darkness" episode of CIMARRON CITY, written by Harlan Ellison, in which the Ripper escapes to the Wild West of the 1880's. Despite the poor adaptation of the script by the director, which Ellison has commented upon in length in AN EDGE IN MY VOICE, it uses some very viable ideas and still manages to make some limited sense regardless of the directors interference. Even stranger was the "Wolf in the Fold" episode of STAR TREK written by Robert Bloch. In this script, Jack is portrayed as a sort of elemental force of evil that has survived by possessing bodies through the ages. It possesses Scotty, the Chief Engineer, and forces him to commit Ripper murders on a peace-loving planet. A strange combination of horror and science fiction, it manages to entertain despite some slow scenes.
In 1972, Jack makes another appearance but not as himself. In the satirical THE RULING CLASS, Peter O'Toole plays the aristocratic 14th Earl of Gurney who is quite insane. A satire on British social conventions and status, O'Toole originally believes himself to be Jesus Christ and tries to spread joy and love everywhere around him. His avaricious relatives determinedly convince him that he is not Christ (in a chilling confrontation with the lunatic claiming to be the vengeful God of the Old Testament) and Jack the Ripper becomes the Earl's new personality. "Your name is Jack!" the relatives shout at him and that is precisely who he becomes. The relatives now consider him cured as he appears to be as miserable and vindictive as everyone else. In a delusion, he believes himself to be back in Whitechapel where he stumbles upon a prostitute and slaughters her. He discovers that he has actually killed his own wife in their living room. Despite this, he is still elevated to the House of Lords and proclaimed as a model citizen. Only a marginal Ripper movie, it is interesting to consider that the underlying satire is that society is moving closer to Jack's ideals in the twentieth century.
In 1973, the infamous BBC programme, JACK THE RIPPER, appeared. This was the show in which the Sickert theory (explored in The Royal Conspiracy under the THEORIES page) is first revealed. The show involved fictional detectives Barlow and Watt (played by Alan Stratford-Jones and Frank Windsor respectively) reopening the case in present-day London. Through evidence and reenactments, they come to the conclusion that the Ripper was Sir William Gull, John Netley, and Sir Robert Anderson. The documentary, rarely seen since it's first appearance, created quite a stir and lead directly to the production of 1979's MURDER BY DECREE.
This movie had the benefit of a larger budget than the BBC program as well as the talents of such actors as Christopher Plummer and James Mason in leading roles. The BBC docu-drama was essentially rewritten with the characters of Barlow and Watt replaced by Holmes (Plummer) and Watson (Mason). The plot remains the same and once again the chase is on to stop Sir William Gull and save Mary Kelly. It is interesting that the villains names are changed from their actual names in this version. Holmes is brought into the case by the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee (which he deduces to be full of anarchists) and quickly deduces the truth behind the conspiracy and forces the government to guarantee the safety of the Duke's illegitimate child. No mention is made of Walter Sickert at all.
Taking the plot aside, MURDER BY DECREE is one of the best Ripper movies yet produced. Using it's excellent cast to best advantage, it weaves a powerful story and almost makes one believe in the unbelievable. Mason and Plummer are extraordinary in the roles of Watson and Holmes, reaching a level of comradeship which escapes most actors in these roles. Supporting appearances by Sir John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, and Genevieve Bujold add to the lush texture of this movie. The London of 1888 is recreated in both style and manner and the scenes of the black coach are impressively powerful.
Taking a slightly different turn is TIME AFTER TIME, also released in 1979. The story involves both H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper. Wells (excellently played by an owlish Malcolm McDowell) has invented his famous time machine and is about to take it on a trial run. At the dinner party he hosts for the occasion, Jack (effectively played by David Warner) arrives fresh from his latest kill. The police appear with news of the murder and find Jack's bloody knife hidden in his bag. Desperate, Jack jumps into Well's time machine and jumps ahead to present day San Francisco. Upon discovering what has happened, Wells follows him (the device is programmed to return to 1888 unless changed by the key which Wells keeps on his chain), falls in love, and tracks down the infamous murderer.
One of the most powerful concepts underlying this movie was the adept choice of Wells as a counterpart to Jack. Wells believed in the ability of the human animal to rise above its condition and create a utopian existence. When he arrives in 1979, Jack shows him that man has, in fact, gone backward rather than forward. Jack tells Wells to go home as this is where the Ripper truly belongs; in a world where sex and violence are everyday occurrences. Again, we are shown the possibility that society is becoming more like the Ripper in its callousness and indifference.
In 1988, in celebration of the centennial of the Ripper murders, ABC television produced a mini-series that, like the BBC program fifteen years earlier, promised to name the identity of the Ripper. Another stellar cast was assembled headed by Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline. The result was a reiteration of the Sickert theory complete with Gull and Netley but NOT including Annie and her royal child. The reasoning for Gull's murder spree was that he had gone insane after suffering his slight stroke and was, somehow, searching for a way to cure his madness. How he believed that he would accomplish this by slicing up prostitutes is not entirely clear.
As with MURDER BY DECREE, ABC's JACK THE RIPPER is an enjoyable program for the many fine performances it delivers and the lush attention to atmospheric detail and nuance. All, or most all, of the facts are correct despite some amazingly liberal conceptions of Abbeline's personal life. The one jarring error is when Abbeline demands that Sir Warren sign a warrant for the arrest of Netley after Kelly is killed. Warren, of course, had resigned the day before the murder so he could not have been on hand that day to view the body (which they show him doing) or to sign any warrants. Despite these problems, it remains an enjoyable movie if only because the victims and suspects are finally given their correct names.
The many appearances of the Ripper in movies cannot be encapsulated in such a short article. I have attempted to list some of the most prominent adaptations instead of including such marginal items as BLACK THE RIPPER or DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. It is interesting to note that the movie medium is more concerned with Jack in his natural environment and refrains from using him as a symbol. This could be because the cinema is a much more visual medium where symbolism is not always appreciated. Whatever the case may be, it is unlikely that we will see any more 'straight' Ripper movies for some time. The Sickert theory, by far the most dramatic, has already been adapted three times in the movies and it is doubtful that anyone should want to attempt it again. The remaining theories are too bland to carry the weight of a motion picture so we will probably never seen them either. The one possible exception is the Maybrick theory as presented in Shirley Harrison's THE DIARY OF JACK THE RIPPER. Rumors have spread that the book will be filmed sometime in the near future but nothing definite is known yet.
Of lesser interest is the spate of pseudo-Ripper movies such as Tom Savini's THE RIPPER and the pitiful JACK'S BACK. The latter has almost nothing to do with the Ripper and is a confusing story better left forgotten. Even this, though, is not the worst. A definite candidate for this title is 1985's TERROR AT LONDON BRIDGE, starring Stephanie Kramer, David Hasselhoff, and Adrienne Barbeau (all people who should have known better). This abomination gives the laughable story of Jack's essence (soul) being trapped in a brick of London Bridge over which he plunged in 1888. The brick is then brought to mid-western America in present day and placed into a bridge in a tourist village. This movie has nothing to commend it from its poor performances to its idiotic script. It is so bad that it is not even worth making fun of.
One of the more recent appearances by Jack occurred during the third season of BABYLON 5. This science fiction series, written by J. Michael Straczynski with Harlan Ellison as consultant, concerns a universal war between the forces of light and shadows. The main character of the show, Captain John Sheridan (played by Bruce Boxleitner) is the leader of the forces of light. In the episode "Comes the Inquisitor", Sheridan and his ally, Delenn, are tested by a mysterious character sent by the Vorlans (their most powerful ally in the forces of light). The test consists of physical torture designed to push Delenn and Sheridan to their limits. In the end, the test is revealed to be done to determine if Delenn and Sheridan are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other and their cause even if their death has no meaning and is unknown to all. They pass the test and Sheridan later discovers, before the mysterious character leaves the Babylon 5 space station, that he is Jack the Ripper. The Vorlons had a history of abducting members of different races for hundreds of years and Jack was used as their tool to determine if Delenn and Sheridan (and, presumably, many others before them) were the ones they have been waiting for to fight the shadows. When Jack is revealed, he proclaims how originally he believed himself to be the one but now goes to his rest knowing his work is done and resentful of the fact that the work he had begun as a social reformer on Earth is remembered only as acts of butchery. It is a surprisingly effective characterization despite the fact that it occurs quickly during the closing minutes of the show.
Like many concepts, the Ripper is one that can either be used effectively or simply for shock and gore value. Hopefully, we are not falling too much towards the latter but recent examples make this far too possible. With the cinema's recent move towards more suspenseful drama, however, it is to be hoped that someone in Hollywood will remember how well the Ripper worked in the many Lodger and Sickert adaptations. Until then, we are doomed to suffer the indignities of possessed bricks and moronic plots.
Rumbelow, Donald. Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook. (Revised)
** In fact, the book was written *after* the movie was made, as a novelization of the screenplay. The "Ellery Queen investigates" framing story was a device (and a clever one!) intended to lift the book from being simply one more hackwork script-into-novel. **