Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ripping Yarns


Jack the Ripper suspect Walter Sickert's 1907 oil on canvas Mornington Crescent Nude, which hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Since the Whitechapel murders of 1888, the few facts have been put aside for the sake of sensationalism and stupidity; in 2001, novelist Patricia Cornwell destroyed some of Sickert's art in her quest to unveil the Ripper's identity.

JACK the Ripper will forever cast his (or her) shadow. Countless films and television programmes have exploited a mythology rooted in one of the first examples of tabloid journalism. Plot devices are often conjured out of thin air for dramatic gain, though the firm facts are so slim that any form of adaptation will shroud it in thick, London fog. A common misconception is that the killer was a Royal surgeon who wore a top hat and cape, and carried a large black bag of shiny surgical instruments. The Sir William Gull/Coachman Netley/Royal conspiracy has its origins in a 1970 article in The Criminologist, before this notion gained momentum in a 1973 BBC documentary which directly inspired Stephen Knight's best-selling The Final Solution. Despite chief protagonist Gull being a physician and never practised as a surgeon - or indeed being a Freemason - the threads of this ripping yarn were nevertheless woven into a 1988 television serial starring Michael Caine, and the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell. In reality, the only detailed description of the murderer said the Ripper had "the appearance of a sailor," and actual evidence is limited to the murder of five prostitutes within one square mile of Whitechapel between 31st August and the 9th November 1888.

Some of the more amusing suspects have included Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - the real name of author Lewis Carroll - and Lord Randolph Churchill - the father of Sir Winston. Carroll was thought to have had an unhealthy fixation with virginal purity, though it is unclear why this would have made him a viable suspect, and Churchill seems to be mentioned only because his political career was cut short by a fatal bout of neurosyphilis. American crime writer Patricia Cornwell handily "staked her reputation" by naming British artist and long-standing Ripper suspect Walter Sickert as Jack. The novelist bought thirty-one of Sickert's works, and claimed that some of his canvases' contain visual references to the crimes; according to Cornwall, Sickert was turned into a killer by a defective penis. Cornwell also claimed a letter written by the killer had the same watermark as some of Sickert's writing paper. There were hundreds of letters from different people falsely claiming to be the murderer, and the watermark in question was on a brand of stationery that was widely available at the time. So much for Cornwell using the title Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed for her 2002 book.

Starlets on display in A STUDY OF TERROR include Edina Ronay as Mary Kelly and Barbara Windsor as a comedic Annie Chapman.

When Compton exploitation producers Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser - together Henry E. Lester, executor of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate and head of Sir Nigel Films - touched on the idea of divorcing Sherlock Holmes from his usual canon of literature to forge a fresh new career in features, James Hill's A STUDY IN TERROR sees a youthful and athletic Holmes (John Neville) investigate the Whitechapel murders. However, the desire to downplay the Ripper aspects and re-establish Holmes and Watson as series characters never took off in a decade of James Bond's and Derek Flint's. Drawn into the investigation when he receives a case of surgical instruments through the post - minus a scalpel - Holmes is lead to the estate of the Osbourne family and the medical mission of Dr Murray (Anthony Quayle). Unravelling the mystery, Holmes and Watson (Donald Houston) are drawn into a tangled web which involves a family feud, blackmail and revenge set against the ongoing slaughter of the East End.

Despite authentic production design and costume, the Whitechapel of A STUDY IN TERROR is that of filmic melodrama and full of prostitutes straight from the 1960s (using the actual names of the victims for the first time on screen). The promise of the film pitting Conan Doyle's master detective against Saucy Jack is never realised by a script which sees its prime duty as providing a fictional solution to the crimes. In a screen career which stretched back to the turn of the century, the casting of the detective was less important here, with Holmes merely a gimmick. The action sequences - where Holmes is equipped with pistol and sword stick - led to Columbia's American ads selling the film under the wing of the then topical BATMAN TV show. Complete with "Pow!," "Biff!" and "Crunch!," Sherlock Holmes was apparently "...the original Caped Crusader."

Eric Porter plays John Pritchard in HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Porter had previously survived Hammer's THE LOST CONTINENT, but was primarily known for his portrayal of tortured solicitor Soames in the BBC's THE FORSYTE SAGA, which won him a BAFTA Best Actor award.

Hammer's HANDS OF THE RIPPER was arguably the studio's finest release of the 1970s, and their first flirtation with Jack since the Exclusive-bannered ROOM TO LET in 1950 (though a third entry, DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, was released two weeks later). Directed by Peter Sasdy, HANDS OF THE RIPPER has a quality of production which contradicts the truth of a company in decline: a lush score, impressive stock sets, and use of real locations and extras provide a fitting stage for a uniformly excellent cast, and even the blood looks real. In a memorable pre-credits sequence set in Berner Street, Whitechapel, a young girl watches as her father is revealed to be a syphilis-scarred man leading a double life as Jack. Anna (Angharad Rees) grows to young womanhood as an orphan, working for a charlatan psychic, Mrs Golding (Dora Bryan). After committing the impaling murder of Golding of which she is not suspected, brusque Dr Pritchard (Eric Porter) - an early practitioner of Freudian psychology - takes Anna home as his ward.

Rees is the antithesis of the usual cleavage-heavy Hammer female lead, her doll-like visage effectively illustrating the innocence behind her curse as the "possessed" spirit of a serial killer. Its an interesting twist on Ripper lore which can be traced back to the "Mad Midwife/Jill the Ripper" theory, which surmised that there was a female covering up a series of botched abortions, a notion quashed by the fact that none of the victims were pregnant. Anna is so fragile the viewer is rendered helplessly sympathetic towards her, despite her acts of grandiose murder (none of which are committed by knife) whenever she becomes entranced by sparkling light: housemaid Dolly (Marjie Lawrence) has her throat slashed by a vanity mirror and left in a bath of blood; Prichard's torso is perforated by a sabre; and in the films standout gore moment, prostitute Long Liz Stride (Lynda Baron) has her face pierced by hatpins. Despite this carnage, HANDS OF THE RIPPER is almost a love story, longer on character relationships and period atmosphere than these exploitative scenes suggest.