Saturday, 1 May 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: J is for Jack the Ripper (1959)

I’ll be honest – my reason for choosing this film is that it’s the only vaguely appropriate one I could find with a title beginning with J (whose idea was this stupid A-Z thing anyway?). I approached with trepidation, as despite having had it on DVD for ages, I’d never managed to get all the way through it without falling asleep. Also, I remembered from previous (attempted) viewings that it had a particularly nasty case of American Hero Syndrome. This is a disease that affects British films of all eras, but was particularly common in the 50s, when an often woefully conspicuous American lead is brought in, in a naked attempt to appeal to the US market. Often it’s a third- or fourth-string star whose career’s on the rocks – in the case of Jack the Ripper the American in question is  Lee Patterson, who was actually Canadian but made a good living as a rent-a-Yank in British films. He plays a visiting American detective working on the case alongside gruff old Eddie Byrne, and making him stick out like even more of a sore thumb than normal is his huge 1950s quiff, which somehow doesn’t quite go with the movie’s ostensible 1880s setting.

The title probably gives you a good idea of what this one’s all about: Notorious serial killer targeting prostitutes in the East End of London, etc. Don’t expect a deeply-researched account of the investigation into the crimes or an ingenious solution based on the evidence at hand, though: Jimmy Sangster’s script doesn’t even edge toward historical accuracy. All the characters are fictional, and it transforms the most famous unsolved crimes of all time into a basic murder mystery plot with all the sophistication of an episode of Scooby Doo. It being established early on that the Ripper must be a medical man, there are two main suspects – one is grumpy, moans about women with loose morals and is regularly seen carrying a knife about, the other is cheery and likeable and only to willing to help the police with their investigation. You probably don’t need to see the film to work out which one’s the killer. In this film, the Ripper’s on a quest to find a woman called Mary Clark, stopping ‘ladies of the night’ in the street to ask if they are she and then rather unfairly slicing them up anyway when they say they’re not. The first of these is bit-part queen Marianne Stone (playing, in a typical credit for her, ‘Drunken woman’) in a pre-credits sequence

The depiction of Victorian London’s pretty much what you might expect: All fog, top hats and comedy drunks (one of whom is played by the great Esma Cannon, who steals so many scenes in the early Carry On films). There’s also an alarming range of thoroughly unconvincing stick-on facial hair everywhere you look, and people say things like ‘The emancipation of women I’ve heard so much about – so you’ve been bitten!’ That line’s delivered by John Le Mesurier, providing this film’s ‘Ooh look, it’s him!’ quotient as the sinister Dr Tranter, who’s so suspicious throughout the film that he might as well have been called Dr Whore-Killer. The would be emancipatee is his ward Anne (every film set in Victorian times has to have at least one ward), played by Betty McDowall, who looks rather like a brunette Judy Geeson. Much to Tranter’s horror she’s being romanced by Patterson, who at one point takes her to a very classy-looking music hall to see the can-can. Backstage, Hammer regular George Woodbridge plays a rich pervert drooling over a new dancer in topless scenes (the dancer, not George) filmed especially for the continental market. That’s a sort of sleazy highlight of the movie, the only other one being the Ripper’s eventual death when he tries to evade the police – crushed under a descending lift.

Well, I managed to stay awake all the way through this time, but I can’t deny that Jack the Ripper’s a tedious slog for most of its length (which seems lengthier than it really is). Directors/producers/photographers Robert Baker and Monty Berman (whose joint credit makes them seem like a downmarket Powell & Pressburger) would soon afterwards score a major hit on TV with The Saint and had previously produced The Flesh and the Fiends, a wonderful version of the Burke & Hare story with Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which Jack the Ripper isn’t a patch on. But if you ever desperately need a British exploitation-type film beginning with J…

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