Thursday 15 November 2012

Jack the Ripper's identity revealed

Who was Jack the Ripper? History has made him (N.B. for the sake of ease, common sense and overwhelming statistical probability, I will be referring to the perpetrator of the 1888 Whitechapel murders as a male throughout, although I am in full agreement with all feminists that women can be psychotic prostitute-killing maniacs too) into a monster, but the simple fact is that he was made of skin and bone and regularly visited by the all-too-human desire to eviscerate whores like everyone else. He had a face, he had hopes and dreams, he had at least one knee and maybe more. Putting a name to that man eluded the police at the time. It was only in the 20th Century and the birth of the silver screen that the greatest mystery in the annals of crime could begin to be solved.

Five Jack the Rippers, yesterday

Because the Jack the Ripper case has spawned countless film adaptations, almost all of them helpfully providing us with a definitive answer as to his identity. For some reason, so-called "serious" historians have ignored this vital resource, but I am not a "serious" historian so I do not. We all know that films can teach us a great deal. Forrest Gump, for example, taught me a lot about the nature of the self, of anger and whether or not Tom Hanks is a bag of shite.

Today, I look at some of these crucial pieces of evidence in order to be able to exclusively reveal to you, my long-suffering readers, the name of the most notorious murderer of them all.


The Lodger (1927): "Good evening, madam, may I please use your shitter?"

Most Jack the Ripper films are based around a handful of stories. The most common of these is The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. This story was itself inspired by a number of urban legends that circulated around the time of the Whitechapel murders regarding the unusual and unsanitary habits of the tenants of any number of paranoid, curtain-twitching, nosey old moo east-end landladies.

Jack the Ripper's Bedroom by W.R. Sickert,
a striking confession of guilt made by an
innocent party
One of them, the Finsbury Street lodger, was identified as G. Wenworth Bell Smith, a knock-kneed Canadian gent with an unfortunate habit of turning up after murders had taken place with blood on his shirt. Another, the Batty Street lodger, is suspected of being the deeply eccentric American quack doctor, determined pickler of wombs and red hot Ripper-suspect Francis Tumblety. A third was a veterinary student in Mornington Crescent, whose landlady told the next occupant of the room - the impressionist painter Walter Sickert - was definitely the culprit. It inspired the Ripper-obsessed Sickert to paint Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, which itself later helped the dazzlingly misguided American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell to finger Sickert as Jack the Ripper in the early part of this century.

These two films are both based on Lowndes' rendering of this tale, although the two have different endings. Lowndes' lodger is a idiosyncratic young gentleman of peculiar habits who keeps rather odd hours, largely thanks to his "research", and who has no great love of the paintings of young women on the walls of his room.

The Lodger is a silent film made by Alfred Hitchcock which is now justifiably considered the first true example of Hitchcockian cinema. Alas, the first feature-length telling of a story based on Jack the Ripper does not reveal the killer's identity: the titular lodger (played by the actual real-life Ivor Novello) in fact being the brother of The Avenger's first victim, his absences from the house at the time of the murders explained by the fact he is out walking the streets trying to capture the culprit. Man in the Attic, however, is much more forthcoming with the truth, THE TRUTH. Here, the titular Man in the Attic's (played, in an unlikely twist, by Western stalwart Jack Palance on horseback with a six-shooter) absences at suspicious times and the fact he frequently burns his clothing in the kitchen sink are explained by his job as a medical researcher and also all those prostitutes and showgirls that he is killing. Jack the Ripper was Jack Palance. We should have guessed, the clue was that they had the same name: Jack.

FROM HELL (2001)

The second-most popular avenue for Jack the Ripper fiction is the avenging aristocrat story. Here, a libertine member of a family of high social standing - usually, but not always, royalty - will have married a prostitute, presumably with a view to getting a discount. The crazed defenders of the family name will then carry out a series of retributive ritualised murders in order to protect their legacy. Masonic plots are common here, as are top hats.

A Study in Terror is the film which finally gets Sherlock Holmes on the case. It was about time, too. It is also my favourite film adaptation of the Jack the Ripper case, for a number of excellent reasons. Firstly, it's got Jack the Ripper AND Sherlock Holmes in it which frankly should be enough on its own. But it keeps on giving: secondly it is shot in magnificently lush British horror film of the 1960s style, all gaudy technicolour, period costume, high-camp acting and gleefully nasty make-up and special effects. Thirdly, it is perhaps the Jack the Ripper film which keeps closest to the actual facts of the case.

The greatest loss yet to Western culture
But fourthly and most importantly, it features Barbara Windsor as Annie Chapman, the second canonical (but third in this particular incidence) victim of The Rip. This is a monumental piece of casting, principally as it comes heavy with ideas of the greatest film never made, Carry On Ripping.

The cast list of Carry On Ripping would have been as follows:

SIR CHARLES WARREN: Kenneth Williams
GEORGE LUSK: Peter Butterworth
POLLY NICHOLS: Angela Douglas
ANNIE CHAPMAN: Hattie Jacques
ELIZABETH STRIDE: Fenella Fielding
MARY KELLY: Barbara Windsor
QUEEN VICTORIA: Bernard Bresslaw

It's best that you don't think about this too hard, I find: the poignancy of the fact that it will never be almost too much to bear.

In A Study in Terror, Jack the Ripper is finally revealed to be Lord Carfax, the avenging younger brother of an aristocratic family. He decided to eliminate prostitutes one at a time until the his offending sister-in-law finally felt his wrath. But, after Carfax's demise, Holmes reveals that no public good would be served by the revelation of his identity. If all of this still isn't selling the film to you, just take a look at the poster. BIFF! BANG! AIEEE! Are any three other words in the English language more evocative of the Autumn of Terror?

From Hell, based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore, focuses on the traditional royal plot: the son of the Prince of Wales catches syph off of a manky old brass - as well as marrying her in secret and fathering a child - so the Queen's private physician Sir William Gull sets out to dispatch all the witnesses according to Masonic rites. This is probably the glossiest and most Hollywood of all the Ripper-based films, starring Johnny Depp as the skagged-up-to-the-gills Inspector George Abberline and Heather Graham (or Ivver Gruyumm, as she would have pronounced it in the film) as his love interest Mary Kelly. A prostitute. Do these people never learn?

From Hell reveals Jack the Ripper to be the Tony Award-winning actor Sir Ian Holm. This seems fundamentally more unlikely than John Fraser's Lord Carfax. Perhaps it even explains why Mr. Fraser has never been made a knight of the realm.

The Venn diagram of these two films meets in Murder by Decree, a 1979 film where the royal/Masonic plot is investigated by Holmes and Watson. The film itself lacks the excitement of the other two, but the cast is arguably far superior. Holmes and Watson are played by Christopher Plummer and James "James Mason" Mason, with John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland and Genevieve Bujold also featuring. The Holmesian role of Police Inspector Lestrade is essayed in both films by Frank Finlay. Two films, thirteen years apart, one set of facial expressions.


Thankfully, there is still room in the Jack the Ripper film canon for another type of storyline: batshit crazy crazy shit. This is perhaps the most exciting and compelling area of them all. They deviate from the traditional scripts and explanations to explore more dark, illogical and shit crazy bats areas of the case and of the human psyche.

Johannes der Rippenhausen
Jack the Ripper is a German-Swiss film of 1976 where a general practitioner, haunted by his mother's vaginal indiscretions when he was a child, makes amends by killing prostitutes. There is considerable sexual content to this film, Doctor Orloff (played by Klaus Kinski who, by virtue of being the leading man in a film called Jack the Ripper, is Jack the Ripper) usually choosing to undress and hump the tits off (literally, in one case) his quarry before dispatching them to the beyond. For the purposes of body disposal, the criminal uses the botanical gardens and river, an unusual choice and one that proves to be his downfall when it turns out that his knackers are allergic to root powder.

But it is the attendant cast of characters which really give this film the edge in the preposterousness stakes: an old blind man with a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame, a griping old fishwife and a mercenary fisherman with a big hooter (played by the splendidly-named Herbert Fux) being the standouts amongst them.

Hands of the Ripper, meanwhile, is Hammer Studios foray into the subject and it takes a typically daft, camp and wonderful approach as the Ripper's daughter, Angharad Rees, sets about her father's old beat with gusto having witnessed him murder her mother as a child. With Rees getting all wide-eyed and murdery every time she is kissed, can Freudian psychoanalysis save London in time? It's not quite as magnificent a premise as the title promises - Hammer, after all, have frequently thought nothing of having actual disembodied hands roam around the place to really mess up someone's day - but it's not half bad. It is particularly blessed to have Eric Porter cast as the psychiatrist, Porter being a man who distinguishes any batshit crazy film with a certain pointy-bearded, bulging-eyed gravitas. A selection of immaculate period sets, bright orange-red baked bean juice blood, gristly special effects, seances and dazzling overacting across the board make for eighty minutes of superior entertainment.

The hands of the Hands of the Ripper's hands, ripping

As an extra twist, the Ripper's daughter - a deeply traumatised young woman - has ended up as a prostitute herself, which makes her deep-seated psychological loathing of whores fraught with complications, but none that can't be solved by impailing Dora Bryan to a door with a fire poker. Her possession by the spirit of her father provides her with great strength, although whether or not her hands take on the other physical properties of man hands - hair, anchor tattoos, etc - is not directly addressed aside from a brief glimpse of some Ripping stigmata, also present on her father's hand on the fateful night and which look not dissimilar to spilt ketchup.

It's a film that, arguably like psychoanalysis itself, offers more questions than answers. Could Jack the Ripper himself have been under psychic possession when he committed his crimes? Could Jack the Ripper have been in Poldark? Like so much in this mysterious case, we may never know. The fun, as always, is in the speculation.

Meanwhile, in 1979's Time After Time, Jack the Ripper has used a time machine to transport himself to modern-day San Francisco. The time machine was the must-have gadget for Victorian gentlemen. It is also a continuation of the ongoing theme in film representations of Jack the Ripper: that the killer was upper crust, or at the very least a man of means. Means sufficient to acquire himself a time machine, at least. Everyone back then had one, to such an extent that it was a wonder there were any men in Victorian Britain at all. However, as a result, it's not all plain sailing for the Ripper, who has H.G.Wells hot on his heels. It's one of those marvellous things: a completely preposterous idea, done well. In many ways, it's what cinema should be about. Cinema should certainly have Jack the Ripper in the future, as frequently as possible. The only problem is their casting - David Warner as Jack the Ripper feels strangely off. I'm willing to suspect Ivor Novello or point the finger at Angharad Rees, but David Warner? I'm still reeling from his decapitation in The Omen and there's only so much that time travel can do.

David Warner in Time After Time - not fooling anyone

So, in conclusion, what have we learned? Nothing. Nothing at all. But it's probably safe to leave your wife with David Warner.

1 comment:

Dorothy A. said...

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