Directed By: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
Starring: Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall
Tag line: "Why Were His Victims Always Ladies of the Night?"
Trivia: For the US trailer, voice specialist Paul Frees looped the voice of Jack the Ripper. For the film itself, Frees did the opening narration over the Paramount logo
One of history’s most notorious serial killers, Jack the Ripper murdered five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district in the latter half of 1888 (between the months of Aug. and Nov., to be precise). In each instance, the victim’s throats were slashed, yet some of their other wounds (the uteruses of a few had been cut out) suggested that the Ripper was a man of medicine, with at least a working knowledge of human anatomy. It proved a difficult case for the police to crack, and they never did find the killer.
Over the years, there have been several movies based on the Ripper killings, some of which presented theories of their own as to who committed these murders (one of the better entries being the Hughes Brothers’ underrated 2001 crime / thriller From Hell). 1959’s Jack the Ripper, a British film directed by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, offers its own unique spin on the story, and while it’s certainly not the definitive version of this ghastly tale, it’s isn’t a bad little movie, either.
It’s 1888, and someone is killing the women of Whitechapel. Police inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne), aided by his old friend, American detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson), searches frantically for the murderer, with the only clue being that he may be a doctor (the stab wounds on each victim have been precise enough to suggest they were inflicted by a physician). Meanwhile, Lowry strikes up a romance with Anne Ford (Betty McDowall), the ward of respected surgeon Dr. Trantor (John Le Mesurier), who works at a nearby hospital. A stern man, Dr. Trantor tells Anne that he doesn’t approve of her dating a policeman. But is he truly concerned for Anne’s well-being, or is he trying to hide something?
Like 1944’s The Lodger, which was also loosely based on the Whitechapel murders, Jack the Ripper doesn’t bother much with the facts of the case (this Ripper kills any woman who crosses his path, whether she’s a lady of the evening or not). In addition, because it was produced in the late 1950’s, the movie is devoid of blood and gore (on occasion, we see flashes of a knife, yet never witness it hitting its mark). Where it excels, though, is in its depictions of the murders, all of which occur in the fog-filled, darkened streets of Whitechapel. Again, the violence isn’t graphic, but the filmmakers do manage to slip a little brutality in; the second victim, Helen Morris (Anne Sharp), is cornered by the Ripper, who asks her, in a sinister voice, if she’s Mary Clarke (in this film, the Ripper isn’t a random killer, but a man on a mission). Even after learning that she’s not Miss Clarke, he strangles her, and then, when she’s down on the ground, the camera pans to the Ripper’s shadow, where, in silhouette, we see him plunge a knife several times into her abdomen. It’s an effectively disturbing scene that also sets the stage for each of the remaining murders.
Inspiring everything from books and stage plays to television documentaries, the tale of Jack the Ripper has fascinated people for well over a hundred years. The key question, of course, is why? Is it the ruthless nature of each killing that captures our attention, or the long list of potential suspects that, apparently, continues to grow to this day (among those mentioned as possible “Rippers” are writer Lewis Carroll and a few members of Britain’s royal family)? In the end, I think what truly stirs people’s imagination is the fact that the perpetrator wasn’t caught, that he committed such heinous crimes, yet never paid the penalty for doing so.
He is a faceless monster, a savage killer who will forever remain in the shadows. Unlike Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack the Ripper actually got away with murder.