BR: Jack the Ripper (1959)

April 21, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Severin Films

Region: A, B, C

Released:  January 15, 2019

Genre:  Horror / True Crime / Serial Killer

Synopsis: Jack the Ripper’s brutal serial killings get a titillating rendition with savvy and still-relevant social commentary.

Special Features:  New 1.66:1, 2K transfer of U.S. version (81.mins.) / 2006 1.33:1 transfer of U.K. version (85 mins.) / 2005 Audio Commentary with co-director, co-cinematographer, co-producer Robert S. Baker, and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, assistant director Peter Manley, and moderator British horror historian Marcus Hearn (U.K. version) / SD 1.33:1 continental version alternate takes & edits (10:55) / Interview with author Denis Meikle (10:34) / Featurette: “The Real Jack the Ripper” (13:32) / Theatrical Trailer / Poster and Still Gallery.

 


 

Review:

Between 1888-1891, 11 women were brutally murdered, mangled, and mutilated in London’s Whitechapel district by a serial killer whose identity has never been fully confirmed, but whose persona continues to inspire writers and filmmakers.

Branded Jack the Ripper, the killings provided Victorian media with a golden opportunity to prey on the fears of the public and sell sleazy news pieces & imagery that played up the grisly details, validating the axiom ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Each new murder enabled the press to regurgitate theories and prolong the drama, and while the legend of Jack the Ripper has endured and inspired many writers & filmmakers, the case and surrounding media frenzy are wholly timely.

JTR was arguably the first ‘star’ serial killer, and the public’s interest in gory details proves how little human nature has changed in the past century, especially regarding the big city repeatedly characterized by the media as a dangerous place where innocents have excellent chances of being molested and murdered.

If fear kept the case alive through the 20th century, then JTR’s mythos grew, especially when Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger was published in 1913, spawning film versions in 1927 (courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock), 1932, 1944, and 2009.

This 1959 film, making it’s debut on Blu via Severin, is noted as the first film naming JTR as the lead killer. The production also contains Hammeresque elements in its cast, overall tone, and teasing bits of sex & violence, but Jimmy Sangster’s script is a remarkable work of economy and detail; a second viewing makes one aware of his determination to have conflicts between class structures, horrid poverty, selfish political interference, an avaricious & inhumane media, and vigilante justice constantly simmering throughout scenes.

It’s a revelation, because the film’s striking and deliciously lurid ad campaign magnifies the sex & violence – note the giant black-gloved hand wielding a knife above a cowering victim (in 1950s hair and wardrobe) and her exposed gams – and the no-nonsense title informs audiences there will be recurring murders until Jack’s arrest or comeuppance.

The ’59 film also has a unique production and release history: directors Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker also produced and photographed; the U.S. release handled by impresario Joseph E. Levine featured rougher scenes and a new score; and a ‘continental’ version offered plenty of breasts for less puritanical cultures.

Severin’s attempt to present the most complete versions illustrates the challenges in tracking down the best surviving elements of a B-film that may have made money, but was soon lumped together with lesser B-productions, and existed on TV airings and in less flattering home video editions. What remains for HD isn’t ideal, but there are clear reasons why the U.S. edit is the best of the lot.

The British version is billed as the preferred ‘directors’ cut’ although as cited by one of its co-directors, it lacks the final colour insert retained in the U.S. and continental versions; Levine also retained extra shots of victims being stabbed and extra shots of their death throes. In the continental version, though, the first two victims offer bare breasts to the camera, and there’s an utterly preposterous alternate dressing room scene in which a catfight between two dancers is cheered on by topless colleagues.

Slip cover for Severin’s limited 1500 copy edition featuring a blonde and white cocktail dress nonexistent in the film proper.

Severin’s early bird online offering was a limited edition enclosed in a slip cover, plus a bonus DVD that reportedly contained the continental version with the English soundtrack replacing the French dubbing, but the source is a French full screen home video edition that’s extremely lo-fi.

The Blu-ray proper in both limited and standard ‘street’ edition features the U.K. and U.S. versions, but with very obvious differences: the former was transferred around 2006, and main title sequence excepted, the film is framed at 1.33:1, chopping off the sides which comprised the original 1.66:1 ratio; the U.S. cut was sourced from a surviving widescreen print at the Library of Congress, and although shopworn with scratches, the new 2K transfer is vastly superior to the 2006 telecine that features serious compression and noise reduction. (It’s fair to assume the 2006 1.33:1 transfer was maybe 720p at best.)

The standard Blu-ray release does contain a separate video gallery of the breast-friendly footage & alternate scenes, and the presumption is while there may be a French language print somewhere in Europe, Severin’s search didn’t yield anything within their allotted production time.

You can also argue that nudity wasn’t part of the directors’ design, since the film was designed as a visceral mood piece, and the cabaret by the Ballet Montparnasse already delivers plenty of legs and bums. Boobies and more nuanced victim trauma were just part of extra coverage to sweeten the film’s appeal to foreign distributors.

Sangster’s script reportedly improves on the story by Peter Hammond and Colin Craig with tighter plotting, and relies on the now-disproved theory that JTR was a cloaked upper-class figure; other theories suggested a connection to the royal family, but the film sticks with a storyline wherein Jack hunts down poor and downtrodden street ladies in vengeance for the death of his son.

There are subtle hints at to who might be JTR, but directors Baker & Berman plant a fair amount of misdirection to keep the mystery tight, such as three characters with very similar features and stature, and a mute & hunchback medical assistant that likes to sharpen knives with particular glee.

To make the production U.S.-friendly, the filmmakers added a visiting American detective (played by Canadian Lee Patterson) who ‘helps’ with the investigation conducted by Insp. O’Neill (Eddie Byrne). Love interest Anne Ford (Betty McDowall) is an emancipated woman who chooses her career and future lovers in spite of repeated disapproval by uncle Sir David Rogers (ever-unhappy Ewen Solon), and perpetually irritated John Le Mesurier adds the right dose of arrogance and theatrical gravitas to a gifted surgeon.

The economical sets & art direction manage to convey the cramped cobblestone streets and alleys where JTR snatched & destroyed his victims in relatively privacy, and in spite of the concise scene decor, the atmosphere is very much a pocket of London where no one seems to have the money for anything more than basic food, clothes, and nick-knacks; even the variety hall where classes converge is rough around the edges.

With two versions featuring slight differences in footage to choose, the real draw to watching both cuts is to see not extra violence (well, maybe), but how well the respective scores work in supporting the directors’ vision.

Stanley Black’s score is initially sparse but weaves in & out of later scenes with meticulous efficiency, and is nowhere as blaring and aggressive as the U.S. score by Pete Rugolo and Jimmy McHugh. That said, the U.S. score is more recurrent, keeping the pacing tight and accentuating danger with obvious stabs. The pair use horns & strings for a more operatic experience, but it’s also slightly tongue-in-cheek; Black’s cue for when the killer is lured by the police into a room in the hospital carries more gravitas, whereas the McHugh-Rugolo interpretation punctuates shots of suspicious visages with rather comedic horns. Neither is superior to the other, but the McHugh-Rugolo music is way more fun.

A commentary track was presumably recorded around 2005 but never used for an aborted home video release of the U.K. version, and features great production details & anecdotes by co-director Baker, writer Sangster, assistant director Peter Manley, and moderator Marcus Hearn.

New interview featurettes include Denis Meikle (author of Jack Ripper: The Murders and the Movies), who traces the killer’s appearance throughout the decades; and historian Richard Jones who conducts tours of the Whitechapel locations where the infamous serial killer committed truly vicious attacks. (The limited bonus DVD reportedly contains an interview with Alain Petit, distributor of the French reissue.)

In prior special edition releases, Severin included bonus CDs of music (The Changeling), and DVDs of documentaries (House on Straw Hill) and alternate versions (Vampyros Lesbos), so hopefully the online exclusivity of the French version of JTR is just an anomaly; it’s always favorable to present one definitive edition that collates all the versions and supporting interviews, since it’s highly unlikely this release will be unseated by a better special edition; most of the participants in the commentary + actors have since passed away.

After years of languishing as TV and videotape rips, it’s nice to see and appreciate a sensationalized but smart account of the prototypical 20th century serial killer, and the finesse in which directors Baker and Berman and screenwriter Sangster balance sex, violence, and still prescient social commentary for audiences wanting a thrilling tale of depraved behaviour and ghoulishness.

 

 

© 2019 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmographies: Stanley Black [UK release] / Pete Rugolo & Jimmy McHugh [US release]
 
Vendor Search Links:

Amazon Canada —  Amazon USA —  Amazon UK

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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