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July 18, 2013

Hands of the Ripper

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Peter Sasdy - 1971
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD / Region A BD

For the first time since I got my Blu-ray player about a year ago, I've watched both versions of a film on a combo pack. The Blu-ray disc is the only way to see Hands of the Ripper with only a music and sound effect track. What I like about watching dialogue free versions of films is that it makes it easier to concentrate more on the visual aspects of a film. (My screencaps are from the DVD, by the way.)

The film takes place in London, about 1903, fifteen years after the death of Jack the Ripper. In this story, Jack's daughter has a traumatic vision of her father. The little girl seen in the beginning of the film grows into a young woman who is taken over by the spirit of her father, caused by a combination of reflecting light and a kiss meant to be comforting. Anna is taken in by a doctor spouting new fangled ideas from Sigmund Freud. The doctor, who's interest in Anna is eventually revealed to be not totally philanthropic, should have heeded the advice of the man who has a better sense of things, "You can't cure Jack the Ripper."

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I'm not certain who was responsible for the color schemes used here, but there seems to have been the influence of Rembrandt. While most of the color usage is naturalistic, and doesn't point to itself as in some films, there is a very judicious use of red. In many of the scenes, the predominant colors are black, brown and gray. The first glimpse of red is on the hat of a doll, seen briefly as part of seance held by a fake medium. Within a circular pan around the table, most of the film's main characters are introduced. Red is also very striking as part of the trimming of a police paddy wagon, and as the coloring of the wheels' spokes. Wear red really stands out it is in the costume of an overripe, aging prostitute, known as Long Liz.

I would also apply the adjective of painterly to the way some of the shots are lit. I especially like the shot of Anna, discovered by her would-be benefactor, Dr. Pritchard, at the foot of a staircase, pretty in pink save for her bloody hands. In the supplemental featurette, there is discussion about dissatisfaction with the screenplay. And there are, at the very least, certain factors that fall apart upon close examination. Peter Sasdy doesn't exactly transcend any the weaknesses in the screenplay, but the film is worth seeing for its application of visual intelligence.

One of the other interesting choices here is in how the character of Laura, Dr. Pritchard's future daughter-in-law, is introduced. Something seems a bit off when in conversation with her fiance, she is not always looking at him. It is not until her second scene, when she steps into Dr. Pritchard's house that it is made clear by both her actions and by the dialogue, that Laura is blind.

As the supplement that primarily covers the making of Hands of the Ripper mentions, the other time that Hammer had recently made a film connected to the legend of Jack the Ripper was with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Also released in 1971, Roy Ward Baker's film gives Robert Louis Stevenson's story a transgender twist, in combination with the Jack the Ripper story. I don't know if there was coincidence at work here, with the concept of a female ripper at the heart of both films. The difference is that Baker's protagonist is a mild mannered man, while Sasdy's Anna is introduced as a meek, frequently withdrawn, female.

The supplement also discusses how Sasdy and producer Aida Young worked around a modest budget. The sets of the Whitechapel section of London were originally for use in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. There is a bit of unintended irony here in that Sasdy and Young made a point of making a film mostly with actors and a crew not normally associated with Hammer films. One of the featured actors in Wilder's film was that Hammer mainstay, Christopher Lee.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 18, 2013 07:49 AM