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January 30, 2018

Jack the Ripper

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Robert S. Baker & Monty Berman - 1959
Severin Films BD Regions ABC / Region 0 DVD two-disc set

David Gregory and his team at Severin Film put in a lot of effort in putting together this set of three versions of this 1959 production. Too bad the film itself wasn't better. It's not that Jack the Ripper is bad, but it does run a poor third behind two later productions from Baker and Berman, Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and The Hellfire Club (1961). Aside from the fictionalized version of 19th Century grave robbers Burke and Hare, written and directed by periodic collaborator John Gilling, Flesh and the Fiends also benefits from a strong cast with Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw. The lesser known Hellfire Club, an intriguing period costume drama about a hidden inheritance and a secret society, also benefits from a cast including Cushing, Keith Michell, Adrienne Corri in a bathtub, and the luscious German actress, Kai Fischer.

Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster wrote several horror films for Baker and Berman. The essential story is based loosely on a since discredited theory that the Ripper was a doctor avenging the death of his son who died following exposure to syphilis from a prostitute. In the film, the son has committed suicide because he found out that the woman he loved was formerly a lady of the night. Where the filmmakers get it wrong is also creating an unnecessary narrative where the investigation is assisted by a detective from New York City, based on the assumption that this would make the film more marketable for the lucrative U.S. market. To that end, bland Canadian actor Lee Patterson, with his thick, 1950s slickly coiffed pompadour gets top billing as the cop on a working vacation in England. The rest of the cast is made up of British character actors including Eddie Byrne (not to be confused with Edd Byrnes) as the Scotland Yard detective who's done most of the investigation. While the events take place in 1888, the murders have been compacted to a matter of days.

Like his work with Hammer, Sangster throws in the expected red herrings, including a mute hunchback with a badly scarred face. And like seemingly every Jack the Ripper movie, there's a music hall scene with Can-can dancers, followed by an unappreciated solo male singer.

I don't recall the source, but I do recall reading that Hammer made three versions of their films, with the mildest version for the British market, more violent for the U.S., and the most violent for Japanese viewers. Baker and Berman have been noted for making at least two versions of some of their productions, with a "continental" version sprinkled with partial nudity for the European market. In the case of Jack the Ripper, the blu-ray has the British release version taken from a telecine at 1.33:1, the U.S. version taken from the Library of Congress print at 1.66.1, and the French version, on the DVD, which is the British version dubbed and subtitled, with the various scenes or shots of bare-breasted women inserted. The "continental takes" can also be seen as a blu-ray extra. If for no other reason, this Jack the Ripper set is valuable as part of genre film history in presenting side by side comparisons of the same film, with slight variations based on censorship at the time as well as commercial concerns.

In an interview, Monty Berman was dismissive of the nudity for the continental version. There is one slightly racy shot that was excised from the British version, but is in U.S. release, of a gentleman nuzzling a showgirl just above her breast after pouring champagne on her. The U.S. version, supervised by showman Joseph E. Levine, is the best of the three versions presented here. Although the source print shows some signs of wear, it is more visually pleasing in wide screen. Also the scenes of violence are more complete. Most importantly, a couple of shots not in the British version are included in the U.S. version, making more sense out of close-ups of characters reacting in horror, especially with the color insert near the end. Levine also replaced the music track by Stanley Black for a new music score by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, with Levine getting a few more dollars from the publishing rights. It's a brassy score, but also more dramatic and inventive.

The blu-ray includes a commentary track recorded in 2005 with Baker, Sangster, and Assistant Director Peter Manley. All three have since died. Monty Berman, who was in ill health, and died in 2006, is virtually ignored for his contributions. Where Berman's absence is conspicuous is when Baker takes credit for the "dutch angles" used during the scenes of murder, saying he was inspired by The Third Man. While Carol Reed's film may have been a source of inspiration, it was Berman who was a cinematographer on that film. Berman also was born in Whitechapel, the area of London where Jack the Ripper takes place. It may also be worth noting that one of Berman's first jobs was as a cinematographer for Michael Powell's Edge of the World (1937) and Some Days (1935). I have to wonder if it is less than coincidental that Powell made Peeping Tom the year following Jack the Ripper. A couple of the extras review the history of Jack the Ripper and some of the other films inspired by the legend. The extra of most interest was by French distributor Alain Petit, who was able to restore the French version of Jack the Ripper, and also discusses some of the history of how British films of the late 1950s and early 60s were produced with multiple versions.

One complaint to add is that only the British version has English subtitles. I have some measurable hearing loss, and sometimes dialogue is not heard clearly. However, there were several moments when I understood what the characters were saying, but the person responsible for the subtitles apparently did not and would have a subtitle noting that the bit of dialogue was unclear. I would hope that Severin Films looks into getting someone different for this task in the future.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 30, 2018 10:55 AM