The Internet went crazy today with the news that Jack the Ripper, the late 19th century’s most infamous serial killer, might have been positively identified through some new DNA work. Of course, most news sources didn’t exactly stress the word might. Instead, they breathlessly exclaimed that it was a definitive fact. It isn’t. Not just yet anyway. And frankly, we’ve been down this road before.
A high-tech DNA technology called ‘vacuuming’ has supposedly named Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old Polish immigrant at the time during Jack’s terror in the fall of 1888 London, as the likely culprit. Kosminski has been the number one suspect for some time now. Ripperologist Martin Fido thinks so, and has for decades. So do most of those following the case at Casebook.org, the definitive website for all things JTR (http://bit.ly/1ufTDYV).
The new story that is getting all the ink today started in 2007, when Russell Edwards of the UK, purchased a bloodstained shawl at a Suffolk auction. It was advertised as belonging to one of the killer’s victims, Catherine Eddowes. The shawl was discovered next to the Eddowes’ mutilated corpse. Edwards, a policeman, gave it to his wife as a gift but apparently she didn’t appreciate his dark sense of humor.
And then of course, pulp author Patricia Cornwell famously fingered artist Walter Sickert in 2002 as ‘saucy Jack’ but her book “Portrait of a Killer” was discredited before the galleys were dry. Thus, the Casebook site itself is recommending extreme caution. What may be right and wrong with the ‘evidence’ is discerned here: http://bit.ly/1q8MCJ4.
So, why am I writing about this on a movie blog? Well, I’m actually a bit of an armchair detective about the case myself, having read a dozen books on the matter, and attended a Ripper conference or two as well. Plus, the story of Jack has had an interesting if somewhat repetitious telling by Hollywood, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on how the criminal case has been portrayed in movies.
|Johnny Depp in FROM HELL (2001)|
Despite the perennial popularity of the crime, and one person's hypothesis being as good as the next, there haven't been a lot of attempts at telling the story in Hollywood. The most high profile one that most people know is that of FROM HELL (2001). It starred Johnny Depp as Victorian Era Ripper detective Fred Abbeline. It was tense and exciting, but was a bit short on substance, and frankly, it glossed over a lot of the case. Sure, it indicted the Royal Family as being behind the killings, to protect Prince Eddie's penchant for ladies of the evening, but unless you were really versed in the case, most of the story here probably sailed over your head.
Michael Caine played Abberline too in a respectable TV movie adaption done for British television in 1988. It was pulpy but took the case seriously, and tried to examine the hysteria of the killings in their time.
Alfred Hitchcock famously did a take on the story, albeit with new names and plot points, way back in 1927 with THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG. It was a silent, black and white film that called its villain “The Avenger!” (Take that, Tony Stark!)
|David Warner as "Jack" in TIME AFTER TIME (1979)|
The great David Warner memorably played Jack the Ripper who uses H.G. Wells’ time machine to escape to a modern day San Francisco in the luridly entertaining TIME AFTER TIME in 1979. Malcolm McDowell met Mary Steenburgen while making it, and married her afterwards. And he was quite funny and finicky in a rare good guy role.
There have been a few more since. THE LODGER was remade in 2009, as a modern Ripper was imitating his predecessor. It starred Alfred Molina, Hope Davis and Simon Baker of THE MENTALIST fame, but it wasn’t particularly good, thus it went quickly to home video.
This year, PENNY DREADFUL, John Logan’s macabre horror series on Showtime, mentioned Jack the Ripper a couple of times in its bloody cocktail mix of vampires, Frankenstein and devil possession, but it doesn’t appear to be a plot thread that will be carried out in the second season. A better take on the Ripper was done by British television with its series RIPPER STREET the last couple of years. That show not only made a lot of hay out of the elusiveness of the Ripper, but also suggested his example set off even more horrific crimes following his reign of terror those few short autumnal months.
Perhaps now the latest Kosminksi news will open up the door for some further evaluations of the world’s most famous serial killer in the entertainment world. I think a real thriller might exist about the modern day hunt for Jack, and all the competing amateurs out there insisting they know who he really was. It would probably make for a great dark comedy.
Still, if you’re looking for something satisfactory about the Ripper on film, might I suggest MURDER BY DECREE? It’s a 1979 Canadian thriller done by Bob Clarke, and it stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason. No, the incomparable Plummer does not render the Ripper for the big screen. Instead, he plays Sherlock Holmes in a mash-up of saucy Jack and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (BTW…Mason made for a slyly observant and slightly befuddled Watson in it. It's one of the better good doctor's committed to film.)
The story, like that of FROM HELL, treads through the Royal Conspiracy terrain. And what a doozy that idea is, suggesting that Queen Victoria’s son Prince Edward got a prostitute pregnant, and the prostitutes who knew were killed to protect the Monarchy. The idea of having Holmes on the case was ingenious and almost painfully obvious. The Holmes stories existed in the same time period as Jack, and the only real surprise is that Doyle himself didn’t try to create a fiction of it himself.
|Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of the Ripper in MURDER BY DECREE (1979)|
Of course, Holmes figures out not only whodunit but also howdunnit, but more importantly, he adds an element of moral clarity to the whole shebang. As political officials sweep it under the rug to protect the Royals, as well as the class system so crucial to England, Holmes scolds a select committee about their complicity. He tells them off, well, royally. If you think Plummer exhibited power and fortitude as Captain Von Trapp, wait until you see him admonishing a room full of stuffed shirts as a bold and heroic Holmes. He’s mesmerizing.
As is the case of the Ripper. It may never be solved. But it’s ceaselessly fascinating and therefore tremendously entertaining. Let’s just hope if Kosminski is proven to be the definitive villain that it yields some fresh takes on the material. After all, ol’ Jack could use some new blood.