Thursday, October 4, 2012

Look Out, Aunt Bee! It's Jack the Ripper!: "Man in the Attic" (1953)

Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel "The Lodger" (previously filmed under that title three times) concerns a new tenant at a house in 1880's London who is suspected of being Jack the Ripper. The problem- if the cast of this version couldn't care less about the plot of their own film, then why should the audience?

Jack Palance, complete with sweat, tics, and an Elvis Presley hairdo, plays Slade, a mysterious pathologist who rents a room and an attic from down-on-their-luck couple William (Rhys Williams) and Aunt Bee...I mean, Helen (Frances Bavier) Harley. Slade keeps late hours, is a more than a little weird, and scares everyone around him. What's not to fall in love with? Lily (Constance Smith) is the Harleys' niece, and finds herself inexplicably attracted to the new lodger. Slade's competition for Lily's heart is convenient Scotland Yard inspector Warwick (Byron Palmer). You'll know Warwick because he looks just like Harvey Korman doing his Clark Gable impression on "The Carol Burnett Show." The cast suspect the odd Slade of the Jack the Ripper murders almost immediately, especially after his Freudian love/hate speech about his actress-mother, and his late night burning of contaminated clothing. You'll see the climax coming long before the cast does.

It's a straightforward story, yet the film wanders off the main plot so often, I needed GPS to get back on track. Warwick, who is supposed to be obsessed with the Jack the Ripper murders, spends more time pursuing Lily than studying that newfangled fingerprint technology or running down evidence. This leads to an odd scene where, as a date, Warwick takes Lily and third wheel Slade to a criminal museum at Scotland Yard! The only reason this scene exists is so Slade can make some more cryptic comments, and heap more suspicion upon himself. Lily is written as a strong independent woman who can juggle many an admirer; a rising star in the London theatre. Smith plays her as vacuous and shallow, a deluded Piccadilly cabaret dancer who lucked into her own dressing room. This is not a musical, but you may forget this as the viewer is treated to two long musical numbers, and one of the Ripper's victims sings an Irish tune before being hacked to death off-screen. Comically, two unnamed London policemen (out of the four thousand that are supposedly patrolling the streets) happen to walk home two of the victims, who are immediately killed while they are within earshot! Hauling them in for questioning might have been a good idea if you didn't know they weren't involved in the murders.

Half of the cast is not British, and make no effort to come up with an accent of any kind. The backlot where this was filmed looks more like eighteenth century Bavaria than late nineteenth century London. The American and British cast are marshaled by an Argentinian director with little vision. The shots are elementary and static, and no suspense is generated. It seems like the film makers wanted to take the edge off the subject matter, but to the point that the film is lifeless and top heavy with light touches that don't work (the jittery maid, the Harleys' suspicions, Slade's sweat, the musical numbers).

"The Lodger" was remade again a few years ago, and one of its early incarnations was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I would hope either of those films was more suspenseful than this tedious exercise. (* *) out of five stars.