Jack the Ripper (1988)

The granddaddy of all true crime stories is that of Jack the Ripper, mainly because it’s unsolved.  Theories had him as everyone from one of the cops to one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons.  The media frenzy in 1888 (and on) was truly one made of hysteria.  With so many theories and no concrete proof of anything, books and films over the years have gone hog wild in trying to solve the murders.

So why not the miniseries?  There are no new theories here (though there were apparently four endings filmed, as if this were what, the season finale of “thirtysomething?”), but this “Jack the Ripper” is not at all interested in theories.  It’s interest is in personalities.  And we have a glad bunch of them, stacking the deck with such aces as Michael Caine, Armand Assante and our very own Muse of the Miniseries, Jane Seymour.

In case you are interested, title cards, read by an appropriately chilly British narrator, tell us that information here is based on “a review of the official files by special permission of the Home office and interviews with leading criminologists and Scotland Yard officials.”  By 1988, that was as credible as it got, and who are we to argue?

The first body appeared on August 31, 1888, a “penniless prostitute.”  This started a “reign of terror so horrifying, the world remembers it still.”  Ah, miniseries exposition!  God love ye for all your puffed-up excitement.  The world remembers it still because bunk like this helps keep it fresh in our minds.  It’s tough to think of too many of Jack the Rippers brothers-in-blood (alas, sisters are pretty rare) of the 20th and even 21st Century who weren’t more outrageous, more gut-churning or downright scarier than the man though to have killed five women, maybe more.  But you can’t do those as costume dramas, and we all know how the miniseries loves costume dramas.

The movie is fair in its depiction of the grandiose hype that surrounded the murders.  At The Star, boss O’Connor (T.P. McKenna) is at first annoyed that the murder of a prostitute is even front page news on his paper, but when he hears that Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline (slumming newly-minted Oscar-winner Michael Caine) is put on the case, “Scotland Yard’s best detective,” he realizes there might be something to all of this. 

Abberline is a curious man to throw on a high-profile case, known so well within Scotland Yard for his drinking that when Sergeant George Godley (Lewis Collins) needs to find him, underlings do the universal pantomime for knocking one back and point to the basement.  And there we find him, half drunk, half hungover, looking like he hasn’t bathed.  But, the newspaper says London is out of control, so he tells George to “get me a razor” and suddenly he’s on!  To make sure we understand that he’s a drunk with the potential to throw away his life, George needles him in the carriage to Whitechappel until Abberline finally cuts him off.  Got it, character flaws noted. 

When Abberline and Godley get to the scene of the crime, they are met by policemen cleaning up evidence, pickpocket lads and a profusion of ethnicities.  Benjamin Bates (Jonathan Moore) of The Star already had his story, that the local Whitechappel police must be idiots if the big Scotland Yard guns have been brought in “on a local murder.”  Assistant Commission Anderson (Denys Hawthorne) wonders the same thing of Chief Superintendent of Police Arnold (Edward Judd).  “You have chosen a drunk for the job, Mr. Arnold!” Anderson says, upset at how political this could become. 

The surgeon who does the autopsy believes the killer has medical knowledge, but when Abberline asks if it could be a doctor who did it, he furiously rants that “any butcher” would have the same knowledge and huffs off.  Abberline sends Godley off to get testimony from doctors, butchers and anyone who basically owns a knife, even the street toughs.  Not a small list.  He’s even suspicious of the doctor (Michael Hughes) who made the suggestions.

Abberline and Godley set up shop in the local precinct run by Spratling (John Laurimore), who has less-than-positive history with Abberline.  After a quick hello there, it’s off to the inquest, which is being held on some strange rush schedule that allows the police no time to collect evidence.  Godley asks Abberline why he is letting it even happen, and he replies “to see who’s here.”  Dr. Llewellyn causes a furor when he admits that the killer had to have “anatomical knowledge” and that keeps Bates and his mysterious companion, whom Abberline suggests “is either an artist or an anarchist” happy enough so that when Abberline stops the inquest, they still have a story.  Arnold is under heavy fire for the choice of Abberline, so he calls him in to remind him he wants the case closed very quickly.  Abberline, who can’t understand the pressure on this one, asks “do you want the killer or will anyone do” when Arnold demands a quick arrest.  That gives Arnold a chance to babble something about “we’re all pawns, you, me, shilling whores” that doesn’t satisfy Abberline in the least.

Robert Lees (Ken Bones) shows up at the precinct.  This fussy little man has “visions” that have been used by the police before.  “I’ve seen him…well, not his face..my visions are intuitive, symbolic, not like a photography,” he tells a clearly annoyed Abberline.  “Look for a man with two faces,” he tells them. 

All of the pieces so far, the doctor who performed an autopsy without noting a gutted body, only to have another autopsy done, the washing away of evidence, the quick race to the inquest and now a psychic who, oh yes, “is a close personal friend to her majesty Queen Victoria,” lead Abberline to the conclusion that if “the dead woman isn’t important, the killer is!” 

Bates has Lees work with the paper’s sketch artist, Emma Prentiss (Jane Seymour, adding much glamour to the necessarily-drab proceedings already).  Her drawing is not quite what Lees had in mind of his two-faced vision, but her drawing reminders her of the American actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), who is currently doing, of course, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” for rapturous London audiences.  Isn’t that a convenient twist, a man with two faces. 

Back in the real investigation, the local police round up their usual suspects, as bunch of crazy men looking for free soup, and Abberline laughs them off, sending Godley out to local pubs to interview the prostitutes to see if they know anything.  They don’t, but he starts one hell of a bar fight.  It’s completely unnecessary, something out of a Western.  Abberline conducts a test of his own, dropping coins on the street to see how many windows, and thus potential witnesses, pop their heads out of windows.  A lot, it turns out. 

In this world of miniseries coincidences, where far more converges nicely than ever did in the real case, Bates and Emma take Lees to the theater to see Mansfield on the very nice that Prince Albert Victor (Marc Culwick), second in line to the throne, is there.  Mansfield gives a hypnotic performance that everyone straining in their seats.  As he goes through the transformation, which is done with special effects (and cheap prosthetics) still unavailable to actors in the theater, the crowd all but riots in horror, Lees most particularly.  He is so terrified he runs out of the theater and starts muttering about the faces he’s seen, which are shown with more cheesy special effects. 

Based on the overacting of Lees (the actor and the character), Abberline and Godley seek out Dr. Gull (Ray McAnally), the country’s top expert on madness, and also, of course, “personal physician to the queen.”  It’s all very neatly tied up, isn’t it?  About five people in all of London, that’s it.  Abberline asks if it is “possible to be half mad?”  Dr. Gull of course believes it, but not openly, having to “lump” it as “dementia precox.”  Long scene for a short answer, yup, a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is possible, but awfully radical for the medical establishment. 

For every step forward we don’t take in solving the murder, we have to take one back into the soap part of the plot.  Abberline takes Lees backstage to see Mansfield, who “never sees anyone after a performance.”  When Abberline bursts into his dressing room, he finds Emma there.  Apparently he and she have a history, which Mansfield notes rather nastily.  She claims fatigue and leaves her sketches for Mansfield.  Abberline wants to know how Mansfield can “create a creature like that,” and Mansfield merely says he does it through observation.  To create Mr. Hyde, he’s observed many people, but Abberline pushes, “a woman was killed in the East End last Friday and if your Mr. Hyde was involved, I’d like to know about it!”  If you are confused by this jump from an actor in a role to being killer, that’s understandable.  It doesn’t make sense.  Mansfield takes everyone on a trip to Whitechappel to the brothel where Mansfield claims to have been.  He’s based the character on the doorman, who is blind and known to Abberline.  When he removes his hair piece, the girls remember him, giving him an alibi (as if he needed one, as preposterous as this whole silly plot line is). 

Mansfield goes off with a hooker, Abberline to “think” and Godley to sleep when there is a second murder.  Dr. Llewellyn insists it’s the same killer, but there are differences here.  First off, the killer has arranged her personal belongings, and second, Abberline gets a second opinion from another doctor.  Dr. Llewellyn is incensed, but not as angry as when Abberline asks for his alibi.  Mansfield and Lees are dragged in for questioning.  Mansfield rushes off in a huff, but Lees has been sickened by a second vision, which he claims was the crime scene, which Abberline dismisses.  “If you did see the killer, you’d better be careful who you tell.  He might come looking for you, mightn’t he?” Abberline notes mockingly.  Ultimately, Abberline still thinks Mansfield, Llewellyn and Lees are possible suspects.

However, Abberline goes to pay a call on Emma.  Godley advises him not to because “she’s trouble,” but he goes anyway.  “You’re almost a year late,” Emma says when answering the door.  He wants to talk about Mansfield, though he’s undoes her hair and buttons as he asks questions.  This leads to kissing and any the dissolution of any credibility that the opening title card so lavishly reminded us went into the making of this movie.

As Abberline enjoys Emma, the rabble on the street, fired up by Bates, keeps turning its anger on different people.  They throw cabbage at Mansfield and Lees and then break the windows of a leather apron named Pizer.  While the latter happens, Bates actually takes Lees drinking to get some dirt.  Lees is almost run down by a phantom-like carriage driver manning the royal coat of arms, but everyone on the street dismisses him as a drunk.  He heads straight for the police station, saying he’s been in that coach when going to visit Her Majesty. 

This sends Abberline off to the royal mews, where he finds out that none of the coaches were out at the time of Lees accident.  A “freelance” coachman says he can get any coach needed “for a price” and Godley is left to follow that lead.  Coincidentally, this coachman drives not only Prince Albert Victor, but also doctors, only the big ones.  Oh, and I should mention, he fancies himself a surgeon as well, “Dr.” Netley (George Sweeney).

I thought Abberline’s trip to Emma was a bit much, but when he’s taken to see the Prime Minister, it’s even more idiotic.  They are alarmed at the “armed vigilantes” in the East End and promise Abberline all the money and men he needs because they are so afraid of the political ramifications of the murders.  Uh huh. 

When Abberline discusses the evidence with the policemen he’s sending out to canvass, it’s not quite the profiling we’ve come to expect from “Criminal Minds.”  There are a lot of details about him that “may” be true, but they really don’t know anything.  He sends them off to talk to everyone from butchers to artists, whom one officer helpfully notes “cut up horses” for their drawings.  That’s when George Lusk (Michael Gothard) finally comes to see Abberline.  He’s the vigilante who has been stirring up the masses and getting in Abberline’s way.  Lusk rips into Abberline about everyone being concerned for safety, but in extreme close-up, Abberline reads him up and down, telling him he knows the men of Whitechappel because he grew up there and Lusk is only in it for the power (what power would that be?).  “The revolution may not start this week,” Abberline spits out, leaving everyone mighty confused as to exactly what that means.  The only thing this does for Abberline is to have Godley send a cop after the rabble because the killer might be a part of the vigilante gang.  Then he swigs some whiskey, not a good sign.

The second inquest reveals, via Dr. Phillips (Gerald Sim), a far more thorough doctor than Llewellyn, and far more graphic.  “I have never seen such terrible things done by a member of my profession,” he testifies.  Dr. Acland (Richard Morant), Dr. Gull’s assistant, is there, and Abberline and Godley follow him out.  Why is he there in formal dress?  Oh, one of our famous coincidences!  Mansfield has been going to him for advice on his role and observed a few autopsies without flinching.  This sends Abberline back to Dr. Gull and the Jekyll-and-Hyde theory, only because we haven’t revisited it in a few scenes. 

The killer is given a name, “Jack the Ripper,” via a letter that supposedly comes from the killer.  Bates takes the letter, written “in red ink” to Abberline, thinking it a sensation.  Well, it is for the paper, but not for Abberline, who says “I get three of these a day…I’ll give you a dozen letters more boring than this one…on second thought, write your own.”  The letters do pile up, but Abberline takes this one seriously (without Bates knowing) because it says something about “next time I’ll cut the ears off.”  The second victim had her ears clipped, and only Abberline and Dr. Phillips knew that.  This convinces Abberline that there are actually two killers, two guys working in tandem.

As he and Godley pour over statements looking for clues, the prostitutes go out for the night and all of our suspects are shown, while the faceless coachman rushes into the neighborhood with the coach bearing royal arms.  There is a third murder.  And a fourth for the cliffhanger to end the first part.

Abberline and Godley see one victim and the ears are still there, perhaps making the letter a hoax.  However, as Lusk and his Whitechappel Vigilance Committee arrive and rouses the rabble to the heights, Abberline and Godley go to the other body, to find the evidence gone and the Commissioner waiting for them.  This body has a note written on the wall about the “Juwes,” that the higher ups want wiped off and the handwriting doesn’t match the letter.  The higher-ups are furious and consider taking Lusk up on his offer to help, but Abberline threatens to quit if that happens. 

Alas, the fourth victim has had her ears cut off.  “He’s given us his handwriting!” Godley coos.  “He’s hanged himself,” Abberline adds.  The Star receives another letter, which Abberline treats with his usual disdain, though thrilled when O’Connor leaves.  Abberline and Godley think they are closing in on him. 

Back in the political arena, the Prime Minister is worried this could bring down the government, especially is Prince Albert Victor is at all suspect. 

Abberline is still hooked on Lees, whom they have write out a statement and the handwriting does not match.  The two hound him as Lees howls, “until you believe my visions, these killings will go on and on!”  Exactly what they wanted to hear.

Unfortunately, there’s an Abberline-Emma scene.  Not that I object to either actor, but I do object to the ridiculous plot that draws them together.  And here it gets even more far-fetched!  Abberline wants Emma to deliver her drawing to Mansfield, while also playing detective, “to see if he hates women,” as she puts it.  “Shall I write it all down like one of your sergeants?” she coyly asks.  Verbal games ensue, and Abberline tells her “never to be alone” with Mansfield (who is too busy with prostitutes anyway).

Bates storms the police station to show Abberline the newest arrival, a human kidney, with a note that says the writer has eaten the other.  However, this one was not sent to the newspaper, but to Lusk.  That makes Abberline suspicious.  Dr. Llewellyn can’t say if the kidney came from one of the victims, so Abberline takes it to Dr. Gull.  Dr. Gull says that the kidney did in fact come from one of the victims, though Dr. Acland gets all suspiciously huffy. 

Very proud of herself, Emma reports back to Abberline that Mansfield doesn’t hate women, and is in fact involved in a great love affair, with himself.  But, she has other news, relating to Prince Albert Victor, who is keen on wearing disguises and visiting “bawdy houses” in Whitechappel.  “Gossip like that can be very dangerous,” he warns her.

Also, “gossip is more powerful than facts,” the Commissioner tells Abberline, who has sent Godley to threaten Bates about publishing such gossip without proof.  “If he visits brothers, that’s a scandal, scandals die down, but if he’s suspected of murder, we’ll be facing a crisis that will rock the British Empire to its very foundations,” the Commissioner says, adopting the the same melodramatic attitude about poor Prince Albert Victor, who only wanted to have a good time and died young doing it.  However, the Commissioner remains steadfast, that if the evidence points to royalty, he will be prosecuted like anyone else. 

The plot that involves Bates and Lusk, who is now proclaiming himself the leader of a Marxist revolution and having his goons beat up the pimps, seems to hint that a lot of what the police are now seeing is staged.  That’s an interesting theory, but there are so many going on here that it gets lost among the general hysteria.  Poor Mansfield has his play shut down “in case it inspires the killer.” 

As Abberline and Godley are racing around Whitechappel trying to figure out how the killer had enough time to do everything he did, Lusk leads a torchlit mob to Scotland Yard.  Our two lead detectives decide “it is more than one and they are using a coach.”  Wait, hasn’t that been obvious all along?  I mean, they’ve shown us the killings, so we know it, but the use of a coach has been pretty certain all along.  At the same time, Lusk and the mob show up at Scotland Yard and demand the Commissioner’s resignation. 

The coachman/passenger theory explains the two different handwriting samples, the two different descriptions, the lack of blood, everything.  And no one would stop the coach, “not this coach,” meaning one bearing royal arms. 

Godley has the job of visiting every pub in Whitechappel to warn the girls about the duo while Abberline goes to see Lees and finds Mansfield there.  Lees falls into a supernatural swoon about a woman with long flowing hair and “a knight in armor.”  “My visions are never wrong,” Lees tells Abberline, “she’s going to die.”  This would have to be the brand new girl Godley just met with the long flowing blond hair. 

So, on another night with all of the characters out and about, the killer suits up for another round.  Godley gets proof that Prince Albert Victor has been in Scotland for “the past 10 weeks” and therefore cannot be the killer.  How is that possible?  We’ve seen him both at the theater and at the mews.  By this point in the story, it’s only early November, which puts the Prince in London at least twice within the past 10 weeks.  You don’t have to be a detective to see that giant hole in the plot!

The latest murder doesn’t actually kill the blond, but another girl, so horrendously mutilated that even Abberline is shocked.  However, there is a picture by her bed of a knight and a blond damsel.  Lusk shows up at the new crime scene and gets the crowd going with chants of “no police!”  Godley tries to track down Mansfield, to find out that he’s going to be dressed as a knight for a new production of “Richard III,” and he’s at the theater in costume so that Emma can draw him.  Abberline bursts in and finds out that Mansfield has an alibi.  Yup, of course, he was with Emma.  Mansfield, lying, says they didn’t sleep with each other and then Emma turns on Abberline with a grand monologue delivered with spectacular lighting.  Unfortunately, Jane Seymour is only window dressing here (1988 was a very busy year for her, so I’m willing to excuse a performance that adds very little to the proceedings if you are) and her character pointless.  “It’s not use, Freddy.  We belong in different worlds, just stay out of mine!” she says and dashes off. 

One more time, Abberline and Godley go through the list of suspects and decide who is still possible and who isn’t.  Jokingly, Abberline insists they put themselves on the list as they are both handy with knives.  Dr. Gull is the first to use the word “psychopath,” but he won’t be easy to find.  “He’ll probably appear quite normal, until his insanity rears its head,” he tells them.  Doesn’t that describe every human being?  We’re all normal until we flip out at one point or another.  Granted, we don’t all kill people, but Gull might as well be throwing more hay on the haystack in which this needle is buried.  As for the theory of two people, Dr. Gull is willing to believe that too.  “There will always be leaders and followers,” meaning that one has so much power over the other that he can convince him to do anything–religion, family, politics, basically pair up any of the suspects and this theory works too, half-cocked as it is.  Upon leaving Gull’s, they see Dr. Acland getting out of a carriage driven by Netley, a carriage that has crest removed from the door.  This convinces Abberline and Godley that they have their killers!

Abberline rushes to tell the Commissioner, who has tendered his resignation, but is still on the job until midnight.  Abberline promises Jack the Ripper that night and they arrest Netley.  Abberline forces him to write on the wall and the way he spells Jews is just the way it was done on the wall at the murder.  Abberline has a signed letter from the Commissioner that any accomplice of Jack the Ripper will be freed if he leads them to the killer.  At the same time, Godley goes to a prostitute to use her as bait.  Netley is set up in his coach and all of the other suspects are in their places. 

The killer shows up at the coach, Netley puts him in and drives off to where the prostitute is waiting.  Who is in the carriage?  Dr. Gull!  “You’re destroying my work,” he yells, “they were only whores!”  Abberline tries to kill him, but Godley stop him, luckily, though Gull is knocked down and barely alive with internal injuries.  Dr. Acland says he’s a goner.  Acland, in a shouting match with Abberline that is so wildly over-the-top it could have only been filmed in one take or the actors wouldn’t have any voice left, tells Abberline that Gull was mad and trying to understand his own madness, not that he was trying to understand madness in others and using the girls as experiments. 

The Commissioner and Abberline then go at it because the Commissioner doesn’t want to arrest Gull, since he’s a dead man and the Queen’s physician.  He convinces Abberline to go along with it, who tells Godley the case will go unsolved, “files will disappear,” and it will go away.  “Think of the public good!”  Godley is incensed, saying he wants justice, to which Abberline replies, “then you should have let me shoot him.” 

Of course the ending is ridiculous.  It’s as if the creators simply picked blindly among the cast members and came up with an ending.  The thought that Queen Victoria’s physician would be the murderer but get the hush treatment is inane.  There was too much interest in the murders for that to happen.  Granted, they stopped fairly quickly (although some attribute other killings over the next few years to Jack the Ripper), but word would have leaked out one way or another!

Preposterous describes the whole movie, but at least it’s unfailingly colorful and pretty tense, an old-fashioned murder mystery with the twist of throwing in Jack the Ripper as the murderer.  Unfortunately, such pieces need lots of character and lots of extraneous red herrings and scenes, which do make the movie awfully creaky at times. 

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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