The story of notorious 19th Century serial killer Jack the Ripper has been told countless times on the screen. The case has never been officially solved, and there are probably more theories about Jack’s identity than there were victims. Author Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote “The Lodger”, a speculative fiction novel based on the Ripper murders, that was in turn made into a silent film by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. The film was remade in 1932 with the same star, Ivor Novello, then again in what’s probably the most famous version, 1944’s THE LODGER , starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, and George Sanders. Almost a decade later, the tale was again remade, this time with Jack Palance as the mysterious MAN IN THE ATTIC.
Fog shrouded London’s Whitechapel District is being terrorized by a fiend known in the press as Jack the Ripper. Scotland Yard is baffled, police patrols have been doubled, and the female populace is in fear of their lives. It’s during this time Mr. and Mrs. Harley advertise for a lodger, and Mr. Slade answers the ad. Slade tells them he’s a pathologist working odd hours, and rents not only the room, but the attic room above, so he can conduct his experiments in privacy. The Harleys also house their niece Lily, a music hall actress about to make her stage debut.
Lily’s visited backstage by Anne Rawley, former star now working as a prostitute, offering her best wishes. We then see Lily perform a musical number, while Anne meets her doom at the hands of the Ripper. Inspector Warwick questions Lily about the visit, and states there’s a witness who describes Jack as wearing an Ulster (top coat) and carrying a black bag. Coincidently, this also describes Slade’s attire. Aunt Helen begins to have suspicions about her new lodger, but Uncle Henry dismisses them as feminine nonsense.
Slade opens up to Lily about his childhood. His mother was an actress who cheated on his father and ended up a prostitute. Lily feels sorry for him, and thinks he’s innocent, even after he’s caught burning his bag and Ulster. Inspector Warwick doesn’t, and when the Ripper strikes again, he leaves a thumbprint in his victim’s apartment. Warwick wants to use the new technology to compare it with Slade’s prints and, while in the lodger’s room, discovers a picture of Anne Lawrence, first victim of the Ripper. After another musical number (a Can-Can dance!), Slade appears in Lily’s dressing room, asking her to run away with him. When she rebuffs his advances, he pulls a knife, revealing himself to be Jack the Ripper after all.Warwick and the police arrive and bust down the door, but the Ripper escapes, commandeering a carriage, careening down the streets of Whitechapel with the police in hot pursuit. Slade walks out into the river, and a search proves fruitless. Jack the Ripper is dead… or is he?
Jack Palance gives a creepy, understated performance as Slade, and in fact saves the film from the doldrums, for MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t all that suspenseful. There’s really no doubt he’s the Ripper, mainly because there are no other suspects. Palance was fresh off his success as the gunslinger in that year’s SHANE, and this low budgeter was his first starring role. He illicits some sympathy as the lonely, isolated Slade, though his Scottish accent comes and goes.
It’s a rare chance to see THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s Frances Bavier (Helen) play something besides Aunt Bee, but if I told you I didn’t think of Mayberry’s favorite aunt while watching I’d be lying. Character actor Rhys Williams does well with the part of Uncle Henry, but the two young leads, Constance Smith (Lily) and Byron Palmer (Warwick) leave much to be desired. Quite frankly, they’re both boring, even during Lily’s musical numbers. Horror vet Lester Matthews (WEREWOLF OF LONDON, THE RAVEN ) has a small part as Warwick’s superior, while other Familiar Faces include Sean McClory, Lillian Bond (THE OLD DARK HOUSE), Harry Cording, and Isabel Jewell.
Director Hugo Fregonese had more success in Europe and his native Argentina then he did in Hollywood, due to the lack of quality scripts he received in America. There are some atmospheric scenes here, but they’re few and far between. MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t the best adaptation of THE LODGER (that would be the ’44 version), but it’s not the worst. That dishonor goes to the 2009 remake, updating the story to modern-day LA, with a copycat Ripper on Sunset Strip. It’s just kind of bland and mediocre, and if you’re not a big Jack Palance fanatic, there’s no reason to watch this one.