178. Man in the Attic (1953)
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Writers: Robert Pressnell Jr. and Barré Lyndon from the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
As Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of London, a strange Mr. Slade rents a room from Mr. and Mrs. Harley and becomes interested in their actress niece, much to Mrs. Harley’s concern.
Not to be confused with Hider in the House, this focuses on someone who may be Jack the Ripper moving into an attic in Victorian London. That the man is played by Jack Palance is what gives the movie the little edge it has.
The film opens with two cops walking the beat, talking about the hunt for Jack the Ripper. He’s killed twice and they’re trying to find him before he kills again, which immediately seems unlikely. Not that they’d try to find and stop him, but that they’d think they have a serial killer situation after only two deaths. There’s not yet enough to determine a pattern.
The cops walk a drunk woman home, but she slips back out and gets murdered by the Ripper. Immediately thereafter, Jack Palance, as Mr. Slade, comes to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harley. They’re down-on-their luck bourgeoisie renting out some rooms for extra money. Slade takes the rooms and asks for access to the attic as well so he may conduct his “experiments.” Mrs. Harley is immediately suspicious of his behavior.
And this really should be the movie—the tension of Mrs. Harley suspecting Slade is the Ripper, finding evidence, having it challenged, and ultimately having a confrontation with horrible consequences for one of the two. Yes, it’s formulaic, but not without its pleasures and at least you can say what kind of film it is. This movie doesn’t do that.
Instead, it has that plot, to a degree, but also has a plot involving Mrs. Harley’s niece Lily, an actress who’s about to have her big break. Mr. Slade doesn’t like actresses which now suggests the other potential plot—that he’s the killer and coming ever closer to killing Lily. That doesn’t happen either, though, at least not completely, because there’s the third plot element.
The chief inspector in the Ripper case is Inspector Warwick. The Ripper’s fourth victim last spoke to Lily before she died so Warwick goes to talk to Lily and immediately becomes infatuated. Thus we get a bit of a love triangle between Warwick, Lily, and Slade, with Warwick and Slade having what’s supposed to be a psychological battle over whether Warwick will ever capture the Ripper.
So nothing really comes to anything because the movie never decides which plot it wants to follow. Since it tries to be all three, but never makes much of an effort to be any one of them, it just meanders without any urgency. It’s a Jack the Ripper movie without any tension, mystery, or doubt, so what’s the point?
Slade eventually reveals to Lily that he hates actresses because his mother was one, but was unfaithful to his father because she was beautiful enough to get away with it—she could have any man she wanted. This is similar to the line that MRAs take about women in general so it was interesting, in a way, to hear it coming out of Jack the Ripper (oh yeah, spoiler, he’s the Ripper, but the movie doesn’t put much effort into making you think he’s not). At the same time, it seems to be a moment where the movie wants you to sympathize with him—he didn’t want to commit these murders, he was forced by his slatternly mother. At the end, when he finally tries to kill Lily, it’s because he’s jealous of all the men leering at her from the audience at her show, so it seems to be criticizing his position while also endorsing it. Earlier it also has Mrs. Harley being shocked that Lily seems to be flirting with the Prince of Wales from the stage—shocked that she’s using her beauty and sexuality to try to improve her position precisely the way Slade criticized his mother for doing.
What I’m saying is the movie dips its toe into a weird space of seemingly justifying Jack the Ripper’s murders because of slutty-slut-sluts. Sympathy for the serial killer is always a difficult stance to take, but would be a badass title to a metal song.
As with a lot of these movies where I start to get sidelined by the politics, the movie itself doesn’t rise to the level of meriting a political or feminist analysis. That element sticks out as a bit of a, “Wait, what?” moment in an otherwise not-quite-meandering movie. While there’s no energy to the film, it doesn’t drag either, and literally sputters out at the end: Slade is finally revealed, chased by Warwick to a river where Slade simply walks in until he vanishes below the surface. Warwick and the police try to find Slade, but he never resurfaces. So that’s the big dramatic ending that lacks any sense of drama or ending.
I also want to note that the movie is only about 80 minutes long, but has three musical breaks. So it’s short, has nothing much happening, and still felt the need to pump the brakes three times during just to reduce all that tension.
So it’s not a recommend, although saying that implies more passion than the movie’s worth. There’s nice black-and-white cinematography and it’s kind of fun to see a simple studio flick from the 50’s, but there’s nothing compelling about it. On the other hand, it is in the public domain and there’s a copy on archive.org here. It’s riffable enough—I’m sure there are plenty of Jack Palance jokes folks could make—and could be used for a simple editing project, so that’s not nothing. It’s not, though, as a movie, much else.