British cinema

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

MURDER BY DECREE

CANADA/UK 1979

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In the late 1960s Nic Cohn published an account of popular music. The title of the book, A WopBopAlopBamBoom, was a reference to a great rock and roll hit by Little Richard. Cohn nominated Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan as the best record made in Britain in the 1950s. The argument for the surprising claim was simple. Everything else was rubbish. Something similar can be said for Murder By Decree. If the film is the best of the Jack The Ripper movies, the competition is not great. The Lodger and Lulu have merit and may even be masterpieces but although serial killers are important to their plots they do not deserve a place on lists of Jack The Ripper movies.   Johnny Duncan could sing and strum, and Murder By Decree beats its competitors.

From Hell, which was made twelve years later, had more poetical ambition but that ambition was not realised.   Murder By Decree is different. It aspires to nothing more than entertainment, something to be consumed like a satisfying but plain British dinner. The movie relies on competency and craftsmanship rather than inspiration and it sidesteps innovation.  Indeed, the notion of having Sherlock Holmes investigate the Jack the Ripper murders had been tried before in the 1965 movie A Study In Terror. That movie patronised its working class characters and made the fatal mistake of allowing the talentless British Georgia Brown to perform two songs.  With no sense of what was either amusing or thrilling the movie refused to come to life.

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Murder Be Decree has sly light humour and intrigue. This unambitious movie feels like a victory for the technocrats over the poets.   Perhaps in a film that features Sherlock Holmes this is it how should be, a celluloid echo of the science of Holmes and the no-nonsense values of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.  Murder By Decree is not perfect. Some of the interior scenes are routine, and the final confrontation where Holmes explains the aristocratic conspiracy could have been done in a quarter of the time.   There are almost twenty minutes between the climax of the film and the final titles. Yet it is not difficult to forgive the transgression.

The plot is based on the theory in the non-fiction book Jack The Ripper The Final Solution. According to the author Stephen Knight, there was an aristocratic conspiracy.  Knight alleged that the Duke of Clarence fathered a child and that the mother Annie Crook was hidden in a mental institution. The deceit was known by five prostitutes who were murdered to protect the secret.   The Duke of Clarence was an unimpressive individual but the theory has holes. For example, the child was conceived when Annie Crook lived in Britain and the witless Duke was wasting his days in mainland Europe.

Providing we ignore the facts, the theory makes an entertaining tale, which is why it has been used more than once by moviemakers. From Hell in 2001 and Jack The Ripper, a TV drama from 1988, both recommended the Knight account as the solution. Murder By Decree adds Sherlock Holmes, so it should feel even more opportunistic.   But the script is interested in its characters and there are subtle references that share knowledge of the actual history of the crimes and their investigation. The makers of Murder By Decree have taken time to think about what they are doing.  Nothing in the movie feels cheap or cynical, and in a Jack The Ripper movie that is rare.

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John Hopkins wrote the screenplay. He came to fame in the 60s because of his tight scripts for Z Cars.  Hopkins does not overwrite.  Back then playwright Dennis Potter was heralded for his vision but Hopkins had the superior craft and technical skill. Boosted by his success on Z Cars, Hopkins was allowed by the BBC to write a four play series called Talking To A Stranger. Each of the plays tells what happened in the same weekend but from the point of view of a different character. Talking To A Stranger is regarded as a television masterpiece. In 1979, when he worked on Murder By Decree, Hopkins had acquired plenty of experience. His work was uneven but he was also prolific and versatile.   Hopkins was not the equal of Harold Pinter but he always had his moments. There are a couple in Murder By Decree. Watson is struggling to lift the last pea off his dinner plate. Holmes, always the lateral thinker, borrows the fork of Watson to squash the pea. The doctor is offended. He had wanted to eat the pea while it was still whole. Apart from being humorous and a welcome break from essential exposition the short scene defines the relationship between the two very different men.   Later, Watson visits a London pub to find a witness amongst the East End. He talks to a prostitute who thinks she has attractions that her peers lack. She is proud of her full set of teeth but during the conversation the prostitute realises that one of her tooth has loosened.   A simple idea explains a precarious livelihood and the defiance and lopsided delusion that the poor need to persist. For once the prostitutes in Murder By Decree are not patronised and reduced to being chirpy cockneys. There is conflict between the women, and in a subsequent scene Hopkins is able to describe quickly what it must be like for a poor woman to be dependent on a hopeless male.   What possessed a seasoned professional like Hopkins to extend the final scene is a mystery.

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If the script is sturdy, the accomplished cast take it to another level.  Christopher Plummer leaves no room for doubt as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason adds real dignity to the modest contribution of Doctor Watson. The script is well written but it is hokum. The actors could be excused for being frivolous but they treat their performances as serious work. They grace the film with their presence.  There are also dignified cameo performances from Frank Finlay and David Hemmings.  Geneviève Bujold appears as Annie Crook for one scene only.  She is discovered by Holmes in the asylum. The emotional scene between the shocked and upset Holmes and the ruined Crook could have unbalanced a modest film but the two actors ensure we are affected by a tragedy that is not real but typical.

Bob Clark directed the film and Reginald H Morris was the cameraman. Neither managed milestones in their careers but something went right when they combined for Murder By Decree. Perhaps the craftsmanship of Hopkins and the presence of gifted actors inspired Clark and Morris to remember their own technical skills.  The shots of Parliament behind the Thames evoke the paintings of Whistler.   For once the fog is not white. It does not have the authentic and sickly yellow tint but it is gloomy.  In early scenes we see the face of the assassin but like the vague witnesses of the Ripper we know we cannot identify him.  Indoors, the photography is less impressive but there the focus is on the actors, and Morris still leaves his mark with a memorable wide-angle shot that is filmed through a mirror. Holmes talks to three visitors who stand at the back of the room. The open carriage journeys through Victorian London not only give the movie visual distinction but reveal Holmes and Watson as gentlemen at ease with the city around them.

 

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The plot may be based on nonsense but it does no harm to the British people if the Royal Family is portrayed as a shower of violent hypocrites, the pinnacle of the social exploitation that marred Victorian society. And if the Royal Family had nothing to do with the Ripper murders, there is enough in the history of our monarchs to justify a movie suggesting this particular family would not be averse to slaughter.   The script of Hopkins is as harsh with the radical politicians. The left wing Inspector Foxborough is a man who welcomes the Ripper murders because in his opinion it will precipitate social change. Holmes condemns Foxborough as a heartless man too willing to sacrifice innocent working people. This gives the film political balance, and it is consistent with how a man like Sherlock Holmes would think. Radical politics would have been beyond the great detective but, like Conan Doyle, Sherlock was capable of civilised compassion. The condemnation of Foxborough, though, does feel glib, especially as the judgement by Holmes is repeated in the overextended fourteen minute scene at the end of the movie. People adopted radical politics in 1888 for a good reason. They were horrified by the plight of the poor. At least we are given the satisfaction of seeing three powerful men humbled by the final revelations of Holmes. The consolation is that the powerful will always be paranoid about the threat of masses and that gives them real discomfort.   Fourteen minutes, though, is still too long for it to be explained.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

UK, 2017

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The phrase mixed reception is a cliché that suits the polite English. The Limehouse Golem, though, really has had a mixed reception. English film critics have been friendly and positive. Across the Atlantic the Americans have dismissed the movie as nothing more than routine TV fare. As the more objective Americans have realised, the film is not great. Peter Ackroyd writes novels, non-fiction and produces articles and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Ackroyd has influence, and his British friends have been obliged to overpraise a film that was based on his novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The book feels like something written by an intellectual slumming in genre fiction.   Bad things can happen when literary pretensions are added to basic thrillers. The dreadful Night Train by Martin Amis is a good example of a talented and serious writer underestimating the demands of popular fiction.  Something similar happens in The Limehouse Golem. The film begins with Dan Leno telling us that this particular story will begin at its end. This is more than a tedious affectation. It is incorrect because the film begins half way through its narrative. Not only do we have the slumming of Ackroyd but Jane Goldman, who confuses violence with horror, has also added her thick-eared sensibility to the script. Anachronisms are avoided, and the actors make an effort but the dialogue never feels like real conversation.   No one ever says ‘did you know that’ but there are too many moments of explanation and opinion.

The mystery element in the movie is basic, and that is being kind.   God help us if Theresa May sees the film. Despite rising crime rates in the UK, increased violence and the mysterious disappearance of policemen from British streets the Prime Minister remains convinced that the police force can withstand even more cuts in its budget. By 2020 the budget will have been reduced by £700m.  Without wishing to be fair to Theresa May, it has to be said that the police in The Limehouse Golem do dawdle.

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After seeing a scrawled phrase on a wall next to a Jack the Ripper style victim Inspector Kildare visits the reading room of the British Museum to check out the helpful reference left on the wall by the killer. Kildare finds a book on the original golem that happens to have across a couple of its pages a description of the recent murders. We can ignore that an awful lot has somehow been written in the margins of the pages. The book has been signed out of the Library by four people. All Inspector Kildare needs to do is check the handwriting of the four book borrowers and bingo he will have his killer. In a normal world the case would have been sorted by lunchtime and Kildare could have gone for a beer to celebrate. Instead the investigation is dragged out over several days and across various CGI assisted locations. Kildare and his assistant Constable George Flood even manage to somehow debate this nonsense as if it contains a complicated mystery.  Note that the names inspired by the supposedly fertile imagination of Peter Ackroyd are awful. Kildare is bad enough but a playwright who is also one of the four suspects is writing something called Misery Junction.   The idea is that the playwright lacks talent and misunderstands what qualifies as entertainment.   This is not subtle, and neither is the rest of the film.

Women are the victims in The Limehouse Golem or are supposed to be. There are two women in the movie who qualify as sadistic monsters, and none of the rest would you introduce to Mother. The heroes that do exist are both male, and the denouement buries the feminist concerns in less time than it takes Inspector Kildare to ask for a sample of handwriting.

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Nothing is suggested in The Limehouse Golem.  The themes that do exist are suppression of women, the relationship of existence to performance and our vicarious relationship to violence.  We do need drama and we spend too much time imagining our lives as the spectacle that they are clearly not. If all our work and effort is mainly performance then it has serious implications for what we think is ambition.   The Limehouse Golem has several references to Jack The Ripper and it suggests that his mayhem was soon transformed by our imaginations and desires into a continuing spectacle that has had little concern for the suffering of his five female victims.  All of this is interesting and valid but we only become aware of these ideas because someone is always on hand to tell us what to think.

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Peter Ackroyd lives in London and he likes the place. His non-fiction includes biographies of Dickens and other famous natives.   Most of the time Ackroyd is attracted to supposed genius but in Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem there is much about working class life in a music hall.  Ackroyd creates a sympathetic role for music hall star and comic Dan Leno. In the movie the music hall scenes are well staged but none equal what Hitchcock achieved on a small budget in The Thirty Nine Steps eighty years ago.   If the jokes by the performers in The Limehouse Golem are authentic, they are evidence that human beings have made more progress than we realised. If the jokes were created by Ackroyd and Goldman then they should be ashamed of themselves.   The fusion between the Jack The Ripper legend and the artistic ambition of music hall performers ensures that The Limehouse Golem is different.   But All About Eve combined with the savage slayings of a serial killer feels like a daft rather than an inspired idea, especially as the rivalry between the two women performers in The Limehouse Golem is thin cheese when compared to what happens in All About Eve.

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Elizabeth Cree and Aveline Ortega are the two female performers and rivals.   Aveline is a meaningless reference to Inspector Abbeline, the policeman who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders.  It is the kind of pun that can only be invented by the self-indulgent and self-regarding.  Actress Olivia Cooke plays the waif who wanders into the music hall and dreams of becoming a comic. The actress is fine and she has important moments including one in front of a mirror that has a real effect and helps us remember what Cree sought in the attention of an audience.   Cooke, though, does have to endure an awful lot of unbelievable silliness.  Bill Nighy plays Inspector Kildare. His remote style keeps him at a distance from the melodrama, and on two occasions he redeems previously bad dialogue. It feels like ad-libs from an actor who has more wit than the scriptwriters. Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan are reliable English actors and provide good cameos. The decision, though, to choose Douglas Booth to play Dan Leno is bizarre. Presumably someone in one of the many production companies who financed the film insisted upon a handsome male in the cast.   Booth is a tall man who has the bearing of someone who has had a private education. This may sound unfair but Booth looks like a toff.  He also has impressive cheekbones.  Dan Leno was a short plain man ravaged by alcohol.   His looks helped him play female caricatures.  Booth in drag looks absurd. A film is not obliged to attempt reality but neither can we be expected to ignore cynical disregard for what defines a key character, especially as Ackroyd is good at identifying important aspects of Leno. The comic had a charitable nature and aspired to be a serious actor.

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Alfred Hitchcock was criticised for including a lying flashback in his unexciting 1950 movie Stage Fright.   Because each of the suspects has to write down what Kildare found in the book in the Library, there are four flashbacks that refer to murders. Each of these untrue flashbacks is defined by violent gore. For those who want a definition of gratuitous violence it does not get much better or more stupid than this.   Anyone who remains engaged after such repetition deserves credit for staying the course. One of the book borrowers is Karl Marx, so he becomes one of the suspects.   Not sure why but there is something very unsettling in seeing a key architect of left wing thinking decapitate a London prostitute.  No doubt it will make many smile but there is no need for ideological objections for it to feel like adolescent humour.

The episode with George Gissing is better but that becomes less interesting when the violence begins. Kildare, though, appears to have time to waste and he listens with patience.  Although Bill Nighy is watchable as Inspector Kildare he is too old for the role. But with all those cuts in the numbers of British police that Theresa May has demanded Kildare may have a future as an unpaid pensioner volunteer.   Efficiency targets will mean he will need to move at a faster pace than he does in The Limehouse Golem but from what we hear there are some desperate Chief Constables out there.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.