I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was –

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– despite the recent news stories announcing that his DNA has been identified.

Read a little closer and that story sounds extremely unlikely. A “shawl” (in reality a piece of material 8ft by 2ft, seemingly designed as a table runner) has been claimed, via a runs-in-the-family bit of lore, to have been taken from a murder scene, some guy buys it, he decides he thinks he knows who the Ripper was, he tests for that guy’s DNA using a direct matrilineal descendent, and to his joy, one imagines, his tame DNA expert makes a positive match. Turns out the shawl has bloodstains traceable to a victim (or at any rate her matrilineal descendent) and sperm cells traceable to the suspect (or his m.d.)

The trouble with all this, apart from its stupefying convenience, is that we have a complete record of the victim’s possessions, and the shawl wasn’t there. Also, the story of how the shawl came to be in the keeping of the policeman’s family is highly improbable. And we have a list of the policemen’s postings in London, and he wasn’t at the crime scene. What good is finding DNA from both suspect and victim on an object that has no relationship to their story?

Of course The Daily Mail loves this story because they can print that JTR was “a Polish lunatic.” In fact, Aaron Kosminski, the named suspect, isn’t the least plausible figure put forward for the role — I mean, he wasn’t royalty, or gay, or an eminent surgeon, or a famous painter, or any of the other things that might attract a writer to claiming his for the killer but in fact make him highly unlikely to be the guy. Kosminski was locked up for being hopelessly mad a couple of years after the killings, so there’s nothing that REALLY explains why the murders stopped, but he lived in the area, as the killer undoubtedly did, and he was apparently schizophrenic, as some serial killers of this kind apparently have been. As a Jew, he does seem a less likely fit for leaving antisemitic graffiti near one of his crime scenes, but anything’s possible.

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Of course, the really interesting thing about JACK THE RIPPER is that he was never caught and cannot be positively identified. But the scholarly books laying out the often-distorted facts of the case probably don’t sell as well as the ludicrous theory books, and so the script Fiona & I wrote, JACK AND THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY, might present difficulties since we don’t say precisely who the killer is. It seems people are attracted to the unsolved case most when somebody offers a solution. It’s weird to me when I see the 1976 JACK THE RIPPER by Jess Franco or the 1959 one from Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, in which the Ripper is safely apprehended by the authorities (in the 50s version, not so much apprehended as flattened by a nearly anachronistic elevator) which not only didn’t happen, but is practically the one thing everybody knows didn’t happen. (Also, note the hilariously prominent modern window frame in my top image.)

Historically, the movies are all ridiculous. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic From Hell is compelling, despite being based on a ludicrous conspiracy theory, but the movie made from it dispensed with historical accuracy immediately — the casting wrecked it before you even saw it. The worst aspect is detective Johnny Depp taking opium and having psychic visions (because that’s what opium does), none of which tell him who the killer is and so all of which are a complete waste of screen time.

The real case is so horrible that no movie intended as mere entertainment can get into the reality, and even a trace of it, whether the movie be A STUDY IN TERROR or DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE can sour the fun. The actual events, with homeless alcoholics as victims, grotesque mutilation of corpses, no picturesque gaslit fog, and a lot of confused and misguided bumbling by the authorities, is not really the stuff of an enjoyable detective or horror story. It’s several degrees darker than SE7EN.

Of course, Fiona and I cracked all those problems, but we would say that, wouldn’t we?

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26 Responses to “I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was –”

  1. The interesting thing about Jack The Ripper is that he was never caught, so he can become a metaphor and stand-in for any social issue. While I don’t think many Jack The Ripper films have gotten into this too deeply (aside from From Hell, and the graphic novel is better), in film terms I look towards Zodiac as the ultimate exploration of what happens when a muderer becomes an icon that it is more valuable to keep as an icon that actually catch.

    Also look at Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam which is another film much more about tensions in a society and atmosphere surrounding a murder than the killer himself. In fact, doesn’t the discovery of the real Son of Sam cause the fantastical paranoias of the rest of the characters to collapse into shame-faced realisation of what they have become?

  2. Also, I would recommend checking out the 1960s mondo movie Primitive London (out on a great looking Blu-ray from the BFI) that in one sequence for no reason at all goes into a recreation of the Jack The Ripper murders, with foggy streets and an actress playing a cockney prostitute who is obviously put on a treadmill, as she is running and looking around in fear while getting absolutely nowhere at all!

    This murder then moves into a bizarre sequence showing bodies lying around staged in back alleys of modern London, with the suggestion that it is just one of many unsolved crimes. But this sequence’s position inside a ‘documentary’ about London life just makes it seem like a bizarre tourist board piece: “Come to London and see all the dead women in back alleys!”

  3. Final comment: Out of all the theories on Jack The Ripper’s identity, I subscribe to this one:

    (From: Amazon Women On The Moon)

  4. I quite like the comedy theories, which have a genuine satirical purpose however loopy they are. Nessie isn’t really much more improbably than the Queen’s surgeon.

    Fiona got interested in the case in 1988 when the centenary of the murders led to an obscene atmosphere of celebration. It’s like the Screaming Lord Sutch song, Jack the Ripper, he’s a weird sort of cult figure hinting at something very sinister in the popular imagination.

    I really liked the sound of Summer of Sam, it dealt with the same kind of atmosphere of paranoia we were interested in — and then I really hated what Spike Lee did with it. He didn’t seem able to take it seriously, which was very odd. I would have to guess that he didn’t relate to the social issues in this particular story, but he seemed weirdly disengaged and as usual his homages were curiously meaningless. I thought at first the protests from the families of victims were overdone, but the film actually DID seem rather disrespectful.

  5. I think Moore made it clear that he doesn’t really think William Gull is really the bad guy. I mean it’s clear from the book itself and especially the coda “The Dance of the Gull-Catchers” where he compares Ripperology to a Koch Snowflake – where a finite location in time and space can have infinite fractal curves without leaving the space or changing the order of events.

    I think it offends people on a personal level that some crimes, especially ones closer to modern era with all our invasive surveillance and forensics, go unsolved. I mean I understand that but its part of life. When ZODIAC by Fincher came out, many people took Jake Gyllenhall’s investigation of that suspect seriously and believed he really was the culprit when the film is highly ambiguous and skeptical and Gyllenhall’s character is clearly shown as a kind of creep. The film is about that murder investigation going unsolved and remaining unsolved.

  6. I like Zodiac best of all serial killer movies, since M — the killer’s absence makes it all the more alarming and I think it gets to the root of what’s disturbing about these unsolved cases. And it is properly sympathetic to the victims, which is pretty much a requirement of mine.

  7. It’s also fascinating because it takes place before the internet and cell phones were invented. As a result Jake is constantly running to the library and making calls from phone booths.

  8. “KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS

    President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles”

    — The Onion

    The ultimate in iconic unsolved murder cases, and the template for how people respond to them, is the Kennedy assassination. This is true even if you think the crime WAS solved 50 years ago: Oswald acted alone and Ruby was an angry dope who got lucky. Even if seemingly irrefutable evidence now emerged that either proved the Warren Report conclusions or one of the many competing theories, it would get swirled into the mess and become just one more theory. By now now there’s not only an ideological interest behind each theory, but there’s also an ideological interest behind a kind of pathological skepticism that’s the flip side of pathological credulity. You see this in the instant generation of “truther” movements about every damn thing that happens. As any clued-in non-dupe knows, the Newtown shootings both didn’t occur and were masterminded by Mossad. And Hillary.

  9. The reading of Lee Harvey Oswald that SEEMS to make sense is that he was created as a patsy, given a backstory involving the Cuban communists and anti-communists and the USSR and the army, just so he could be thrown in to muddle a situation and prevent anyone figuring out who was behind it. But it’s also possible that he just didn’t make any sense as a person anyway — I know lots of people who don’t make sense.

    At any rate, the effect is a very modern one, where rather than covering up the truth, it can be said to be hidden in plain view alongside a dizzying array of counter-truths. And now the internet makes such a multiple-choice view of history ubiquitous.

  10. In that reading, JFK conspiracy theories are the product of the conspiracy. I like it!

  11. For me Oswald killing Kennedy is the real horrific aspect of it. If you read about it, Kennedy’s motorcade had only been released in the papers a few weeks before it happened. Oswald saw that it passed right out of the place he was working. He tried to assassinate a governor earlier and failed. The cruel joke of the killing is that it was an instance where the target went to the Assassin rather than the other way around. It’s how arbitrary life is, there are a million different stories out there and in a public spectacle like a motorcade, anyone of them can pull a trigger and tear the mask off society. That must be why people cling to these easily disprovable conspiracy theories.

  12. “Anyone can kill anyone — even the president — remember?” is a line I recall from Larry Cohen’s Best Seller. And of course it’s scary to think history can be derailed so easily.

    The conspiracy theories being part of the conspiracy would be in keeping with the CIA’s use of “useful idiots” — people who are working for the CIA but don’t know it. Are we all useful idiots now?

  13. There’s the possibility of a nice, well-intentioned JFK conspiracy. Regardless of the truth, Oswald’s Russian connections would have got people talking about a KGB assassination, which might have led to nuclear war. So beyond favouring a lone nut explanation, the authorities might actively encourage crazy theories.

  14. The only Ripper movies I know are the scifi riff “Time After Time” and the two Sherlockian epics: “Study in Terror” and “Murder by Decree.”

    “Time After Time” is unapologetic fantasy: The Ripper is a friend of H.G. Wells, and they both jump into the future with his functional time machine. There, the central joke is the futurist’s difficulties in adapting while the psychopath fits right in. It goes so far as to assert the modern-day heroine became Wells’s Victorian-era wife. As cute as a movie about a serial killer can be.

    Enjoyed “Study in Terror”; it likewise scaled history and horror down for its purposes, which were to create an above-average Sherlock Holmes film. Interesting side note: The cousins who wrote the Ellery Queen novels (and used the character’s name as their joint pen name) did the novelization of the movie. They added a framing story of present day Ellery Queen receiving a manuscript and trying to determine its source and accuracy. In the end he comes up with a different killer than the movie, having deduced that Holmes deceived Watson when recounting the last details.

    “Murder by Decree”, despite Christopher Plummer and James Mason, was a self-righteously courageous if belated stand against Victorian hypocrisy (print ads had not review quotes, but a long spoiler-packed blurb asserting this was the proven factual solution). Would have liked to see Plummer and Mason in a genuine Holmes case instead of this.

  15. All films with pleasing casts — particularly nice to see Malcolm McDowell as Wells playing sweet for once, and David Warner makes a great, archetypal (ie inaccurate) Ripper.

    John Neville and Donald Houston make a pleasing, if lightweight duo. The 60s dollybirds and Hammer-isms and wah-wah guitar are distracting, though. Edina Ronay’s murder is played like a sexual fantasy.

    I particularly loved James Mason as Watson. The big problem with Murder by Decree is that it asserts that Holmes and Watson would collude in a foul cover-up for the sake of queen and country. You can’t do that with your heroes, which I guess is why the ending of From Hell was changed, in defliance of history, to give a major character an early death — but it was a pathetic solution, since his death just happened at random, instead of coming out of the story.

    The problem of detective stories — the fact that detectives are rarely in jeopardy — is accentuated when you try to insert a fictional detective into a well-documented real case. That’s one thing Fiona and I DID solve…

  16. David Boxwell Says:

    I like to think Jack the Ripper looked exactly like Laird Cregar.

  17. Or the guy in Pandora’s Box. but I suspect not.

  18. Oswald did it and he acted alone. PERIOD.

  19. And he was Jack the Ripper. That’d be one I haven’t heard.

    Jack and to the left, Jack and to the left…

  20. ExperimentoFilm Says:

    The phrase “a Polish lunatic” should always be followed by a close-up of Klaus Kinski.

    You can’t beat a Patrick Allen AND Michael Jayston double-whammy narration intro though.

  21. There’s a great scene in Time After Time in which Jack The Ripper is tracked down to his motel room by H.G. Wells and shows Wells all of the violence going on in the world channel surfing on the TV set, ending by saying something to the effect of “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Now I’m an amateur!”

  22. Warner: “I’ve come home!”

    Ah, Michael Jayston. There’s not enough said about him.

  23. Kick-ass Peter Guillam.

  24. Really strange that Nicholas and Alexandra isn’t great — I like Schaffner, and it has Jayston, Tom Baker, and the alluring Candace Glendenning.

  25. “When ZODIAC by Fincher came out, many people took Jake Gyllenhall’s investigation of that suspect seriously”

    As well they should have, despite his character’s “creepiness” and whatever ambiguity and skepticism Fincher and the screenwriter James Vanderbilt put in the script.

    Arthur Leigh Allen is by a large margin the most likely candidate, as this site exhaustively shows:

    http://www.zodiackiller.com/AllenFile.html

    I’m interested in the case because my family had lived in Northern California near where some of the murders had taken place.

  26. The Zodiac was extremely different from JTR, since he evidently did leave clues and communicate with the police. It is widely believed now that all the Jack the Ripper letters were fakes. The FBI have looked at the JTR case and believe him to have been unsophisticated and disorganized.

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