London, 1888. Jack the Ripper terrorizes Whitechapel by night, always one step ahead of the police. Amidst these grisly crimes chatty landlady Helen Harley (Francis Bavier) welcomes a new lodger: jittery pathologist Mr. Slade (Jack Palance) who carries a suspicious bag and only goes out to work after dark. At first Helen's suspicions are scoffed at by husband William (Rhys Williams) and debonair Inspector Warwick (Byron Palmer) of Scotland Yard. Yet everyone grows concerned when the Harley's newly-arrived niece Lily Bonner (Constance Smith), a vivacious young actress, catches Slade's eye...
Man in the Attic was based on the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, a fictionalized account of the Ripper murders adapted for the screen several times. Most notably by Alfred Hitchcock for his breakthrough silent film in 1927, then again by Maurice Elvey in 1932, John Brahm in the best known Hollywood version in 1944, and most recently David Ondaatje in 2009. This 1953 version is a glossy atmospheric B-movie released by Twentieth Century Fox and directed by versatile journeyman Hugo Fregonese. The Argentinean-born filmmaker dabbled in crime thrillers and westerns, including the likable Joel McCrea vehicle Saddle Tramp (1950) and Blowing Wild (1953) a team-up of Gary Cooper with Barbara Stanwyck. In the Sixties he decamped to Europe helming a string of Karl May westerns and co-directing The Devilish Dr. Mabuse (1964) before delivering one of his strangest films: the Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina) werewolf romp Assignment Terror (1970). Come the Seventies, Fregonese returned to his native Argentina ending his career with a run of melodramas.
Compared with earlier films its grasp of a fog shrouded Victorian milieu filled with chatty police constables and brassy but doomed streetwalkers is almost charmingly corny. On top of that Fregonese intersperses the murder sequences and psychological drama with silly (but still fun) musical numbers featuring Lily and her ooh-la-la band of French showgirls flirting it up onstage in racy, if unlikely given the period, attire. Missing from the film is all but the faintest hint of satirical indictment of Victorian bourgeois hypocrisy along with any tangible attempt at suspense.
Things get off to a solid start as amiable constables Sean McClory and Leslie Bradley arrive too late to prevent the Ripper from claiming his third victim. However Jack Palance's saturnine features, nervous tics and manic intensity instantly mark him as guilty. The script, co-written by Barré Lyndon and Robert Presnell Jr., stacks the deck so heavily against Slade modern viewers will be expecting a twist that simply does not happen. To its credit the film foreshadows a plot conceit developed more substantially in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) and Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (2002), both adapted from the same novel by Thomas Harris. Motivated by the love of a good woman the murderer has a fleeting glimpse of his own dormant humanity and makes a halfhearted attempt at embracing a normal relationship. Yet the script also grafts a pat psychological rationale for the Ripper's aberrant behaviour that is very 1950s.
Both Palance and Constance Smith (a talented yet tragically ill-fated actress) are very good in their roles but Man in the Attic is sorely lacking in nuance. It merely confirms the paranoia and mistrust built into its Victorian protagonists. Interestingly although Helen Harley remains consistent in her polite mistrust and suspicion of Slade, her attitude towards the sexually liberated Lily and showgirls is disarmingly progressive. Nonetheless the film makes a point of portraying its heroines as flighty, over-emotional and prone to lapses in judgement (including Queen Victoria who is mentioned off-screen as believing the murderer could not possibly be married nor an Englishman) while the male characters remain rational and sane. Which inadvertently endorses a disdain for women shared by Jack the Ripper. And that ain't good.