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Reviewed by Will Harris
he saga of Jack the Ripper, that unnamed killer who was the scourge of London’s East End in 1888, has surely received as many treatments in film and on television as any true-crime story this side of Charles Manson. But although some have been better and some have been worse, there’s a certain sentimental attachment to the production which was done in approximate conjunction with the centennial of the murders.
Aired on CBS in the United States, “Jack the Ripper” might never have seen air in this country had the people in charge of casting the two-part miniseries not made the last minute decision – seriously, they’d already begun filming – to spend the extra money and hire a lead actor who would qualify as a “name” in America. They succeeded in spades, though, that’s for sure: at the time, Michael Caine hadn’t done any television work in almost two decades (you can pretty well time it to the success of “The Italian Job”), so he was definitely a significant “get” for the production.
Co-written by David Wickes (who also directed) and Derek Marlowe, “Jack the Ripper” focuses on the Scotland Yard investigation of the so-called Terror of Whitechapel by Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline (Caine), who’s painted as having been a considerable alcoholic prior to being assigned the case. He wages his battle with the bottle throughout the course of the miniseries, pulling his whiskey out of his desk and placing it back in again, but we’re given the impression that his general annoyance with the press and their painting of the police as incompetents is the reason for his sudden change in habit. (Certainly it wouldn’t be anything as simple as, say, plot convenience.) Abberline’s investigation, which he does in conjunction with Sgt. George Godley (Lewis Collins), takes him through all the various theories posited at the time, from Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), an actor whose performance in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is so profound that locals believe that he must truly be a madman, to Robert Lees (Ken Bones), a purported psychic whose predictions could just as easily be the work of the person actually committing the murders.
When “Jack the Ripper” first premiered, Wickes made the boast that his miniseries would reveal the true identity of the killer for the first time ever, and although he eventually backpedaled on this claim (and wisely so, since it wasn’t actually true), he did produce a highly enjoyable exploration into the murders which touched on the majority of the popular theories about who the responsible party truly was. At 188 minutes, it’s a bit too long, which is a fault shared by just about every miniseries of the day, but it captures the look of 19th century London – both the costuming and the scenery – better than any production up to that point. And the combination of the relatively quick pacing and Caine’s performance make it a must-see for anyone who enjoys a good unsolved mystery.
Special Features: None. While this isn’t surprising for a Warner Archive release, it’s nonetheless disappointing. It was probably too much to hope for that David Wickes would’ve done an audio commentary, but given that there were reportedly several endings filmed for the miniseries, it would’ve been nice to see them.