Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Man in the Attic (1953)

Man in the Attic was the fourth film adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1912 Jack the Ripper novel The Lodger. It was the first film from a company called Panoramic Productions and was distributed by 20th Century-Fox.

A rather young Jack Palance (he was 34 at the time) plays a pathologist named Slade who rents rooms in the home of William and Helen Harley (played respectively by Rhys Williams and Frances Bavier). Also living in the house is Harley’s niece Lily Bonner (Constance Smith), a rising musical comedy star.

This is London in late Victorian times and the city is in the grip of the Jack the Ripper panic. Helen Harley has her suspicions about the new lodger. He seems harmless enough but a bit withdrawn and he does seem to spend quite a bit of time wandering the streets at night, carrying a small black bag. And the Ripper has been seen carrying a similar small black bag.

Slade also seems to be less than fond of actresses. Actresses are the favourite victim of the fiendish Whitechapel murderer (in reality he killed prostitutes but the movie prefers to avoid too much sleaziness). The suspicions against him steadily grow although Lily refuses to believe them and seems rather attracted to Slade’s shyness and apparent vulnerability (he tells her he’s been forced to move constantly because he’s different and he makes people uneasy).

Although viewers are going to be inclined to share Helen Harley’s suspicions of Slade and to be a bit concerned about Lily’s wisdom in getting emotionally entangled with such an  unsettling character the evidence pointing in his direction is purely circumstantial. In fact we’re invited to share the view of both William Harley and Lily that Slade is being victimised for being socially awkward and unconventional. He might really be a harmless oddball. Meanwhile the tally of the Ripper’s victims mounts and Scotland Yard seems to be getting no closer to finding the killer.

While the movie is coy about the profession of the Ripper’s victims the sexual aspects of the crimes are made obvious enough. 

The screenplay tries to provide the necessary motivation for Slade’s antipathy towards actresses by linking it to his childhood and to his troubled relationship with his beautiful  actress mother who drove his father to self-destruction and ended her own life as a prostitute (which perhaps surprisingly is made quite explicit).

The numerous scenes of Lily performing onstage, apart from adding glamour and visual interest, do contribute to the story by helping to elucidate Slade’s ambivalent attitudes. He is attracted by the beauty and glamour but repulsed by what he believes to be the deception and corruption under the surface.

Jack Palance’s performance is the big surprise. Palance was a notorious (and often embarrassing) scenery-chewer but this is a very low-key performance. And it’s all the more effective for Palance’s willingness to go for a subtle approach.

Palance is the only big name here. The supporting cast can best be described as perfectly adequate. Constance Smith brings the necessary glamour to her role, Rhys Williams and Frances Bavier add some mild comic relief which thankfully is not overdone. Byron Palmer, who was never able to get further in Hollywood than second leads despite having leading man looks, is quite good as the determined Scotland Yard detective who falls for Lily Bonner.

The movie was shot at least partly at the old Ince studio in Culver City. It certainly has the look of a film shot shot entirely in the studio and on the backlot, which can be an advantage in this type of film since it adds to the paranoid mood. Use was made of some impressive sets originally constructed for Orson Welles’ ill-fated The Magnificent Ambersons. On the whole it’s a pretty good-looking movie. As you’d expect there’s lots of fog and lots of suitably sinister night scenes.

Argentine-born director Hugo Fregonese spent his entire career making low-budget movies in various countries. His work here is solid if not exactly inspired.

The script apparently borrowed generously from the 1944 version of The Lodger. Very generously indeed.

This movie has fallen into the public domain so some of the various DVD releases are of pretty dubious quality. Fox’s Midnite Movies release is definitely the one to go for since it pairs Man in the Attic with an excellent noirish crime thriller, A Blueprint for Murder. The transfer for Man in the Attic is very good. You might be disappointed that the only extras are a trailer and a photo gallery but it’s a bonus to get any extras at all on a Midnite Movies release. And the photo gallery is huge and includes publicity materials that do offer a few snippets of background information. Overall this Midnite Movies two-DVD pack is a very good buy indeed. 

While it might have been questionable whether a remake that borrowed so heavily from the very good 1944 version was really necessary Man in the Attic is a decent enough suspense chiller with some gothic horror atmosphere and a surprisingly good performance by Palance. It doesn’t add any significant new insights but it’s worth a look, especially given the ridiculously low price of the excellent Midnite Movies double-movie pack. 

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