Released by 20th Century Fox, this is a standard mystery thriller based on the Jack the Ripper tale. Fox had previously filmed Marie Lowndes’ novel in 1944 with the original title intact, THE LODGER (which we’ve already reviewed).
Key changes from the 1944 version– Daisy/Kitty is now called Lily. She is still the landlady’s niece and still a showgirl. The landlords’ last name is no longer Bonting; it is now Harley. The scriptwriters have added a dog that looks like Lassie. The dog’s scenes with Slade give us a new way to perceive him. Another important change is that the sets are smaller, conveying a sense of intimacy. The lodger’s rented room and the attic where he does his experiments are appropriately claustrophobic.
The greatest improvement is the casting of Jack Palance as Slade. In my opinion, he’s the real reason to watch this version. He exudes the right combination of masculinity and menace. We are drawn to him and frightened by him at the same time, which is how it should be for the story to work. That was not the case with Ivor Novello or Laird Cregar.
Something about this version seems brutally honest to me. Maybe it seems honest because of Palance’s performance. Other actors might chew the scenery, and in fact Palance does chew the scenery in some of his films. But not here. He brings us into the world of a demented man in a very sympathetic sort of way. We see the intense struggle he is having within himself.
At one point when he convulses after a killing and is comforted by dance hall girl Lily (Constance Smith), he appears quite broken and pitiable. He’s a man who knows what he is doing but cannot stop himself. In fact, Palance is so effective in these scenes, we want to believe he could change if someone just reached into his soul and saved him.
Palance also shows us the coldness of the character. There are suggestions he is a religious man, since he reads a bible left in his room. But in his mind, there is nothing holy about women who shamelessly flaunt themselves at men. They must be punished. We are told this stems from the fact that his mother had been a showgirl, and she chose her career over caring for him. He’s experiencing a Freudian complex and compares “sinful” women to his mother. I think this explanation makes a lot more sense for the killings than having Slade avenge a sister’s death or a brother’s demise.
Another way we see Slade’s coldness is when he stops being kind to the Harley family dog. Suddenly the animal is afraid of him– implying that off-screen Slade had abused it in a fit of rage. We are given a fascinating and honest performance of a man with demons.
Re: the landlords. Frances Bavier (who retains her American accent) and Rhys Williams (with his Welsh accent) play the couple who let a room to Slade. Initially, she is a doting landlady trying to make her new boarder feel at home; while the husband is put-off about bringing a stranger into their home. But half an hour into the film, they’ve reversed themselves. She is suspicious that the guy is Jack the Ripper; but the husband explains several coincidences and gives the man in the attic the benefit of the doubt. It’s interesting how these characters change their perspective on someone they think they know, when they do not know much about Slade at all. Instead of flat representations, we have fully dimensional characters whose own fears and beliefs add to the complex layers of the story.
Since it’s a modestly budgeted programmer, the producers do not drag things out. The story runs around 73 minutes, and the scenes are concise with forward momentum. Occasionally, the plot slows down for a brief musical interlude at the dance hall, or when we see Slade’s softer side playing the piano. But mostly, the action builds and the film doesn’t waste time.
The director wisely shoots the Fox back lot from different angles to make it seem like there are more streets and outdoor sets than there probably are. The period detail inside the main set, the couple’s house, is attended with care but not great opulence. Ironically, it’s a very cozy looking picture, despite its very unsettling theme.
The finale in this 1953 production differs from the 1944 version. Instead of having Slade chased backstage, he takes off in a horse-driven carriage. There’s a nicely filmed action sequence where the police inspector (Byron Palmer) and his men pursue Slade down the city’s streets. It all reaches a dramatic conclusion at the canal. The ending doesn’t show Slade’s capture or even his death. It’s left open as to whether he has drowned in the canal; or if he is swimming underneath to some darker place within his soul.
MAN IN THE ATTIC was directed by Hugo Fregonese and may currently be viewed on YouTube.