Chilling Classics Cthursday: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

Chilling Classics Cthursday: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

They say that the only constant is change, so I'm starting with the man in the attic. I'm asking him to change his ways. No message could've been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and don't be Jack the Ripper!

Yes, dear reader, Man in the Attic is indeed an adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes's groundbreaking 1913 novel The Lodger, the first fictionalized take on the 1888 murders in Whitechapel and the Ripper himself. It's rather classy as far as Chilling Classics go, and were it not for the shadows cast by previous adaptations I dare say it might have garnered a bit more attention over the years.

You're probably familiar with the tale by now: When several murdered women are found nearby, a couple begins to suspect that their recently-arrived lodger may indeed be Jack the Ripper. 

But is he? The lodger has some dubious quirks to be sure, but they're all explained away--sometimes even plausibly. Sure, he goes out late at night to "do work." But that's when things are quiet! Yes, he fits the description of the Ripper, what with his small black bag and Ulster and all. But doesn't every man have a small black bag and an Ulster? He has a habit of burning things at odd hours, like pieces of clothing that seem to have blood all over them. But he's a pathologist who does experiments! It's all business as usual.

But is it? Of course not! The lodger is played by Jack Palance in one of the busiest years of his nascent career. He's cutting up people with his magnificent cheekbones.

Palance, of course, had a long and storied filmography and earned his place in Valhalla with his legendary speech and one-armed push-ups after winning the Oscar for City Slickers. There's always something vaguely sinister and potentially unhinged lurking just beneath the surface of a Palance performance, no matter the genre he was working in. He could make Dracula both sympathetic and intimidating, and he could make ostensible family fare like Ripley's Believe It or Not! inexplicably terrifying. (Or was that just me?) This vibe is prevalent even in his earliest roles, including one of my faves, opposite Joan Crawford in the 1952 noir thriller Sudden Fear. If you've never seen it, well, you have some homework to do. It's stylish as all get out and Crawford is terrific, giving one of her career-best performances, while Palance exudes both mance and charm. 

This quality is why he's perfect for Man in the Attic, a film that wants to leave you questioning  the truth about the lodger Slade until you can't question no more. From the moment he arrives on the Harleys' doorstep, you might be as suspicious as the missus...

But as his fumbling romance with Lily, an actress and the Harleys' niece, progresses, you might see him as she does: an awkward, shy, and inexperienced young man who needs a woman to take a chance on him.

But then it's not long before he's talking about his harlot mother and sweating everywhere and you're like yeah, no, he definitely hates and murders women.

It's rather interesting to see the sort of game of telephone that's occurred over the course of each filmic adaptation of Lowndes's novel--not only how far each may or may not stray from the source material, but how much changes are passed from movie to movie, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Studio interference added the love story and dictated that the film's popular star, Ivor Novello, must be proven an unequivocally innocent lodger by the picture's end. In a (sadly) less shocking change, Hitchcock made it a point that the killer purposefully targeted blonde women.

In the 1944 film The Lodger, the victims are no longer prostitutes but actresses, a profession against which the lodger harbors long-standing grudges.

Man in the Attic hews closest to the 1944 iteration, but holds on to some of the proto-feminist and political aspects of Lowndes's work. 

We don't see the women get murdered, nor the aftermath of it. Instead, we watch as they react to their approaching killer. One striking sequence employs an actual POV shot as the Ripper closes in; the execution is a bit clunky given the era, but it was wholly unexpected and cool as heck. The victims throughout Man in the Attic aren't afforded intricate stories or a surplus of development to be certain, but they're all unique and each gets her moment to shine. That can still feel like a novelty in the more slasher-end of the horror spectrum, never mind in media that dips into true crime territory. But it was an unheard-of hallmark of Lowndes's novel, so it's fantastic to see it here, where one might expect the full focus to be on one of history's most notorious serial killers. 

It's also a reminder to me that I really ought to read Hallie Rubenhold's lauded The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (it's been on my library to-read list since it was published in 2020), but I know I'll probably keep putting it off because I just know it'll be depressing.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Mrs Harley (or Bunting in the novel), she who suspects Slade from the start and puts all the pieces together long before Scotland Yard does (although to be fair, Scotland Yard was busy chasing down every one of Queen Victoria's bonkers mandates: It couldn't have been a married man, investigate every bachelor! It couldn't have been an Englishman, investigate every foreigner!). She's shut down at every turn by her exasperated husband, but, you know, nevertheless she persisted. Even better, the comedic banter and bickering between the Harleys is one of the best things about the movie.

And then and then, there is their niece Lily, who shares a kind, wonderful, sad scene with a former actress fallen on hard times, who is moments away from being the Ripper's next victim. It shows what Lily's all about, it humanizes a woman who could have been a throwaway horror thrill, and it encapsulates what sets Man in the Attic apart from your standard serial killer fare.

Sure, Lily makes too many concessions for Slade's behavior because she's got hearts in her eyes. But when push comes to shove and sweaty Slade is like "Quit your job and run away with me so we can be alone together" she refuses because hey, she loves being an actress and she's got stuff she wants to do. If this kind of attitude still felt revolutionary with Olivia Hussey as Black Christmas's Jess in 1974, imagine how revolutionary it felt in a 1953 that is supposed to be 1888. Go on, imagine it! I'll wait.

Ain't it grand? Even better, we get to see Lily do her thing in a full number--like, a full number that takes up a not-insignificant amount of screentime--and another number that quite literally triggers Slade with its can-can action.

To be honest, I mightn't have ever seen this film were it not for this wild Cthursday endeavor. Despite the Jack Palance of it all, I could see myself thinking "oh great, another Jack the Ripper movie" but I'm sure glad I saw it. Perhaps it doesn't have the style and technique of Hitchcock's The Lodger, but Man in the Attic director Hugo Fregonese did just fine, thank you, from the evocative, wet and foggy Whitechapel streets and alleys to the rather thrilling carriage chase during the film's climax. And it may not have the star power of Merle Oberon and George Sanders in the 1944 movie, but Jack Palance already had IT and the supporting cast is engaging as well. (Shout out again to the Harleys!)

Well, here we are, halfway through the Mill Creek Chilling Classics 50-pack. They sure grow up so fast, don't they? And hey, Man in the Attic marks three weeks in a row that Chilling Classics Cthursday has given me something surprisingly...really good. Surely that streak will continue and continue for the next 25 installments, right?!