London in the time of Jack the Ripper is a paranoid place. Anxieties are high for most. The cops are on high alert, doing their best to protect potential victims — patrolling the streets at all hours, walking people home, attempting to work out the puzzle of the Ripper’s identity.
Among the fearful is Helen Harley (Frances Bavier). She and her husband, in need of a bit of extra money, have opened up their home to lodgers. The latest arrival is a pathologist (Jack Palance), conducting mysterious research in their attic.
As time passes, Helen becomes increasingly suspicious of the scientist, coming to believe that he may be Jack the Ripper. Her fears only grow worse when her niece Lily (Constance Smith) strikes up a friendship with the man.
Man in the Attic was directed by Hugo Fregonese. It is based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger, which also spawned four other film adaptations, including one by Alfred Hitchcock.
The first thing that struck me about this film was its use of that famous “London fog.” It’s everywhere, clouding the picture as police conduct their nightly patrols. This adds a great sense of eerieness to the already-moody photography of the street scenes.
The Harley home is decidedly less spooky than the fog-heavy paths that cut through the city, but you wouldn’t know it based on Helen’s behavior. Frances Bavier gives a nice performance in the role of the landlady. Her husband, portrayed by Rhys Williams, is her exact opposite and thinks she’s lost her mind in suspecting the scientist. This leaves the viewer unsure of whose side to take — a very effective contrast between logic and fear.
As the film moves along, patologist Slade becomes fishier and fishier. This brings a real sense of danger to the film as his relationship with Lily grows alongside the plausibility of Helen’s theory on the Ripper. The fact that Lily is a showgirl, the exact type of person Jack would choose for a victim, makes the audience fear for her even more.
In addition to Bavier’s strong performance, Jack Palance was a great choice for the role of the suspicious pathologist. He comes off very mysterious and somewhat strange. “He’s so odd, isn’t he?,” asks Helen… and even if the viewer disagrees with her idea that he’s the Ripper early on, they’d have to answer her question with an affirmative nod.
The journey through fear, murder, and fog wraps up in a climactic chase scene. A very exciting ending to a wholly enjoyable mystery flick. I would recommend Man in the Attic, especially if you’re the type of viewer who can enjoy it on its own, without forcing comparison to earlier, more well-known versions of The Lodger‘s tale.