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Many things may have changed in London’s Whitechapel district but world-wide fascination with the macabre murders of a serial killer known only by the self-appointed nom de guerre Jack The Ripper remains undimmed even after 115 years.

Claim and counter-claim as to the identity of the grievous criminal with a passion for East End prostitutes has been applied, endorsed, ridiculed or refuted ever since the killing suddenly stopped, seemingly without rhyme nor reason. In this lies the attraction for crackpot conspiracy theorist and clinical criminologist alike as anybody who fancies a spot of sleuthing can turn his or her hand to trying to solve the mystery.

In turn, this central mystery has proved a goldmine for dramatists in different branches of the arts with endless opportunities to fashion the few known facts into any exhibition form they so wish. Thus, from the ‘Penny Dreadful’ publications of the Victorian era to stage, silver screen and now small screen Jack has enthralled generation after generation which brings us to David Wickes’ 1988 TV miniseries adaptation.

The ale house rules for Inspector Abbeline...
Inspector Frederick Abbeline (Michael Caine) is a very good detective but a very bad drinker. Awoken one morning in a cell by his dogged deputy George Godley (Lewis Collins), it soon becomes clear that his latest case is more urgent than most; the country’s political machinery immediately starts putting pressure on the police force for a swift resolution to what initially appears to be the routine murder of a Whitechapel prostitute.

As Abbeline quickly surmises, “the victim is not important so the killer must be” and indeed the question of class rapidly rears its ugly head. Abbeline’s immediate superior is of the same East End stock and gives him a certain latitude to operate effectively among his own sort but the Commissioner (Hugh Fraser) presses for results at the behest of the supposed great and good in the government.

Upon examining the initial victim, Abbeline is convinced that this is no ordinary killing, more of a surgical execution. Applying his easily established unconventional methods, Abbeline becomes involved with the Queen’s personal psychic who bafflingly bades him to look for a man “with two faces, one atop the other”. Such a line of enquiry leads Abbeline to sociopath American actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante) and then into tricky territory with former flame Emma Prentice (Jane Seymour).

As the murders mount with the now most familiar facets of the activities being made public (the letters to the London news agency, the precision of the injuries inflicted, evidence of the anti-Semitic chalk inscription destroyed for fear of inciting racial conflict) agitation amongst the pitifully poor residents is stirred up by a young reporter zealous for the next scoop and Socialist radical George Lusk (Michael Gothard) advocating revolution.

Abbeline faces a race against time to crack the case not only to protect his own people but also to head off the republican radicalism and dispel speculation concerning a senior member of the Royal family…

Hit n' run by a horse n' cart...
To reveal any more of the actual narrative would do director (and co-writer) David Wickes a disservice as the script is a tautly conceived and executed whodunit that doesn’t flag once over the course of the three-hour duration. Suspicion shifts from one character to the next and back again in such a way as to make the denouement genuinely surprising.

At points it becomes clear that certain sacrifices have been made to the two-part miniseries format (it’s easy to spot where the little ‘peaks’ have been written in for the ad breaks) but this does not prove to be too distracting if, as I did, you choose to view it in a single attempt as one movie. Indeed, it’s perhaps best to treat this as a movie as the high production values offer a real sense of 1888 London that many similar series singularly fail to achieve. Period detail is acutely observed in custom, costume and set design, right down to the enormous amounts of equine manure that surely did litter the streets during the days of horse-drawn carts.

Admirable attention too is paid to the precedents that the Jack The Ripper case set for psychological enquiry within policework, day by day mass media coverage of events and the effect on society as a whole. The cast iron strictures of the Victorian system are handled effectively without ever being overemphasised, in particular the inherent animosity between the class-delineated divide of ranks within the police force itself.

Key to this is the central performance of Caine who proves that, in a role where he’s motivated by more than money, he’s one the best actors Britain has ever produced, easily deserving of his Golden Globe award. Perhaps that’s why, now entering his seventies, Sir Morris Micklewhite consistently produces towering turns as evidenced by Quills, Cider House Rules, Shiner and The Quiet American.

"You mean I've got all the expository dialogue?"
In the face of such virtuosity, the unfortunate Lewis Collins is a little overwhelmed by the company in which he finds himself although his character does get lumbered with most of the script’s expository dialogue which doesn’t help his cause. Armand Assante is customarily egregious as the slimy American stage performer and Jane Seymour does little with an admittedly underwritten role as Abbeline’s unobtainable love interest.

Re-mastering the original elements, Anchor Bay have once again excelled with catalogue material that other studios would not dream of treating so reverently. Presented in an anamorphically enhanced ratio of 1.78:1, colours are strong but dour as the filth and squalor of slum dwellers’ apparel should be but blacks are deep and shadow detail is outstanding. As you might expect with the Ripper’s awful activities, most of the crime committing takes place at night and this is where the transfer comes into its own.

Contrast levels are good too, highlighting the extremes of pale fleshtones attempting to be obfuscated by garish makeup. Generally the disc’s bit-rate fluctuates between 6 & 7 Mbps which, for a three-hour movie, certainly isn’t too shabby.

Portrait of a lady: police sketch artist Emma Prentice...
A single Dolby Digital 5.1 track, specially created for this disc, is available and does everything that is asked of it. In the case of dialogue-led investigations such as this, there isn’t a lot for the surrounds to do but a surprising amount of thought has gone into channel separation. Every time characters are out on the cobbled streets attention has been closely paid to the clatter of horses’ hooves and the jangling of reins which really reinforces the period setting of the piece.

Even when Caine’s East End patter goes into overdrive in the exciting moments, dialogue is crystal clear from the centre speaker with what few musical cues there are seeping in from the surrounds.

The main extra accompanying the feature is an Audio Commentary from researcher Sue Davis and director David Wickes moderated by author Jonathan Soskott. None of the three are particularly animated so it’s not the most engaging commentary ever put on a DVD but the trio do manage to fill all three hours of the film with an awful lot of information. Be warned, the ending to the film is given away inside 10 minutes of the commentary!

Davis spent four years gathering information for the project and it clearly shows here as she and Wickes run through many scenarios that have been touted as the ‘definitive’ treatment of available evidence that were discounted Alarmingly it transpires that a lot of evidence has been deliberately destroyed over the years and suspicion still lingers due to the 100 year embargo placed on the files relating to the case.

To be frank, not a lot of the commentary concentrates on the events on screen but it’s an ideal dissection of many aspects open to debate which were unable to be squeezed into the film itself. If you’re at all interested in the story of the Ripper you could save yourself a lot of time reading obsolete books by heading straight to this encyclopaedic feature.

Next up comes a sequence of Deleted Scenes which feature Barry Foster in favour for the lead role (at least until the slightly higher profile Michael Caine became available). Shot on video rather than film for the finished product, some of Wickes’ staging translates exactly to what would end up in the movie but Foster makes Abbeline more polished and less earthy; a totally different patina which, one presumes, would preclude some of the class connotations present in Caine’s subsequent performance.

Clothes maketh the man: Abbeline briefs the Bobbies...
A Stills Gallery follows the above with a small selection of behind the scenes and publicity stills. Nothing revelatory here but worth a look for the attention to detail of the costume department.

Finally, presented in fullscreen is a Trailer. Notable not only for a choppily edited treatment that establishes Caine’s character very well yet eschews all subtlety with regard to the plot, it’s a testament to the sterling efforts of Anchor Bay in the restoration work undertaken as the quality on show here is truly terrible.

A slick and unobtrusive menu system allows access to the above features, accompanied by computer animated newsprint and shrieking blade-like sounds to set the scene for the movie.

All the elements of an overly familiar detective plot (the flawed and idiosyncratic investigator, the trusty junior sidekick, the overbearing superior) are given a superior spin by Wickes’ accomplished screenplay and a performance by Michael Caine that’s just too good for TV. Another first rate job from Anchor Bay provides a technically very good disc to complement the material so for the most absorbing and historically thorough approach to Jack The Ripper’s dirty deeds on DVD, look no further than this release.