Man in the Attic (1954) ***
Some people (those with taste, for example) might say that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 silent film is the only version of The Lodger you need, and that, by 1954, the point of diminishing returns had been reached two remakes ago. That is not my position, however. My position on Man in the Attic is as follows: Jack Palance as the prime suspect in a Jack the Ripper movie? Sign my ass up!
The year is 1888, and the mysterious Jack the Ripper has just claimed his third victim. That very night, a man named Slade (Palance) arrives at the home of William and Helen Harley (The Son of Dr. Jekyll’s Rhys Williams and Frances Bavier, of The Day the Earth Stood Still, respectively) looking to rent a room. The Harleys have recently fallen upon financial difficulties, and despite William’s displeasure with the idea, they are in no position to turn Slade away from their unused guest room. It’s a nice living space, but the would-be lodger has something a little different in mind. Slade is a pathologist by trade, and he requires a private space, isolated from the rest of the house, for those nights when he brings work home from the lab. Fortunately for him, the Harleys have, in addition to the spare bedroom, a semi-finished attic, which proves to be exactly what the man is looking for. Slade offers the Harleys five pounds a month (quite a respectable sum in 1888), with the first two month’s rent in advance, and Helen agrees to let him move in immediately.
Slade, perhaps inevitably, is sort of a peculiar guy. His job keeps him on a schedule very different from most people’s, and he frequently doesn’t come home from the lab until well after midnight. His social skills are in the range of poor-to-non-existent, and he keeps to himself to an extent that many would find distinctly off-putting. For that matter, the very nature of his occupation isn’t exactly likely to win Slade very many points in the great popularity contest we call life. Thus it is scarcely surprising that Helen soon begins to suspect that her new lodger may be up to no good while he’s out at all hours of the night, especially after the newspapers report that the police believe the Ripper may have some kind of medical or surgical training. Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t give her worries any credence at all. Even after Helen finds the burned remains of Slade’s black leather surgical bag in the spare bedroom’s fireplace, William defends the lodger. As a medical man himself, William has also found it expedient in the present climate of suspicion and paranoia to keep his surgeon’s satchel out of sight. Indeed, William says that he’d have burned his, too, had he thought of it.
Meanwhile, the Harley household is about to become even more crowded. Their niece, Lily Bonner (Constance Smith), is returning from an extended visit to Paris. Lily is a nightclub performer, and she has spent the months on the other side of the Channel recruiting a team of dancers fit to bring the more risque Parisian style of floor show to London. While Lily is in town, she’s going to need a place to stay, and because the Harleys still have one more bedroom upstairs, they plan to take her in. This inevitably brings Lily and Slade into contact, a meeting that is bound to be fraught with ramifications no matter what the reclusive boarder does with his nights out of the house. Lily takes an instant liking to Slade (Why?!?! Not only is he creepy, he’s uglier than sin!), and despite the man’s professed aversion to actresses, he seems to return her interest at least tentatively. If Slade is just a weird but ultimately harmless shut-in, his budding relationship with Lily could potentially bring him out of his shell and turn him into a semi-normal person. Then again, if Slade really is Jack the Ripper, Lily falls squarely into the target demographic for his victims, and can therefore expect to have a damned hard time getting out of this movie alive.
The cloud of suspicion swirling around Slade’s head thickens on the night of Lily’s first performance in London. Before she goes on, she is visited in her dressing room by a woman named Annie Rowley (Lilian Bond, from The Old Dark House and The Picture of Dorian Gray), who had once been a regular attraction at the very club where Lily is dancing tonight. Indeed, she was even assigned the same dressing room. Lily and Annie chat for a while, and then the ex-dancer leaves to return home. She never makes it, becoming Ripper victim number four in the alley behind the club. The reason this draws more unwanted attention to Slade is that several witnesses report seeing a man in an Ulster (very much like Slade’s) roaming around in the vicinity of the club with a small, black leather bag (also very much like the one Slade used to own).
And thus it is that Police Inspector Paul Warwick (Byron Palmer) enters the story. Warwick is one of the detectives assigned to the Ripper case, and he comes to the Harley house the next day to conduct interviews. While he waits for Lily to return home, he learns about Slade’s suspicious behavior from the Harleys’ maid, Daisy (Tita Philips). As the investigation progresses, an unexpected factor comes into play, one which leads the detective to keep a rather closer eye on Slade than he might have otherwise. Warwick takes a liking to Lily, and that puts him into direct competition with the Harleys’ lodger for the girl’s affections. So is the noose of law that now begins slowly tightening around Slade’s neck merely the product of Warwick’s jealousy, or is the Man in the Attic really harboring a dark and deadly secret? Well, how about this— in one of the previous three film versions of The Lodger, and in the original novel, the suspect boarder really is Jack the Ripper, while in the other two movies, he proves to be merely a persecuted eccentric. Care to flip a coin?
Every once in a while, a spectacularly bad actor is lucky enough to get cast in a role that turns his or her weaknesses into strengths. Jack Palance got lucky in precisely that way in Man in the Attic. Like Kevin Van Hentenryck in Basket Case, Palance finds in Slade a character whom his forced, clunky, and erratic acting actually makes more convincing than would be the case had he been portrayed with even the slightest touch of finesse. It is for this reason that Palance’s presence here does not have its usual effect, dragging an otherwise quite classy movie down into the gutter. Instead, he and his character fit right into their place in the film, which, while by no means a classic, is a sturdy little piece of work, and one which deserves to be better known.