Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Ripper

By Mark Dawidziak

     After Richard Matheson deliberated and sweated over the story for The Night Strangler, ultimately deciding NOT to use Jack the Ripper as the killer (out of deference to his friend Robert Bloch's story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"), the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series premiered with a Rudolph Borchert script using that very premise. The unkindest cut of all?

     Well, Richard, after all, turned down the chance to work on the series as story editor. And since Dan Curtis and Darren McGavin weren't speaking at that point, there was little chance of Dan being involved, either. "If Dan had done the series," Richard told me, "I would have done the series. When I learned that he didn't have involvement in it, I decided not to have involvement in it. Frankly, I was sort of relieved. We'd had so much trouble coming up with a story for The Night Strangler. But that was so tough that I couldn't imagine how they could come up with a new monster every week."

     They started, of course, with Jack the Ripper. "The Ripper" aired September 13, 1974, which, appropriately enough, was a Friday the 13th. I remember it well. I was starting my freshman year at George Washington University, working toward a journalism career and learning from Carl to wear sneakers whenever possible.

     This was my evaluation of the episode for The Night Stalker Companion: 
     Both thematically and stylistically, "The Ripper" relies on techniques established in the two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. Indeed, the episode is something of a combination of elements from The Night Stalker (right down to tracking the monster to a spooky old house) and The Night Strangler. Still, it is a spooky and well-paced combination. Like several Kolchak episodes, it suffers from the “is something missing?” syndrome. With less than an hour to play with, "The Ripper" never bothers to explain the mysterious connection between Jack and electricity. It doesn’t even suggest how the Ripper’s life has been unnaturally prolonged. Is this part of the whole electricity angle? And it kills off the extremely likable Jane in a brutally abrupt manner. Kolchak doesn’t get the chance to express the merest whiff of sorrow or regret.
     I pretty much stand by that, but, hate to say it, with repeated viewings over the year, I like this episode less and less. As the Ripper, Mickey Gilbert is given absolutely no chance to develop a real character, frightening or otherwise. He's really nothing more than an imposing presence in black. There should be some explanation of how electricity plays into this. Each time I watch this episode, I feel like I'm missing something (or that a scene is missing). And the formula similarities with The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler seem more obvious. The episode ends with Carl saying, "How could you explain it? Who could explain it? Who'd believe it?" I might have believed it if they at least tried to explain it.

     Here, too, starts the strain of we've-got-to-stop-meeting-like-this. First, the vampire in Las Vegas. Then the murderous alchemist in Seattle. Now the Ripper in Chicago. For a reporter whose beat isn't the paranormal, Carl sure seems to attract every ghoulie and ghostie on the beat.

     Still, as with all the episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, there are elements to recommend it, starting with McGavin still-energetic, still-vibrant portrayal of Kolchak (more electrifying than the Ripper, to be sure). Allen Baron's direction also establishes an eerie mood and moves the story along, minimizing the damage caused by the considerable plot holes.

     FAVORITE MOMENT: Although reminiscent of a similar scene in Janos Skorzeny's house, Carl hiding in the Ripper's closet. Nicely done. Again and again, the Ripper reaches in for something, his lethal hands passing within inches of Carl’s face. If Carl remains silent, he’ll be safe. But, finally, he can’t take it anymore. He panics, yells out and bolts from the closet. Picking up on the concept of the flawed hero, the climax gives us a Kolchak who's not always smart and not always brave in a prime-time hero sense, but is tremendously human.

      FAVORITE LINE: Still has be, "I run a lot." (Carl explaining why he wears those white sneakers)

    SECOND FAVORITE LINE: Carl again: "For reasons I have never been able to understand, Vincenzo was always confusing my reporter's clever ingenuity with what he calls high-handed lunacy."

    THIRD FAVORITE LINE: "It was horrible. May I go home?" (a squeamish Ron Updyke -- Jack Grinnage making his first debut as Carl's persnickety INS Bureau colleague -- returning from a murder scene)

     And here, too, begins the confusion caused by the casting of Ruth McDevitt as a briefly glimpsed character who is NOT Miss Emily. This is how I summarized the Cowles conundrum in The Night Stalker Companion: 
     The unseen (she's on vacation) advice columnist is named Emily Fenwick, but when Ruth McDevitt shows up in the fifth episode as Miss Emily, her name is Edith Cowles (spelled both Cowles and Cowels in different cast lists). In the eighth episode, her name was changed to Emily Cowles, and this it remained for the rest of the series. To add to the confusion, however, McDevitt appears in this first episode as an elderly woman who sends a letter to Miss Emily. The bizarre twist has her sending a letter to herself. Although confusing to viewers who see the episodes out of sequence, it's a touch that somehow fits The Night Stalker.
     When I wrote Grave Secrets, I gave a tip of the bird-feeder hat to this moniker mix-up by giving Miss Emily a sister named Edith.

     TRIVIA NOTE: Beatrice Colen (1948-99), who played the unfortunate Jane Plumm, was the granddaughter of legendary Broadway playwright George S. Kaufman, who co-authored two plays for the Marx Brothers (The Coconuts and Animal Crackers) and two plays that won the Pulitzer Prize (You Can't Take It With You and Of Thee I Sing). She appeared as Etta Candy on The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and as Marsha the waitress on Happy Days. The same year that "The Ripper" aired, she appeared in a TV production of June Moon, the comedy her grandfather wrote with Ring Lardner (it starred Kevin McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Jack Cassidy and, in a minor role, Stephen Sondheim).

     TRIVIA NOTE: Ken Lynch (1910-90) plays Captain Warren, the first in a long line of police officials  infuriated by Kolchak on the series. "You're an absurd man," he tells the reporter. Lynch, who played Sgt. Grover on McCloud, already had appeared in episodes of The Twilight Zone ("Mr. Denton on Doomsday") and Star Trek ("The Devil in the Dark"). The Cleveland native played policemen in Anatomy of a Murder and North By Northwest, two of the best movies of 1959 (the same year Lynch appeared with McGavin in an episode of Riverboat. He also appeared in three episodes of Thriller: "A Good Imagination," "A Third for Pinochle" and "Man of Mystery."

     TRIVIA NOTE: Mickey Gilbert, a busy stunt man and double, played the Ripper, returning to play the Mummy in "Legacy of Terror."


  1. Terrific overview, Mark. I agree that the Ripper's "powers" in general could've used a little more explaining, although I do give the episode points for killing off Beatrice Colen's character -- her recklessness was carefully set up in dialogue, and the funny/semi-sick surprise discovery of her corpse in the midst of Kolchak's frenetic escape sums up the show's audacious tone perfectly (laugh, gasp, laugh again). Although episodes like "Horror in the Heights," "Bad Medicine" and "The Devil's Platform" were fresher and less predictable, "Ripper" still has a certain something that makes it vital, snappier than average and perversely exciting. Apparently ABC thought so, too: "The Zombie" was scheduled as KOLCHAK's premiere offering (there's a full-page ad in TV GUIDE to prove it), but the network changed its mind at the very last minute, deeming "Ripper" the stronger episode to start off with. Smart move, in my opinion...

  2. A stronger episode ... or just a more familiar one? In a way, it's almost the same as THE NIGHT STRANGLER - only here we lop off the last 20 minutes! (Imagine Carl meeting up with the Richard Anderson character - and then simply running off in fright while knocking over his beaker of immortality elixir).

  3. Thanks, Gary. I've realized over the years that I need to be a bit careful in discussing the series episodes -- not to sound too harsh. The truth is, I have great fondness for anything with Darren McGavin in sneakers, a seersucker suit and pork-pie straw hat. And it's out of this fondness that the merits and demerits of episodes get tossed about. I love both movies, the series and both of Jeff's novels, for that matter, even while having clear preferences within this Kolchakian universe. I've run into the same thing when discussing "Columbo," and it may seem like I'm coming down awfully hard on a particular episode -- when I'm starting from the view that (to paraphrase James Agee on the Marx Brothers) the very worst "Columbo" episode would be better than the best of most anything else. Picking nits is part of the process, but, standing back and taking it in as one whole entity, the series occupies a special place in my tell-tale heart. I can't think of one "Kolchak" episode that doesn't inspire a grin also born of that fondness.

  4. In regards to Jane's death, I always loved that the earlier scene in the diner (where Jane orders everything on the menu!) established that Carl was genuinely concerned for her safety. I also loved the shock of her death, as it let us know that this was deadly serious, and that even people we have grown to like are not safe (the same can be said about the deaths of Pepe LaRue/Maurice Shapiro in "Horror In The Heights" and Mel Tartar in "The Werewolf"). We know that Carl would be upset by the deaths of these people, even if the 60 minute running time doesn't always allow for him to show it. In short, the deaths of these likable characters raises the terror level of the monsters about ten notches!

  5. Doug -- good point. In neither "The Night Stalker" nor "The Night Strangler" are we emotionally invetsted in any of the victims. We're given names, professions, vital stats. But there's no emotional bond with Kolchak, so there's no emotional bond for us. Jane is the first murder victim who represents real loss for Carl.

  6. Totally, Mark. Another emotional connection that comes to mind is when The Rakshasa appears to Carl as Miss Emily in "Horror In The Heights". With this, we realize that Miss Emily is the only person Carl knows that he thinks he can trust. Another nice "Horror In the Heights" moment is when Carl tacks on " a few bucks" to his expense report so that Harry Starman (Phil Silvers) can have the dough. We see there that Carl has a heart and feels for Starman, thus making Harry Starman's death a bit more personal. I don't know, just my two cents! (:

  7. Absolutely, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves on "Horror in the Heights." Much to discuss there. You've certainly isolated two elements that go the heart of that episode.

  8. Oh! Right, I need to sllllow down. I'm just so excited to be discussing what has always seemed like my "secret show". hahaha ~ This is great, really!

  9. I have a feeling that Doug is something of a Rakshasa himself... :-)

  10. Bottom line? Kolchak CARES, and more than anybody else. He'd enjoy big time career success, sure, but this is no ACE IN THE HOLE scenario. Mr. K will continue to absorb humiliation and risk his own life on a regular basis, even though he knows damn well his reports will never see the light of day and his professional credibility/career possibilities will suffer. The expression "It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it" seems to have been conceived with our rumpled hero in mind. Ultimately, CK rescues his indifferent, often insulting fellow humans with no reward other than knowing that he did the right thing, an irony he secretly shares with "us" via those tape recording narrations. Which is why we love the guy, his straw hat, the whole deal. In terms of moral conscience and selfless bravery, you're a better man than we are, Carl Kolchak!

  11. @ grgstv338 - You are correct, Old Chum! I am known as "Rakshasa" on the CHFB. (:

    @ Gary G ~ Well spoken, sir. It's that feeling that Carl is doing the right thing regardless of if anybody knows it or not that makes us love him. Absolutely!

  12. Mark, excellent point about weighing the merits (or lack thereof) in any given episode. Like you, I would consider anything in which McGavin played Kolchak a contender for "worst sex I ever had" honors. People sometimes criticize the episodes for being too similar, but they were what they were, and the variations within the formula leave room for discussion. Also, as saddened as I was that the show was so short-lived, I very much doubt it could realistically have run any longer for a whole host of reasons.