My notes on the Harlan Ellison-scripted Jack the Ripper-themed TV Western.
Here’s the show. These notes spoiler the whodunit, so you might want to watch it first.
Like the longer-running The Virginian, the single-season (1967-8) Western series Cimarron Strip consisted of feature-length episodes. It presented the adventures of a frontier Marshal, Jim Crown (Stuart Whitman), showing something of a social conscience (courtesy series developer Christopher Knopf) and a tendency to take history a bit more seriously than the average Gunsmoke. This episode, scripted by Harlan Ellison to make use of all the research he did for ‘The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World’ (from Dangerous Visions), is a Western bookend for the sf Jack the Ripper of Robert Bloch’s Star Trek script ‘Wolf in the Fold’ (just as the Ellison story is a sequel to Bloch’s DV contribution ‘A Toy for Juliette’). The notion that Jack the Ripper might have gone West features also in the cleverly-titled movie A Knife for the Ladies (where it’s a feint) and Richard Laymon’s novel Savage, but this is the most sustained take. The second season of Deadwood did a storyline about a proto-serial killer at work out West which parallels some of the action here.
It opens at an after-dark open air hoedown as Cimarron Strip suffers from an unnatural fog, with popular ‘dance-hall girl’ (the ancient euphemism was fraying by the late ‘60s and Ellison comes very close to saying what the girls actually do at “Pony Jane’s saloon”) Josie (Jennifer Billingsley) causing a scrap between two admirers. Angry, lecherous Tal St James (David Canary), the sort of incidental character who does so many suspect things he has to be innocent, pulls a knife and has to be talked down. Josie then wanders off in the night , to be pursued by a man seen as a pair of dark trousers who eviscerates her (conveyed by a close up of her hand stiffening as she is stabbed). The whole episode has a horror look, reasonably well-handled by director Charles R. Rondeau; indeed, the cheery titles sequence of Crown riding across the landscape in broad daylight seems out of place since the rest of the episode takes place at night, with the fog-machines working overtime. For an act or two, suspicion hovers around locals: the widowed town doctor (Karl Swenson), the only expert surgeon in these parts, has been spending time at Pony Jane’s; Indian Shadow Feller (Ron Soble), an expert skinner who had an apparent relationship with the dead woman, is Tal’s favoured suspect and obviously most likely to be lynched; and Peddigrew (Don Hamner), a knife-sharpening tinker, likes to loiter outside Pony Jane’s to eye the lovelies. Then, Crown’s younger sidekick, newspaperman Francis Wilde (Randy Boone) – his older pal is a stereotype Scot, Angus MacGregor (Percy Herbert) – turns up press clippings and makes a connection with the Ripper case. Though the script mentions real names and dates, there’s an odd glitch – the London killings must have happened months earlier, but it’s still supposed to be 1888. Shadow Feller is hauled in by a mob, but ruled innocent when a woman (Victoria Show) who has had an establishing scene setting her up as an old friend of Crown’s is killed while the Indian is in their clutches.
Ellison’s research kicks in as Tipton (Patrick Horgan), a moustachioed member of George Lusk’s Whitechapel vigilance committee (and the brother of one of the victims), shows up, having tracked Jack the Ripper across the Atlantic. Wilde receives Ripper letters, with Ellison pastiching the language of the originals (he also gives much of the cowpoke language a saltier, more picturesque sound than most TV Westerns pre-Deadwood). Because of his British accent, Crown suspects Tipton, but the late-arriving real culprit is soft-spoken Enoch Shelton (Tom Skerritt), who claims not to be a misogynist but a social reformer, who kills (as per a remark of George Bernard Shaw’s) to bring attention to slum conditions – though Skerritt plays him (very well) as a nasty, self-justifying sadist. The ironic finish has the killer stalked and slaughtered by Shadow Feller and other ‘savages’, who leave his corpse draped over a rock – solving the mystery of why the case was officially never closed, since Wilde has nothing to back up the story he wants to sell. With Jill Townsend as Crown’s regular girl (imperilled but saved), Jeanne Cooper as Pony Jane and Grace Lee Whitney (of Star Trek) as another frou-frou dame. Though the theme is by Maurice Jarre, the incidental music is by Bernard Herrmann.
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