In the small western town of Mescal, cantankerous Sheriff Jerrod (Jack Elam) struggles to catch a knife-wielding maniac murdering local ladies. Most of the victims are prostitutes. But when the killer slays the son of Elizabeth Mescal (Ruth Roman), widow of the town's founder, the elders summon acclaimed investigator Burns (Jeff Cooper). He arrives to find that a lynch mob led by disgruntled local bigwig Hooker (Gene Evans) already hung Jerrod's chief suspect. Yet the killings continue. Burns' modern methods clash with the ageing Sheriff's no-nonsense style, but they settle their differences to unravel a mystery that brings to mind the grisly crimes committed by another more famous murderer from across the pond...
An offbeat, interesting, if not entirely successful blend of horror, western and folksy almost Disney-style comedy-drama, A Knife for the Ladies also happens to be a Jack the Ripper story. Well, sort of. The script never explicitly identifies the killer as the same responsible for the Whitechapel murders in Victorian London but drops enough hints and allusions to Ripper lore so the similarities seem more than coincidental. The film's alternate title - Jack the Ripper Goes West - was even more blatant. Saucy Jack was something of a reoccurring menace on TV westerns around this time. As flatly directed by Larry G. Spangler, who went on to a run of blaxploitation-westerns with Fred Williamson, A Knife for the Ladies is all but indistinguishable from an atypically spooky episode of Gunsmoke or Death Valley Days. With the exception of some minor gore and a jarring electronic score that adds to the off-kilter tone. The less said about 'Evil Lady', the wildly misjudged folk rock song that closes the film the better.
The film seesaws from grisly murders to the mildly heartwarming relationship between the Sheriff and the little boy (Jon Spangler, the director's son) that idolizes him to the proto-buddy-cop clash our mismatched heroes. Somehow Jack Elam always managed to pop up in peculiar hybrid westerns (for further examples see Hwamps (1976), The Aurora Encounter (1986) or The Giant of Thunder Mountain (1991)). His bug-eyed amiability some way towards softening Jerrod's rougher edges, although Diana Ewing as his kindly niece Jenny proves an especially insightful heroine remarking how being a lawman is just about all he has left in life. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the drunken but dogged sheriff as he endures the mockery of the townsfolk he nonetheless tries to protect along with the jibes of pretentious know-it-all Burns. A shaggy-maned, strangely somnambulistic Jeff Cooper renders Burns an unusually charmless sleuth. While probably best known for a reoccurring role on interminable soap opera Dallas and the lead in the Bruce Lee scripted martial arts fantasy The Silent Flute (1978) a.k.a. Circle of Iron, Cooper's finest vehicles were arguably a pair of Mexican superhero fantasies: Kaliman, The Incredible Man (1972) and Kaliman in the Sinister World of Humanón (1976).
Despite an atmospheric western setting Spangler's awkward pacing, ineptly staged murders and stilted attempts at drama fumble some of the more promising ideas inherent in the script. This was the last produced screenplay credited to Seton I. Miller, veteran scribe behind among others The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and the story for Pete's Dragon (1977), with additional input from George Arthur Bloom - a writer more active in variety shows and Saturday morning cartoons! The script touches on the idea that progress is leaving the old town behind making the killer the embodiment of a rapidly approaching new century. A notion comics scribe Alan Moore expanded upon in greater detail in his seminal graphic novel From Hell, itself adapted into a contentious movie. A Knife for the Ladies has some potent themes but they are buried under layers of sub-John Ford knockabout nonsense (inevitably our two lunkheaded heroes get into a big pointless brawl) and crass shock tactics including a jump-cut to a close-up on the killer's hideously scarred face likely to prompt incredulous laughter rather than the expected chills.