d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 75 mins.
Alt: "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog."
After a false start in 1922 and a two finished films in 1925 and 1926, Alfred Hitchcock made his first "Hitchcockian" film in 1927: The Lodger.
In his book-length interview with François Truffaut, it was the film he said he preferred to think of as his debut, and in hindsight, it is not difficult to understand why Hitchcock connected so well with the material. Marie Belloc Lowndes's 1913 novel concerns a series of killings by a masked man dubbed "The Avenger," whose Jack-the-Ripper-style murders of blonde women are terrifying families across the city. Meanwhile, and seemingly unrelated, an extraordinarily bizarre man (Ivor Novello) with a scarf draped strategically around his face, shows up at a London household and seeks to rent a room they have to let. It's not long before this lodger takes an interest in the landlady's blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), and the family's suspicions of the killings turn toward this mysterious man.
Only a few years prior, Hitchcock had returned to England after visiting Germany, where he saw first-hand the talents and techniques of F.W. Muranu and Fritz Lang, masters of expressionism on the European continent in the 1920s. That influence is undoubtedly seen in The Lodger, which occurs in the shadows and the nighttime streets of London. (Its official subtitle is "A Story of the London Fog.") Ostensibly, The Lodger is a murder mystery, but it soon transforms into a meditation on the dangers of mob mentality and an allegory of society-versus-the-individual (a general theme for Hitchcock). The director's sly humor is there, too: knowing that the Avenger is seeking blondes, Daisy's friend stuffs her blonde hair under a cap and allows faux black strands to poke out, noting, "Safety first, my dearie." The suspense reaches moments of obvious intensity (such as when the lodger holds a knife or handles a wrought-iron fireplace poker), but Hitchcock releases the audience's tension in a shockingly humorous way.
As long as we're discussing Hitchcock trends, too, I would be remiss not to mention his subversive take on popular actors can be traced back to The Lodger. Just as later in his career he relished undercutting of Cary Grant's squeaky clean image in the Hollywood, the director ran amok in 1920s England by transforming Novello, a Welsh matinee idol, into a possible serial killer. (Novello was one of the reasons the film drew many audiences, and ironically, one could argue today that Novello might not be known for much else, if anything, other than his work with Hitchcock in The Lodger.)
At this point in time, The Lodger is the earliest-made Hitchcock film I've seen. (One more possibility exists, his 1925 debut The Pleasure Garden; his other earlier, The Mountain Eagle, is lost.) What might – or might not be – surprising is that the director was already experimenting behind the camera, and the film is scattered with brilliant shots and angles. In one, the lodger is drawn to a picture on the wall that we see reflected in the mirror, and as he moves toward the object he too comes into view in the mirror. (Later, in a rather disturbing act, he will turn all the pictures on the wall around, leaving blank white canvasses to adorn the room so he doesn't have to look at their visuals.) His firm and quick pacing in the upstairs bedroom shakes the chandelier on the ground-floor ceiling below, and as the host family looks up nervously in a cowering low-angle shot, the ceiling suddenly fades into transparency, allowing us to see the lodger from underneath as he walks.
The Lodger was remade – or, more accurately, the source material was re-adapted – as a sound film in 1932 by Maurice Elvey, and starred Novello again in the same role. (There have been other remakes, including a new one, directed by David Ondaatje, that is scheduled to appear next year.) And yet the one person who never was able to remake the film was its original director. As soon as he moved to Hollywood, Hitchcock frequently pitched the idea of a remake, first to producer David O. Selznick and then to others, but as passionately as Hitchcock promoted the idea, few were ever interested. The unrealized project is depressing in hindsight; with a magnificent budget at his disposal, he was able to transform The Man Who Knew Too Much (his only remake) into a grander and darker project in 1956, a film that in many serves as compelling complement to the 1934 original. As an unrepentant Hitchcock fan, I think it would have been wondrous to see what kind of work Hitchcock could have done with the source material for The Lodger again.
Still, The Lodger is valuable and entertaining after all these years. It is fitting too that Hitchcock would find his voice in the year recognized as one of the greatest the movies had ever seen (Sunrise, Metropolis, The General, and The Jazz Singer, among others). The director would find himself stuck with many projects later in his career that failed to interest him, so The Lodger is even more important to scholars and Hitchcock devotees because it occurs so early in his career and he was so committed to its success. And he pulled it off. Upon its completion, he was only 26 years old, and in all respects just getting started.
01 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 75 mins.