Film Title: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
Studio: Artlee Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Marie Ault
- Arthur Chesney
- Ivor Novello
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock began his movie career when both he and the century were in their early twenties. His first film-related job was as a title writer for Famous Players-Lasky in London. By 1923 he was a scenario writer for Gainsborough Pictures, then an art director (as well as continuing to work as a scenario writer). In 1925 he was offered is first chance to direct a film, The Pleasure Garden which was made in Munich and then, also in Germany, he directed The Mountain Eagle. [The Pleasure Garden exists only in fragments, and The Mountain Eagle is considered a lost film.] Returning to London in 1926, he began work on his third picture—and the first that he considered to be a “Hitchcock film”—The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
The first shot of the film is a tight close-up of a woman’s face, screaming in terror. We soon learn that she has become the 7th victim of a serial killer dubbed “The Avenger” by the London press because he leaves a calling card with those words inscribed within a triangle pinned to each victim. From the scene of the crime we watch the mechanics of the press as it disseminates the gruesome details of the murder to the population at large. It seems that this killer strikes only on Tuesday nights, and that his victims are always fair-haired young woman. In the background we see the ominous and reoccurring image of a theatre marquee advertising the latest musical comedy: “To-Night: ‘Golden Curls’”.
Hitchcock’s cameras then take us inside a typical London rooming house where we see the Landlady (Marie Ault), the Landlord (Arthur Chesney—and if he looks familiar that is because he is the brother of popular British character actor Edmund Gwenn who Hitchcock would use to marvelous effect in his 1956 film The Trouble With Harry), their fair-haired daughter Daisy (June), and her boyfriend Joe (Malcolm Keen) who is a police detective. “A lot of use you are, Joe—letting him get away every time,” Daisy’s father complains. Suddenly and simultaneously the lights dim and there is a knock at the front door. Papa goes to plug a coin into the gas meter while his wife goes to answer the door.
Enter The Lodger (Ivor Novello). He is dressed in dark clothes, with a dark scarf wrapped around his neck covering his mouth, and he is carrying a small bag. This is exactly how an eyewitness to the latest murder described the killer! He inquires about the “Room To Let” sign and the landlady takes him upstairs to see the room. It is satisfactory, but The Lodger asks to have a half-dozen paintings of young girls with fair hair hanging about the room removed as they get on his nerves. As the story progresses, everyone but Daisy finds the new lodger to be a bit . . . well, queer. When Joe hears of the paintings being removed he says, “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.” The landlady responds, “Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.” Later Joe tells Daisy, “Sorry I lost my temper Daisy, but there’s something about him I just can’t stand.” Just who is this Lodger?
Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard (and certainly an un-credited Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s new bride) based their screenplay on a best-selling novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, which had also been adapted into a hit play, Who Is He? Even as the film was shooting, the studio executives were nervous. Hitchcock’s use of German Expressionist filming styles and Soviet editing styles, which he picked up first-hand when he was working on his first two films in Germany (Hitchcock spent some time with F.W. Murnau on set while he was filming his film The Last Laugh), baffled these guys. They decided to shelve the film. A few months later they decided to take another look. With Hitchcock’s blessing and participation they invited Ivor Montagu, who would ultimately receive credit for editing and subtitle writing, to take a pass at the film. A few more short shots were filmed and inserted, and some light editing and reworking of title cards was accomplished. The studio arranged a screening of the film for London exhibitors and almost overnight the film was being praised as the best English film to date. Hitchcock was on his way to becoming “the master of suspense” and would remain one of the most admired and popular film directors in the world for fifty years.
Film historian Patrick McGilligan describes The Lodger as “emblematic”. I think that’s a good place to start in any discussion of the film. So many of the themes, characters, set pieces, and sequences that appeared and were explored in all of Hitchcock’s suspense films from his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to his last film Family Plot (1976) make their first appearances in this film. Smart, independent, blond heroine? Check. The Wrong Man? Check. Staircases, shadows, overhead shots, and extreme close-ups? Check. Police ineptitude? Check. Climactic chase sequence? Check. Hitchcock cameo? Check.
Hitchcock is not remembered as an “actor’s director” and his famous “actors are cattle” quote is overused, out of context, and certainly uttered more for effect than sincerity. After all, Hitchcock used so many actors who willing worked for him, again and again, and their work in Hitchcock films is remembered as some of their best. The Lodger is no exception. Ivor Novello was a hugely successful star of the London stage at the time. His matinee idol looks brought him legions of female fans. The studio had signed him to a contract and Hitchcock, although always savvy about the commercial appeal of stars in his films, now had a problem. How in the world was he going to present this handsome leading man to his adoring public as a potential serial killer? This was before the days of anti-heroes and such. Without giving away the development of the plot, Hitchcock, turning a drawback into an asset, succeeds brilliantly (he’d face a similar problem with Cary Grant in Suspicion and the result there was not nearly as successful). There are some sly references to the famously gay Novello’s off-screen life as well. Although most non-show business types would not get the references, the film insinuates that the character might be gay. The use of the word “queer” was not part of the common vernacular as slang for gay at that point, but show business and literary types would have recognized it as such by the mid-1920s. Hitchcock uses Novello’s willowy, androgynous appearance to keep the audience guessing about The Lodger: is he or isn’t he The Avenger?
Probably the two most well remembered sequences from the film are The Lodger’s initial appearance, and a scene where some of the characters are looking up at the ceiling as The Lodger paces in his room above. But this is a silent film so how to visualize what characters are hearing? Hitchcock has the ceiling dissolve, and we see The Lodger pacing from the characters’ point of view below! There’s also quite an effective sequence where the camera shows us The Lodger quietly leaving the rooming house at night with an overhead shot of a stairway and a white, gloved hand gliding silently down the banister. The climax of the film involves a thrilling chase through the fog-shrouded streets of London with the camera’s point of viewing constantly changing. All very Eisenstein-type editing.
It is not difficult to see why The Lodger made such a big impact on its initial release. There really had been nothing like it either in England or the United States. Paul Leni would begin to bring his own style of German Expressionist influences to American screens with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), but Hitchcock was really in the vanguard in 1926 while making The Lodger. Films such as Murnau’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and The Last Laugh (1924) and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin (1925) had been little seen outside of Europe. Looking back over Hitchcock’s entire body of work to his first suspense film, it almost seems like with The Lodger Hitchcock emerged full-blown as a unique and exciting artist.
The release of The Lodger as part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Premiere Collection” of DVD releases at long last gives home video enthusiasts the opportunity to see The Lodger in a form that approximates the film viewers first encountered in 1927. There are many, many cheap releases to DVD and VHS of The Lodger that are pretty much unwatchable. This release features a print that has been through extensive restoration and now is part of The National Film and Television Archives. The original title cards have either been restored or recreated. The print is sharp with quite a bit of grain, which those unfamiliar to films of this era may find distracting, but is in truth a correct representation of the film’s original look. It also features two musical soundtracks. The first is a 1999 full orchestral score by Ashley Irwin (presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix), which appropriately captures the tone of the film. The little five note theme that plays every time the theatre marquee appears flashing “To-Night: ‘Golden Curls’” is incredibly creepy. The 1997 score by Paul Zaza is considerably less successful. Featured extras include:
• Commentary with film historian Patrick McGilligan. Mr. McGilligan starts out quite dry and stilted, but he becomes more comfortable and relaxed as the commentary plays out. It is a very informative look at the film itself and Hitchcock’s influences and how the film has influenced many other films. Unfortunately he sometimes does not comment on the action on screen and even fails to point out Hitchcock’s first cameo appearance!
• The Sound of Silence: The Making of The Lodger is an excellent look at how the film was made and features comments by many, many film historians, filmmakers and critics.
• 1940 radio adaptation of The Lodger directed by Alfred Hitchcock
• Hitchcock Interviews: Audio Interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and François Truffaut
• Hitchcock 101: a short interview with Hitchcock’s granddaughter about taking a college Hitchcock film class and receiving help from her grandfather writing her papers.
• Still Gallery
With this release of a newly restored The Lodger at last home video viewers have the chance to see this landmark film in a spectacular new transfer and accompanied by a great orchestral score. The extra features are plentiful and interesting. If you are a Hitchcock fan or a fan of classic films in general this is one you’ll want to add to your collection.
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