“Be careful, I’ll get you yet.”
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is Alfred Hitchcock’s third completed feature film. Based on the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, it is a 1927 silent written by Eliot Stannard, who penned much of Hitchcock’s earliest work. Cinematography was by Gaetano di Ventimiglia, who manned the camera on Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1926). Some minor editing on the film was done by Ivor Montagu, who also did uncredited service on Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927) and Easy Virtue (1928) and was later a producer on his The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), and Sabotage (1936). Several of Hitchcock’s then-frequent collaborators had a hand in making what was widely seen as the finest British film yet released. That said, though, all discussion surrounding the film—if not then, certainly now—revolves around Hitch and Hitch alone. Rightfully so (opponents of the auteur theory be damned), for The Lodger is indeed an exemplary showcase for what would soon define the cinema of its celebrated director. It was, even in the Master of Suspense’s own view years later, the “first true Hitchcock picture.”
As in Lowndes’ novel, the film tells of a string of murders very much in line with Jack the Ripper’s 1888 serial spree. Here, the homicidal fiend is known only as “The Avenger,” and he has a particular affinity for slaying young blonde women (especially, rather strangely, on Tuesdays). At the home of model Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), which she shares with her mother and father (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney), arrives a mysterious young man, aptly shrouded in the titular London fog, named Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello). Fitting the description and behavioral manner of the skulking killer, the boarder soon comes under the suspicion of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting as well as Daisy’s paramour policeman, Joe (Malcolm Keen), who has his doubts based on investigative work as much as basic jealousy.
Though Jonathan is ultimately revealed to be a harmless man searching for the killer of his sister (eventually caught, the real Avenger is never actually seen), Hitchcock raises spectator doubts to match those of the leery characters, doing so largely through visual agencies. He opens the picture with the dynamic close-up of a screaming face in the shadow of the assailant. From there, it’s to the flickering billboard plug for a new musical, teasing “To-night Golden Curls” in a classically wry Hitchcock double meaning. Word of the latest murder spreads via street-side gossip and a montage of media sources. There is a vigorous build up to the appearance of Novello (as star and ostensible killer), and his subsequent introduction makes an immediate impact. Hitchcock assumes the incoming lodger’s subjective point of view as he arrives at the Bunting residence. Inside the house, the door is opened in a succession of three cuts. The ominous figure appears in the entryway, cloaked in dark clothing and enveloped in a misty haze.
What makes The Lodger such a noteworthy early Hitchcock film is the attention placed on the power of the image and the function of the camera. A soft luster illuminates Novello’s striking face, and shimmering points of light add a glint of danger to knives and other potentially threatening objects (in trademark fetishistic Hitchcock fashion). Regularly necessary in the silent era but expertly efficient here, emotions are also cleverly conveyed through strictly visual means: a heart-shaped piece of dough ripped in two, for instance. Less common during the period (Hitchcock would soon do something about that) are The Lodger’s purely stylistic flourishes, like the famous through-the-ceiling shot of Novello’s pacing feet upstairs, filmed under a thick sheet of toughened glass, or the depiction of his ghastly hand in meticulously focused light as it slides eerily down a banister.
As William Rothman points out in an interview included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, The Lodger bears the influence of a number of national cinemas. This includes the Soviet montage likes of Eisenstein (though with decidedly differing resolve), French impressionists like Abel Gance, and, most explicitly, the German expressionism of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Hitchcock had in fact worked in Germany at the famed UFA studios and was a keen admirer of the pioneering pictorial work being done there at the time. However, what he incorporates from this cinematic movement of light and shadow, movement and angular composition, is not necessarily expressionist in intent; in The Lodger, much of the suspense derives from rampant paranoia, while the actual imagery seldom conveys the mindset of a given character. When he opens up a certain setting, his blocking and scenic design bears a purposefully formal concern, not a psychological one (though art historian Steven Jacobs does discuss the debatable relevance of the house’s floor plan). Hitchcock’s brand of expressionism is, in other words, less about inner torment and more about visual accent. His atmospheric impression of menace is there to mislead, not to reveal. It’s all part of his masterful misdirection, a spirited filmic practice he often employed.
Primarily sold on the basis of matinee idol Ivor Novello (born David Ivor Davies), The Lodger affords the star a peculiar performance. While it perhaps lends his presence an air of inscrutable motivation, his ridged manners are awkward and silly when his motives are dubious. On the other hand, both he and Tripp are more successful during their playful moments of intimate romance. Then doubt is cast back upon the dashing lead and he is again arduous and daunting. For much of the film, there remains an undercurrent of skepticism, but it is much more effective when subtlety implied. By the light of day, Mr. Drew is elegant in a neat striped sweater; when night falls, he has a tendency to guiltily glaze over. And neither approach is subtle. The ambiguity concerning Jonathan’s culpability, which was found in the novel, was excised from the film, lest there be any doubt that the patriotic heartthrob Novello could conceivably be a murderer—call it a precursor to the Cary Grant/Suspicion syndrome. The same year The Lodger was released, Novello also starred in another Hitchcock film, Downhill (included on the Criterion disc). This is a much better Novello movie, but a sub-par Hitchcock one, at least until its very end. Then, in 1932, Novello would appear in The Phantom Fiend, a remake of The Lodger, which Hitchcock was offered to direct but declined (the job went to Maurice Elvey).
Given Hitchcock’s stature in the annals of international film history, and his penchant for self-promotion, there is no shortage of material available to supplement the home video release of his films. Aside from the 2K digital restoration and the new score by Neil Brand, this latest offering from Criterion includes excerpts from interviews between Hitchcock and François Truffaut and Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich, a radio adaptation of The Lodger from 1940, directed by Hitchcock, a new interview with Brand, and essays on both The Lodger and Downhill by Philip Kemp. There is no doubt that all great Hitchcock films function as preeminent works of cinematic art and personal revelation (few filmmakers have been so willing to put their own obsessions and passions on the screen), and from this emerges a recurrent struggle between interpretive over-analysis and history’s genuine design: The Lodger has Hitchcock’s first cameo, but was it done as some sort of autobiographical overture, or simply out of necessity, as the original actor didn’t show up? One need only compare Rothman’s analytical readings with Hitchcock’s own statements, the latter stressing technique and graphic impact more than the latent significance of a certain prop or camera angle; it’s about method more than the meaning.
The Lodger contains a freight of Hitchcockian motifs and themes: black comedy (the way people have fun with freighted eyewitness); the public fascination with murder; the obsession with physical features (The Avenger kills based on looks; Joe uses fair hair fondness as a pick-up line); the notion of a murder in the house hitting close to home; certain voyeuristic tendencies (the naughty Hitchcock lingers as much as possible on Daisy as she undresses for a bath); and, finally, the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. There is also the unsavory morality of an archetypal Hitchcock film. Arguably better than any other director, Hitchcock understood—and influenced—the viewer’s capacity for revulsion and captivation when it comes to crime. That’s why Rothman is not quite correct when he argues that the abundance of news outlets proclaiming the latest murder is an “indictment” on the media. Hitchcock isn’t criticizing the sensational spread of news, but is instead drawing a parallel. “If it bleeds, it leads” is common journalistic parlance—it also applies to a good murder mystery. The propagation of criminality is something Hitchcock peddled throughout his career, and after more than 90 years, we’re still happy to buy what he’s selling.