The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog

UK (1927) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Quite a few famous and lesser-known Hitchcock films from his classic period (aka the Hollywood years) have been reviewed on this site so it makes for a refreshing change to go back to the beginning of the Master of Suspense’s career, with an entry from the silent era while he was still based here in Old Blighty.

Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, this mystery thriller inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders, begins with the latest of a string of killings of blonde women in the London area by someone calling themselves “The Avenger”. On the same night at a nearby boarding house owned by Mr and Mrs Bunting (Arthur Chesney and Marie Ault), a mysterious man (Ivor Novello) arrives looking for a room.

The Buntings are perplexed by the stranger’s behaviour which grows into concern when he takes a shine to their (blonde) daughter Daisy (June Tripp), whom they would much prefer took up with local policeman Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen). Soon another murder occurs and with circumstantial evidence mounting against him, the Buntings and Joe begin to wonder if the new lodger is The Avenger.

When this, his third film, was made, the Hitchcock we know and love was a long way off but every story has a beginning and the foundation for what would become his trademarks – including his legendary cameos, which in this case was a matter of necessity when an extra failed to show – can be found, albeit in a nascent form, in The Lodger.

One key scene is heightened the use of double exposure. The Buntings are becoming curious about their new tenant and can hear him pacing up and down in his room from below; Hitch removes the ceiling to show the footsteps from underneath as a visual substitute for the absence of sound.

Elsewhere it is evident that Hitchcock knew how to tease his audience with innocent looking scenarios imbued with a cheeky hint of sexual frisson. When policeman Joe playfully locks Daisy in his handcuffs, it can be read in many ways but his body language (they were loosely dating) suggests something else. When the Lodger witnesses this, his reaction is rather curious too. Daisy taking a bath on the other hand, is pure fan service.

Hitchcock’s love of German cinema is also very evident in this film, with the stylistic nods to the likes of Lang and Murnau standing out to keen eyed cineastes, along with the palpable influence of Sweden’s Victor Sjöström in the night time scenes, echoing his atmospheric classic The Phantom Carriage. But, it is the little touches that not only went on to shape Hitch’s film career but the thriller genre itself that are a joy to pick out.

Possible the most daring scene comes in the end when the Lodger’s pleas of innocence are lost on a baying mob chasing him through the foggy streets. Trying to scale a fence handcuffed he slips and is suspended by his shackles in a crucifixion like pose as the rabid lynch mob beat the snot out of him.

Without spoiling the outcome, the central conceit of the story is the implied guilt of the eponymous Lodger which is laid on pretty thick throughout, per the era when subtlety was in short supply. But even at this early stage Hitchcock was canny enough to rein in his cast to allow the conjecture and supposition build to an effective crescendo, which by today’s standards is predictable but back in 1927 many an audience member would be enrapt by this.

In the original novel the ending was much different, the ambiguity of the Lodger’s guilt remaining intact until the very end, with a darker outcome for him. Since the hugely popular Ivor Novello (yes THAT Novello) had been cast, the studio would not allow him to play such a divisive role and suffer a cruel fate, forcing a rewrite. As this was eons before Hitch had any clout, he reluctantly acquiesced, leading to a damp squib of a denouement.    

Yet he was still in danger of having a short film career as producer Michael Balcon hated it and wanted to shelve it for good. Hitch fought his corner and a comprise of a re-edit was made, but thankfully the changes were minimal – new credits and intertitles, and a couple of minor reshoots. The result was a notable box office success and the first time Hitch received his dues as a filmmaker.

Of course, he was still finding his voice and it would take a while for it be fully realised, so this film might not register as an identifiable Hitchcock work in the same vein as his later classics. But this is part of the reason why The Lodger is such a valuable document – to see the rudimentary forms of his innovation and interpretation within the context and constraints of silent British cinema.

Being a silent presentation adds much to the tactile creepiness of the proto-noir aesthetic that borders on horror territory. The Lodger’s first appearance, his face hidden behind a hat and scarf except for his glaring eyes, is referenced in the debut sightings of the similarly obscured leads in The Man Who Laughs and The Invisible Man, and is just as eerie.

Ivor Novello was already a popular songwriter being turning to acting, and with his slim, matinee idol looks he was a perfect fit for the screen. Signs of stiffness are present in his performance but Hitchcock is able to coax an expressive turn from him though the use of his eyes; to keep the ambiguity of his character alive his fixed stare reveals a tortured soul and a man on a mission.

As a curiosity for silent film fans The Lodger makes for a delightful treat, delivering a straightforward but arresting story inside a compact 70 minutes, told through a bold visual style, but the fact this is Hitchcock the arriviste will simply bolster its historical importance.

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