Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1926, UK, 92 mins approx
Review by Martyn Bamber
With a lavish restoration headed by the BFI National Archive and a new score by Nitin Sawhney, Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog is back in cinemas. This is arguably the first prototypical ‘Hitchcockian’ film, a work that includes a number of key images, situations and themes that would surface in many of the director’s subsequent films: a romantically obsessed leading man, a blonde leading lady, a streak of morbid humour, the police on the trail of a wanted man, and even a fashion catwalk show watched by a male observer, prefiguring the famous Vertigo clothes store scene with James Stewart’s romantically obsessed protagonist watching Kim Novak’s character try on a succession of outfits.
The Lodger plunges the viewer right into the action: the film starts with a silent scream right after the opening titles, signalling that a body of a dead woman has been discovered in London. The woman has been slain by ‘The Avenger’, a Jack the Ripper-style killer who kills blonde women and leaves a card with his name on it. After the dead body is found, there are a succession of scenes showing how news of the murder spreads via police communication and the media, with the text on crime reports, newspapers and billboards ingeniously integrated into the drama to function as inter titles, giving the viewer essential plot information without slowing the pace.
The story then shifts to a group of characters that will be the focus for the remainder of the film. The principal players are Daisy (June Tripp), a carefree model with blonde hair, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police detective in love with Daisy, and Daisy’s parents, Mr and Mrs Bunting (Arthur Chesney and Marie Ault), with much of the film set in the Bunting’s home. This close-knit group is soon joined by a stranger, the titular Lodger, played by Ivor Novello, who wants to rent a room. Hitchcock wittily builds tension of the Lodger’s first melodramatic appearance, with the strange but charismatic character commanding attention and piquing our curiosity, his features obscured by his hat and scarf. Hitchcock makes the audience wonder if a movie idol like Novello is portraying a charmer or a killer, much like his use of Cary Grant in Suspicion. Both men portray handsome and appealing characters that are also odd, mysterious and possibly murderous, which is intriguing yet troubling for viewers.
The Lodger has elements of German expressionism, particularly with its use of shadows, while the Lodger’s skulking presence is reminiscent of the title character in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This silent film also features a number of inventive visuals that suggest sounds. One of the most famous sequences is the ‘see-through floor’ scene: as the lodger paces back on forth in this room, the characters in the room directly below him look up and see a light move on the ceiling. The floor then becomes a see-through surface, showing the Lodger pacing above. Not only does this moment communicate exactly what the characters below are hearing, but the moving light also shows that the footsteps are heavy.
The restoration of the film is a resounding success, with the tinting, toning and clean-up adding a clarity and atmosphere of the piece, a vivid example being the glowing visuals during a passionate kiss. The only potentially controversial part of this restoration is Sawhney’s new score. While it’s commendable that a new, experimental approach was taken with the score, and while the music generally reinforces the imagery without overwhelming it, the two songs that are included seem ill-advised: the lyrics are too on the nose, unnecessarily stating in words what the director has already made clear with images.
The Lodger holds up remarkably well, both as a key work in the Hitchcock canon and as a thriller in its own right. The director would return to tackle similar themes in London nearly 50 years later with Frenzy, a bleaker, more explicit version of the Jack the Ripper story. The Lodger tells a more poignant and romantic story than Frenzy, despite the potentially lurid subject matter, with the former showing less of the grimy, seedy side of the story than the latter. The Lodger is also an excellent example of the creative excellence of British silent cinema, and a distinctive early work from one of the world’s greatest directors.
© Martyn Bamber, August 2012