The Lodger (1926, Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock directed two films before The Lodger, but based on their relative reputations you’d almost not believe its predecessors existed; he would refer to it more than once as “the first Hitchcock picture.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration; The Mountain Eagle is not available for our judgment, but The Pleasure Garden, his debut, is scarcely the work of an amateurish first-timer. If anything, The Lodger is the scrappier of the two films, its budget limitations far more obvious, its setting more confined and limited, its world far less elaborate. It remains, however, a stunning film for a number of subtler reasons and is the finest of its director’s eight surviving silent efforts. (1929’s Blackmail, his first real masterpiece, was made in both silent and sound versions.)
When it’s referred to as the first real Hitchcock, what people mean is that it’s his first thriller, even if its traces of whodunit and relatively simple characterizations are far afield from his later suspense features. Certainly it’s the first of his films to exploit a fascination with crime that would eventually become synonymous with his name. Hitchcock’s major features from roughly 1934 onward could always readily be identified as his work and no one else’s. Of all of the movies the director made before Blackmail, it’s only The Lodger that more than vaguely resembles Hitchcock as he is remembered. It’s also the first use of the beloved “wrong man” scenario, a motif so familiar to Hitchcock films that to list the exceptions would be easier than to name all of its uses. In this case, however, the setup seems to have been something of a compromise; as ever, though, the conceit comes packaged with Hitchcock’s ingrained fear of police and authority, personified here by Malcolm Keen’s lurid cop whose lovelorn advances on the leading lady are openly mocked by her and by the film.
Seeing this today, one is quickly reminded of the degree to which — even when one is seeing one of his lesser films, like The Paradine Case or Stage Fright — in the world of film directing there was Hitchcock and then there was everyone else. The Lodger has a hackneyed plotline, lifted from a mystery novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes that exploited the unsolved Jack the Ripper crimes and the accompanying British hysteria, and in numerous ways it’s a compromised film of a tale too thin and banal to make up an ideal feature. And yet it’s frequently brilliant, an exciting fragment of cinematic craft that stands starkly apart from even the work of the silent masters like Murnau and Lang. It approaches its lackluster story with undaunted conviction and obvious, immediate populist appeal and thus inaugurates a legendary career.
The Lodger opens with a strangulation, part of a series of murders of blonde women — always on Tuesdays, and with a rather on-the-nose card from “the Avenger” left behind — that are captivating London, and soon takes us into the home of a working-class family echoing the kindly couple from The Pleasure Garden. Marie Ault and the wonderful Arthur Chesney (brother of Edmund Gwenn, whom he resembles uncannily) end up letting a room to a Mysterious Stranger (Ivor Novello), who matches a vague description of the killer (face covered with scarf) and behaves erratically, pacing around at all hours and insisting that several risque pictures of blonde ladies on the wall be overturned or removed. They and their daughter Daisy (June Tripp, destined to unforgettably narrate Jean Renoir’s The River twenty-five years hence), a showgirl, seem to assume the new occupant is either gay or extremely religious and laugh it off, but Daisy’s beau, the police detective played by Keen, is immediately suspicious of him, probably not least because he’s having less luck with Daisy than the new guy. It’s quite telling that Hitchcock never allows us to meet the actual perpetrator of the crimes we’re meant to see the detective solving, so in essence he — as a false accuser — becomes our villain.
The first twenty minutes or so of The Lodger are quite sufficient to justify the building of Hitchcock’s reputation; almost without exception, its most powerful innovations are confined to its breathtaking opening scenes (and its still-chilling opening titles). Years later, he would proudly describe how the film explores the aftermath of that first murder, terrifyingly presented as a screaming, disembodied head of a woman, her blonde hair tragically sprawled behind her, but after that disturbing shock the film is less interested in what happens when her body is pulled from the water than in how the news of her death spreads, and how people react when they learn of it. It’s an idea that would be repeated almost beat for beat in Frenzy, yet here Hitchcock is more direct about both playing to and implicating his audience. He harnesses our fascination with the lurid as we watch the murder splashed across newspaper headlines, neon signs and wire services and we’re given a chance to observe the private reactions of people as they hear or privately communicate and gossip about the killings. Even today it’s hard to imagine the human impulses at the core of mass media presented so succinctly, and with such visual pyrotechnics. We’re not shown anything overtly complex or unusual; everything we see is just a reality of urban life, but it comes across so fast and furious as to feel more like careening through a London street, seeing and hearing everything, than seeing a picture that’s telling a specific story. In this roundabout manner, The Lodger is able to suggest without the aid of sound that this series of horrible murders is the talk of the city.
In this mixture of stumuli, which de-emphasizes individual people in favor of casting the largeness of an increasing fear as the lead character of the film (its actual lead actor, Ivor Novello, doesn’t show up until after a quarter-hour or so), there is one of the most remarkable shots to be found in the first decade of Hitchcock’s filmography. It’s not a technically impressive or unusual take; there are several such “touches” in The Lodger, though his camera is more static than it ever would be again, but this is bracing for different reasons than a close-up of a hand on a railing, or the famous capturing from below, through glass, of Novello’s incessant pacing that’s causing a chandelier to rock to and fro. This is nothing more than a stationary shot of a dressing room full of chorus girls who rush in and go about their business casually, calmly, although they are unmistakably discussing the spate of murders that’s now hit terrifyingly close to them. What makes it remarkable to one schooled in the films of the day, in particular the German films that cast the most profound shadow on Hitchcock (he worked at Ufa for a time, and made his first two pictures in Germany), is the absolutely natural performances. Not one of the women is playing to the camera; they all are interacting believably with one another, they are not hysterical but one can sense their faint alarm and their need to play it off and keep going for their sanity, all accomplished without the ability to hear their dialogue (which if anything might disturb the illusion).
Hitchcock’s capabilities with actors are seldom discussed, certainly in popular film-buff circles but even among his more scholarly acolytes; it’s far easier to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that he saw actors, big stars especially, as mere props to allow him to do what he wanted with camera, design, story and technique, all of which interested him far more. This is bollocks, of course — no one but Hitchcock was able to get such range out of, for example, Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, and arguably only Frank Capra ever gave James Stewart so much room. This invalid reputation probably comes because other aspects of Hitchcock’s later films merit so much healthy discussion that something so seemingly mundane as a good performance can’t hold a true share of the attention, but more explicity it’s because the performers in his films very seldom call attention to themselves.
It’s for this feature that his silent work is most remarkable; as interesting as his montage tricks were, as unmistakable as his visual style was already becoming, he was still putting into practice the education he’d received from Russian, German and American filmmakers. His silent films are a look at the man learning his craft, in progress. Where his work of the ’20s stands apart, beginning with the bewitchingly low-key leading women in The Pleasure Garden, is in his insistence toward quiet, natural performances from his actors. Silent acting in general is not nearly so theatrical and broad as is often remembered from parodies and the like, but in a film like The Lodger there is still much that stands apart from choices that were being made by almost anyone else at the time. Moments after the dressing room scene, there is a moment when Novello is sitting at a desk in his room and his new landlady is repeatedly asking him if he needs anything else. Novello blinks, grits his teeth and clinches his fist in an almost imperceptible manner — there is no way she, standing behind him, could gather his mood through the gesture — that clearly indicates how frustrated he is with the intrusion before a title card announces that that will be all, thank you. It’s difficult to find a moment so small and well-observed as that in a silent feature, particularly one that’s mostly a conventional mystery. Excluding Malcolm Keen, all of the major roles in the film are filled by actors similarly committed to well-observed subtlelty. This is probably the reason why Peter Bogdanovich, among others, has cited The Lodger as a silent film that “feels like a talkie”; one thinks for all the world that they can hear the dialogue, the creaking of stairs, the commotion of streets. That indeed is how the film lives in the memory, even with a relative paucity of title cards.
The problems with the story itself start to float in after the expertly mounted setup. Neither Novello nor Keen is a believable romantic interest for the luminous, spunky Daisy, and Keen’s mounting of a police investigation on the lodger evidently to settle a score gels poorly unless we’re meant to believe he’s terrible at his job. As so often in stories like this, however, the suspicious behavior of Novello’s scarfed weirdo is justified inadequately by the closing exposition. We learn that he is trying to avenge (!) his sister, one of the first victims of the crimes, and this is why he doesn’t like to see pictures of young girls, paces around at night, hides a briefcase with a gun and a map of the murders in it, and appears to be obsessed over the case. Though this neatly exonerates him in the eyes of the audience, it’s something of a stretch when matched up with nervous, compulsive behavior that suggests he’d have a hard time living anything resembling a normal life at the best of times; moreover, said behavior magically disappears when he’s playing chess with or locked in an illicit embrace with Daisy. There’s also the small matter of him attempting to open a bathroom door, with Daisy nude and singing in the tub on the other end, before he thinks better of it, a Norman Bates-like maneuver that’s never properly explained away.
It’s been stated time and time again that Hitchcock wanted Novello to turn out to be the pseudo-Jack the Ripper, or at least for his identity to remain so ambiguous that the crowd would always be left guessing. The latter appears to be the novel’s conclusion. Such a tactic was, legend has it, stymied by the studio that couldn’t fathom audiences buying matinee idol Novello as a cold-blooded killer, but it’s honestly difficult to imagine how the story as Hitchcock imagined it would be played out in any kind of compelling or suspenseful way, although there’s little doubt it would have improved on the rather weak conclusion we’re given. Though there is an excellent chase scene that ends with Novello hung over a bridge by his handcuffs as a sort of Christ figure, up to then audience sympathies have never been fully with the lodger because we lacked crucial information about him. We never come to know the other characters well enough for them to become vessels for our empathy, so like The Pleasure Garden this ends up being a Hitchcock film without the powerful force of identification that would make his masterpieces so intoxicating. Our interest in the story being told is almost wholly intellectual, despite its portraits of a paranoid London displaying a deft understanding of people and of mob mentality. This on the whole is the reason Hitchcock seldom chose straightforward mysteries as projects: all the film finally does is raise a suspicion, and it’s then backed into the corner of either confirming or quashing it. That it chooses one over the other finally has little bearing; the longer it lingers on absolutes, the more it robs itself of any dramatic possibilities. That’s not to say the finale isn’t compelling or that we’re not intensely involved with the story, but little about it is actively surprising, and most of its interesting elements are tied exclusively in the way that Hitchcock and Gaetano di Ventimiglia block and shoot it.
History doesn’t adequately record why producer Michael Balcon so deeply loathed The Lodger that he insisted on shelving it, potentially nixing a career that was already on the rocks. (No one was happy with The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, including their director.) Hitchcock said it was politics via rival Graham Cutts, others (like biographer Donald Spoto) have implied Balcon was priggishly opposed to some of the more sensational aspects of the plot, but it’s known that writer Ivor Montagu was brought in to reedit the film and alter some of the titles, something Hitchcock probably resented as titles were his former area of expertise. One account exists that he removed a whopping 320 title cards from the film — which, given Hitchcock’s attraction to purely visual cinema and admiration of title-allergic F.W. Murnau, is rather an eyebrow-raising assertion. Either way, when The Lodger did finally make its way to an actual release in this altered form, it was arguably the first British picture to make any sort of a meaningful dent in the international marketplace. In the UK, it was a sensation, and with its clean, sharp visuals and nail-biting suspense it obviously played a major role in beginning to make its director’s reputation.
Hitchcock never had qualms about self-plagiarism; several of his best films share crucial story points and refine ideas from his earlier work. The Lodger would have its best elements all but directly reengineered as Blackmail, his tenth film and second thriller, three years later. That film nixes the murders in favor of a single attempted rape, it molds the woman character into a justified murderer in a society that will almost surely refuse to understand her reasons, but it retains the loving parental figures, a police inspector boyfriend, and the moral indifference of authority. It also adds sound, and uses it with the same aplomb and innovation with which The Lodger makes use of its limited, sparse but beautiful sets. One doubts it could exist without The Lodger; one indeed doubts that any of Hitchcock’s best-known works would have been made without The Lodger, which would be reason enough to see it. But in current restorations, it’s still a tremendous, spooky yarn that seems almost eerily modern in its irony and subtlety. If you must see only one of the director’s silent films, this undoubtedly is the one to seek out. It brings the oblique, enveloping style of German Expressionism to a more familiar manifestation of the often seamy, grimy world we know; the crime picture would never be the same.