Wow. Suddenly, we leap from a pretty good movie with some promising style to An Alfred Hitchcock Film. Right from the opening frame, a shadowy stylized graphic figure silhouetted in a doorway, to the following smash cut image of a girl’s screaming face with an angled camera, ‘The Lodger’ instantly feels like classic Hitchcock. Pretty remarkable to achieve this leap of style within what must have been a year or so between movies.
The atmosphere of the movie is one of dread, terror, the expectation of murder and the suspicion of strangers. The picture is heavy with Hitchcockian signatures – the blonde female makes a rousing first appearance (even though there was a blonde girl in the early scenes of ‘The Pleasure Garden’, this doesn’t become a plot point like it does here). The mystery killer – melodramatically referred to as ‘The Avenger’ (‘tall he was – and his face all wrapped up’ an onlooker remarks) – kills on a Tuesday and targets blonde girls. ‘No more peroxide for yours truly’ comments one of the dancers at the Golden Curls revue to her colleague.
Daisy Jackson (June – she has no surname) is our heroine, and her policeman beau Joe Betts (Malcolm Keen) grows suspicious of the new lodger at her parents’ home – played with keen theatricality by the great Ivor Novello. Daisy, however, views this stylish stranger less with suspicion than attraction – their chess game rife with mutual craving. Violence is also playfully suggested (‘I’ll get you yet’, says Novello as they play. Later in the game, he reaches for the fire poker and aims it at her head…)
The recurring Hitchcock plot of the-wrong-man-accused pops up here full force – everything pointing at the lodger as the guilty murdering Avenger. He has a map of the killings, he half covers his face in a scarf, turns all the pictures of blondes to the wall in his room and then requests they be removed, goes out in the fog at night, and is generally mysterious. And he dares to schmooze in on Daisy right under Joe’s nose, the cad, let’s string him up (which very nearly happens in the closing minutes of the picture). The way so much of the picture points the finger of guilt to Novello is close to overplayed: he goes out on a Tuesday night in his scarf getup/is seen by the landlady/murder occurs etc. He’s so obviously the killer, he cannot possibly be.
Novello is really good, as you’d expect (he was a big star at the time) – his movements exaggeratedly slow, elegant and purposeful, if slightly effete. He’s assisted by a plot that keeps driving along really well, the whole idea of the Tuesday killings giving the cops a deadline (as it were) to catch him. Joe works the case: ‘when I put a rope round the Avenger’s neck – I’ll put a ring round Daisy’s finger’. Hitchcock encases the main story in detail that gives a really good atmosphere: there is an almost documentary-like sequence near the start where we see the printing of the Avenger story in the newspaper (printing presses/distribution – the famed ‘back of van that looks like a pair of eyes’ shot*). As a title states: MURDER – WET FROM THE PRESS. Later we have MURDER – HOT OVER THE AERIAL as we see a radio announcer with a microphone. Hitchcock uses various methods to show how the news is transmitted (a ticker tape appears also), thus getting away from further title cards or ‘the news spreads’ exposition scenes.
Hitchcock starts introducing the kind of flourishes that later will become a trademark. The most audacious of these is the scene where the lodger is pacing in his room, Daisy, her parents and Joe below looking up at the sound of his footsteps. What does Hitch do? He makes the ceiling out of glass so their imaginations can actually see him walking.
Again, wow! Who else would come up with that kind of daring effect? It’s weird, strange, original, clever, unexpected, abstract and quite brilliant. How did he ever persuade his backers that it was a cool idea and worth funding? Already, even at this early stage of his directing career, he must have had the confidence and authority to pull this off. I mentioned Michael Powell in the notes on ‘The Pleasure Garden’ and you could imagine him doing something like this also. Wonderful stuff.
The look of the film is also pretty great – it’s like Hitchcock suddenly went out and watched a load of German expressionist movies and just went for it. Deep shadows, angled shots, harsh blacks and whites: ‘A Story of the London Fog’, as the subtitle states.
I would highly recommend ‘The Lodger’ to even the casual viewer. It’s really very good and keeps the suspense up to the end, as Novello is chased by an angry pub mob who are convinced he is the killer – even as Joe rushes to let them know the police have caught the real Avenger. These scenes with the angry mob give a genuine sense that the lodger is going to be killed – the mob so big it seems impossible he can escape. Novello’s acting may be a bit OTT by today’s standards, but it doesn’t matter against the backdrop of fear and dread Hitchcock develops.
*When Novello and Daisy have been out on their first date and they’re back in his room, two pictures on the wall behind them appear to watch their goings on.
Check out that overhead shot of Daisy’s mother going downstairs about 36 minutes in – it’s ‘Psycho’ 34 years early!
There is the first appearance of the favoured profile shot in the lodger/Daisy chess match: Novello framed in a side view, a shot that will become a recurring one for Hitchcock.
First Hitchcock personal appearance! He pops up in the closing scenes as the crowd try to off Novello over the railings, the director amongst those leaning over to rubberneck.
There is a distinct Pieta-like composition as Daisy cradles the lodger as he is taken down from the near fatal railings. I remember seeing ‘Topaz’ a while back and there is a very similar sequence in this late Hitchcock (following the torture of two of the characters). Will seek out others…
Finally, staircases: in the postscript following the closing ‘EVERY STORY HAS AN END’ title, Novello is back at his place and descends a rather palatial one – the first of many Hitchcock grand staircases.
There are various durations of the movie out there. The version I saw ran 89 mins and, I’m pretty sure, is the US version. In the UK it runs 75 mins, in Spain apparently 67 (quite what they hacked out of it there I don’t know), plus various durations in other territories. I picked up a REALLY cheap 4 disc box set that features quite a few of the early Hitchcock’s (money saving exercise, this) so I would say it’s difficult to assess what the best quality version out there is. The transfer I watched was, quite frankly, appalling: scratchy/picture fluttering/strange cropping of the image/missing frames leading to jump cuts etc. Following the opening credits, bizarrely, the BBFC certification board pops up for a few frames (!) ‘The Lodger’ is one of the early Hitchcock’s the BFI are hoping to restore in the next year or so. Pretty soon you’ll hopefully be able to see it in pristine condition.