Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1927 film, THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock had made two movies before he came to create what he called the first true Hitchcock film. The first, THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925), is a pretty forgettable and miserable melodrama. The second, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE (1926), is lost today, but by Hitchcock’s own estimation, it also wasn’t worth revisiting in great detail. But with THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, he took a massive leap forward into defining his visual style and visited many of the tropes and themes that had fascinated and would continue to fascinate the Master of Suspense.
This narrative has been explored in great detail. And for good reason: THE LODGER is an incredible film, a “wrong man” thriller with German Expressionist influence. Gaetano di Ventimiglia (an Italian baron) was the cinematographer under direction here (he had also worked with Hitchcock on THE PLEASURE GARDEN and THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE), and he must be given some credit for contributing to Hitchcock’s development. Together they steeped Ivor Novello’s mysterious, titular lodger in shadow, suffused common spaces like the Bunting house’s kitchen and urban taverns with warming light, and framed the action through staircase banisters and gate bars.
One of the most noted shots in the film, in which Novello’s pacing feet can be seen through a transparent pane of glass from below (symbolizing the perspective of those on the floor below), has been called a gimmick. Hitchcock himself even took issue with some of the hamfisted visuals and iconography in the film; at one point, a cross is displayed on Novello’s face, foreshadowing his near martyrdom. But as I’ve expressed before, didactic does not always mean weak or unconvincing. It certainly can, but with such visual boldness and direct calls to the guiding hands of a creative professional, THE LODGER yields a cerebral, appreciative response as well as the emotional one that great, “immersive” film language produces.
Inspired by the Jack the Ripper killings, Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote the novel of the same name, published in 1913. This, together with the play adaptation WHO IS HE? (1915), formed the basis for THE LODGER. When a mysterious serial killer, dubbed the Avenger, starts killing blondes, London is sensationalized and a small family that has recently taken in a muted tenant starts to suspect him of the crimes. But as it is revealed, he is in fact the sister of the Avenger’s first victim, and the clues that apparently reveal him as the murderer are in fact tools for tracking down and, ironically, avenging his sibling. Hitchcock, and early screenwriting collaborator Eliot Stannard (who wrote eight of Hitchcock’s films), ratchet up the tension with exciting modernity. One scene in which Mrs. Bunting (played with sweet conviction by Marie Ault) snoops around the lodger’s room is juxtaposed with his arriving home. Just as you think he’s inserting his key into the lock, about to swing open the door and discover Mrs. Bunting, Hitchcock cuts to the woman approaching the bed in her own room, clearly unconvinced and still glancing at the ceiling, where the lodger still roosts at the peak of the multi-level house.
But of course, matinee idol Novello cannot be the killer (although the lodger was in the original story). As mentioned, THE LODGER starts Hitchcock off on his series of “wrong man” films, as it does with his filmic fascination with blondes, his indictment of paranoia and mob rule, and even his trademark on-screen cameo. It’s an incredibly lucid, sharp, and tremendously paced 90-minute film, a complete triumph for only Hitchcock’s third film. But. Although THE LODGER is heralded as the “start” of Hitchcock’s recognizable career, there were a lot of other kinds of productions between THE LODGER and his return to the genre and overt themes which were to dominate his output from the late ’30s until FAMILY PLOT (1976).
Yes, I’d say Hitchcock followed THE LODGER with some clear deviations from the thriller/suspense genre, not without, I’m sure, some directive from the various British studios that employed him; his star had not yet risen, as it would in Hollywood, to the point that he had a complete pick of his projects. In fact, of all nine of Hitchcock’s silent films, I would say THE LODGER is the only one to fit into what modern audiences might expect of a “Hitchcock picture.”
And even when he would return to the themes that would make him famous with BLACKMAIL (1929) and MURDER! (1930, sometimes not even really considered as part of this “suspenseful” canon), such films were sandwiched between others like CHAMPAGNE (1928, a “rich person comedy”), ELSTREE CALLING (1930, a musical revue co-directed by Adrian Brunel), and WALTZES FROM VIENNA (1934, a continuation of a British trend toward operetta films that Hitchcock described as a musical without music and the lowest ebb of his career).
It’s even more admirable and incredible, then, that Hitchcock was able to, so early on, dedicate himself to the kind of story and visual interpretation of such a story with THE LODGER. His non-suspense films of the silent era and early ‘30s, it should be noted, are not without brilliant sights, affecting storytelling techniques, and enjoyable plots. But if you want to see the bar set very high very early for a career that would reach incredible heights, be sure to steep yourself in the insulating effects of THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG.
Who doesn’t love a good mixed metaphor.