Essential: THE LODGER (1927)

TopBilled wrote:

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THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927) is based on Marie Lowndes’ 1913 novel, The Lodger, which is a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders. The Lowndes source material would also be used for 20th Century Fox’s sound version, THE LODGER (1944) and its subsequent remake MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953).

I felt the initial scenes were too slow. It took a while for the story to get underway. Initially the focus seemed to be placed on some blonde-haired girls performing at a local nightclub.

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One of the girls– Daisy– lives in a house where a mysterious lodger takes up residence. But first we are treated to some cute romantic nonsense involving Daisy and a policeman cutting out heart-shaped cookie dough in the kitchen.

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Now why did I have a problem with this? Because it unnecessarily delays the arrival of the lodger. In this version the lodger is not a villain. Gasp! He gets the girl in the end. So why even spend time on the girl with the copper? Probably because Hitchcock intended the lodger to be the killer, and for the girl to end up with the copper.

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The producers of the film were against the idea of featuring Ivor Novello as a villain. Hitchcock had already cast the popular stage and screen star in the main role. Now he was required to make the lodger innocent and someone else the killer. Moreover, he had to make Novello’s character a romantic hero who gets the girl. These changes went against the early set-up for the story. Also the romanticizing of the lodger is at odds with all those creepy expressionistic images of him.

If he’s going to be a lovable bloke in the end, why the dark shadowy treatment of him walking up and down the stairs and pacing back and forth in his room?

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Incidentally, the policeman does not show up until almost the half-hour mark in the 1944 version, which I think is smarter. We need to see the local environment, the streets and the housing, then become familiar with the family and their new lodger before a cop even turns up at the house. Of course we know murders are occurring and a serial killer is at large. But it should be secondary in the beginning, so we get to know the family and why the lodger decides to stay there. Or why they even take him in at all.

A lot of the acting in the silent version is hammy, which is unfortunate. I think Hitch is trying his best to make it cinematic. There are some clever and innovative ideas at play, like images of a swaying chandelier seen in a footprint.

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As well as a unique shot of Novello’s character pacing the floor, obviously walking on glass at an angle, so the camera can film it underneath.

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I love these touches. But for every cool gimmick Hitchcock devises, the actors pull it down with their outrageously melodramatic style of acting that is devoid of realism and any true feeling of terror, which the story so desperately requires.

Novello has great eyes and lips, and his closeups are fantastic. He’s prettier than his leading lady. In fact he’s so mesmerizing that it’s a shame he wasn’t allowed to play the villain and really suck us into the story properly.

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The actor cast as the investigating cop is wearing too much stage makeup in most of his scenes which pulls me out of why he’s in the scenes. He seems like an actor, not a copper portrayed by an actor. And due to the heavy makeup and expressionistic camerawork, the cop sometimes looks like a villain. Perhaps that was intentional on Hitch’s part?

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Oh, the motive for the lodger’s strange behavior…? In this 1927 version we are informed that he’s there to avenge his sister’s death at the hands of the killer. How he seems to be one step ahead of the police the whole time is not ever explained. But he has newspaper clippings, and we can assume his sister was a blonde since the victims are all blondes. In relation to some of Hitchcock’s usual themes, Novello’s character is falsely accused of being the killer. He is pursued in a dramatic chase scene near the end which features him trying to climb a wrought iron fence still wearing handcuffs and being clawed at by an angry mob.

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Ironically, the killer (called The Avenger instead of The Ripper) is nabbed off screen. The Avenger is associated with an image of a triangle. We never see what the real culprit looks like. But Novello’s lodger is now exonerated and free to be with the girl. There’s a happy ending which is what the studio wanted. This reminds me of how Hitch was forced to change the ending of SUSPICION (1941) when RKO execs were leery of having Cary Grant play a villain. Both these films have what I would call unrealistic happiness at the end.

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One last thing I want to add before we go on to Jlewis’ comments tomorrow is that silent films are very repetitive. By this I mean the scenes have endless variations, where certain motifs are repeated to remind the viewer that someone is scared, or someone is scary. That someone is in danger, or someone is causing danger. Such repetition stretches out a film’s length but also assures audiences they saw what they saw and there is no mistaking how something is occurring on screen. Directors don’t make movies like this anymore.

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***

Jlewis wrote:

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This is the most famous of the Hitchcock silents, predating his first “talkie” BLACKMAIL. Most of the others are not terribly Hitchcockian. I’ve seen a few, most notably THE RING (featured on a LionsGate’s DVD set that I have) which is a highly entertaining boxing drama but hardly different than other boxing dramas and not what you would define as a “Hitchcock film.” Of course, THE LODGER is among the first focusing on Hitch’s trademark subject of interest…muwrder…and even has the first of his legendary cameo appearances.

Previewed September 16, 1926, it was not officially released throughout the UK until February 14, 1927. Supposedly producer Michael Balcon was not being happy with it and Hitch’s career almost ended as soon as it was beginning.

It showcases some of the classic German Expressionistic style, reminding me a bit of the later PANDORA’S BOX with another Jack the Ripper sub-story of sorts incorporated in a melodrama featuring Louise Brooks. Such films featured plenty of dark atmospheric lighting. Although associated mostly with the 1940s and ’50s, the so-called “film noir” was popular for a while in the 1920s when the rival German film industry greatly impacted both Hollywood and the British film studios simultaneously.

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Alfred Hitchcock himself spent some time with the German studios and brought what he learned back home, while Hollywood studios like Paramount and Fox got Josef von Sternberg and F. W. Murnau, among others. Murnau had considerable influence on Hitch and it shows with THE LODGER.

Although the basis of the story is the famous Jack the Ripper killing spree of 1898, we are updated to the twenties here with all the cars and fashions. The killer is now the “Avenger” and actually does get captured (although we never see him), favoring ladies with blonde hair (and we all know how blondes are favored in Hitch films). The show girls at “Golden Curls” are all naturally scared for their lives, even if one makes a joke of the popular news stories.

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The first frame after main titles shows a woman up close screaming, followed by police and onlookers, plus an upset older lady witness, all surrounding a body at the scene of the crime. We learn key details of the crime with a montage of telegraph print outs and printing press images– “murder: fresh from the press” as well as radio promoting further “murder: hot over the aerial.” The visuals are so effective that just having a synchronized music score is enough to satisfy you since you can “hear” in your mind all that is happening here.

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A mysterious border arrives for…is it Room number 13? The actor Ivor Novello as the mysterious Jonathan resembles a young Frederic March in my mind. In a curious move, he requests all of the pictures of blonde girls and a semi-nude removed by the matron Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault).

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Hearing about this, the neighborhood cop Joe (Malcolm Keen) quips to his blonde girlfriend Daisy (June Tripp), daughter of the Buntings, “I’m glad he’s not keen on girls.” For modern viewers seeking some commentary on “orientation,” obviously not intentional for a film of this vintage, we also get Mrs. Bunting later admitting in title cards that “he is a bit queer.”

However, I do wonder if Hitch & company are still possibly having a few laughs about “straight”-laced society and their gender roles. Arthur Chesney plays Mr. Bunting and what I find most amusing about him is that he is usually seen reading the newspaper, reporting the murder news stories and the like, while Mrs. Bunting does all of the housework. Ditto Joe who is never really shown working but just socializing with the family and getting all jealous of Jonathan when he sports the more competitive Joe College sweater when in embrace with his lil’ woman.

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If both Joe and her parents work hard to distract Daisy from the “queer” resident, it doesn’t work. Likewise, he becomes as smitten with her as she is with him. We the viewers do, on cue, start questioning his motives occasionally as we see close-up shots of his hands grabbing sharp objects during a key chess game between the two.

Throughout we get plenty of gimmick shots of interest that, of course, reference many Hitch flix of later decades. Most impressive is Jonathan’s pacing about the room that impacts the ceiling light below and is presented with a glass shot of his feet above you in double exposure. Close-ups of his shoes in action resemble the early shots in STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN. The VERTIGO-ish stairway shots also look familiar.

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A bathtub instead of a shower (PSYCHO) is featured as Daisy disrobes at one point, with steam keeping her all innocent on screen while she enjoys washing her arms much like Janet Leigh does later. Close-ups of Jonathan and Daisy kissing foreshadow REAR WINDOW in their sensuality.

More importantly, the overall premise is one that Hitch replayed often: a man is accused of crimes that he must prove his innocence of. Also we get a woman who loves him and stands by his side. Hitch wasn’t terribly fond of the police and we have a main character here who lets jealousy impact his sense of justice and, predictably, arresting Jonathan doesn’t bring Daisy back to him.

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In more true silent melodrama fashion, we get the familiar flashbacks of a dying mother getting her son to bring the real Avenger to justice because, well, you need a mother in many of these for a noble son to be devoted to. Many films of the era also made subtle reference to Peal White with some cliffhanger action in the end: in this case, we see Jonathan handcuffed to a gate as a mob arrives to terrorize him.

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Overall, this holds up pretty well even if some modern viewers will obviously favor much later Hitch. This was a director testing the waters in a burgeoning genre that had yet to be his trade-mark. It also has a pretty standard happy ending, as our title-card reads “All stories have an end.”

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The story was popular as a radio adaptation over the years, although the plots changed quite a bit and only the title was consistent. One of these even had Alfred Hitchcock’s participation, if indirectly rather than directly since CBS had an impostor portray him on the air. My guess is that he was too busy with FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT’s post-production at the time, but was perfectly fine having his name promoted . This pilot show for the two decade run of Suspense was aired as part of CBS’s Forecast on July 22, 1940 and, like this film, mentions the novel author Mrs. Belloc Lowndes:

From what I have read online, Hitch made two attempts to redo this film during the succeeding two years, but there were struggles obtaining the rights…struggles that 20th Century Fox successfully overcame. Curiously Hitch wasn’t involved with this version, perhaps because he was busy making LIFEBOAT for that same studio instead.

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