I was unaware of director John Brahm and his filmography before watching this version. It does not surprise me that he directed Laird Cregar a year later in 20th Century Fox’s similarly themed HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) where once more we have a killer on the loose in Victorian England with Cregar again playing the bad guy.
I think I should get this observation out of the way, immediately: I find Laird Cregar a fascinating and highly competent performer but I do not think he has a handle on these types of characters. My biggest gripe with Cregar in villain mode, at least in this version of the Jack the Ripper tale, is that he is playing the lodger too ambitiously. It feels like he is giving an operatic performance in the middle of a country and western tune. That’s the analogy I have for this, he’s not exactly hamming it up but he is definitely overacting the part.
Speaking of opera, I think he would have been perfect in Universal’s 1943 remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. That’s the type of story that does require an over-the-top quality and daresay camp. But Cregar is trying to reach impossible heights with the lodger role that simply are not to be found in the story, or if those lofty points of the character are suggested, they are not meant to be fully explored. A wise actor would have erred on the side of subtlety and kept some of the pathos muted.
It sounds strange my complaining about an actor who is certainly giving a competent performance but I think he has a different view of how the material is meant to be played, opposed to what the writers have intended. This is not a grand character in any sense. He’s a low-life reprobate who gets kicks out of tormenting and destroying women. Vulnerable women.
Okay moving on from Cregar, I think Cedric Hardwick is the wrong choice for the male home owner Robert Bonting. He’s too high class and this part requires a middle class character type. Some of Hardwicke’s diction is just too polished and I cannot believe him in the role. Barry Fitzgerald would have been my choice.
On the other hand, I think Sara Allgood is a vast improvement over Marie Ault in the 1927 version and she is also better than what Frances Bavier manages in the 1953 production.
As landlady Ellen Bonting, Allgood exhibits all the right mannerisms, she feels like a middle class woman and she also has a convincing accent (which Bavier lacks in MAN IN THE ATTIC). I also like Allgood’s rapport with Merle Oberon who plays her niece.
They’ve changed the name of the niece from Daisy in the British version to Kitty in this first American version. However, they recycled the name Daisy for the family maid. Merle Oberon does look like a refined Kitty cat, and she fits her role purr-fectly.
Oberon does an admirable job with the song-and-dance numbers during the scenes that take place in the theater, even if it is obvious her singing voice is dubbed. In short Oberon conveys the sort of coquettishness and energy her role requires. She gets on well with Allgood and has palpable chemistry with George Sanders, who sometimes in his other films is too proper to do justice with romantic storylines. That’s not the case here, thank goodness.
Sanders plays the copper. As I stated last week, the police investigator character does not turn up until a third of the way into this movie. It is a good thing since it means we have to focus on Kitty’s relationship with her aunt and uncle at home, as well as all of them interacting with the new lodger (Cregar). Oberon and Cregar share zero sexual chemistry, which is not Oberon’s fault. There should definitely be heat underneath the daily routines and exchanges between Kitty and Mr. Slade the lodger. But that is absent.
This version of the story adds in a bit of forensic science. Inspector John Warwick (Sanders) is trying to connect Slade to the murders by lifting fingerprints from objects that Slade has touched in the room he’s renting. Some of the dialogue is a bit expository, explaining to 1944 audiences what collecting forensic evidence entails. But I did like this added into the plot since it increases realism and shows how a policeman might logically prove who the culprit is.
The lodger’s motives change in this telling. He is no longer innocent like Ivor Novello was back in 1927, nor is he trying to avenge a sister’s death. This time he’s off kilter because his brother was ruined by a showgirl. We are not given a full explanation of how the brother’s demise occurred by knowing a showgirl, but because the woman was supposedly so corrupt, Slade is now out to get all showgirls. In some ways this is laughable nonsense. The 1953 version with Jack Palance does a much better job explaining the lodger’s psychosis and includes some Freudian analysis of Slade which is much needed.
The costuming is exquisite throughout this production. But I found the set design not as good I hoped it would be. One of the problems I had with the sets is that they seemed like warehouse areas on the 20th Century Fox lot. For instance, the downstairs of the Bonting home is a little too spacious for middle-class folk. And the lodger’s quarters have high walls with too much space to walk around the furniture. An upstairs room in a modest city home would not look like this. The attic upstairs where Slade does his “experiments” would be even smaller. So I don’t think the set designer was correct in these aspects.
The studio warehouse feel is even more prevalent in the final sequence where Slade is chased by the inspector and the inspector’s men through the backstage area of the theater. But my goodness this theater seems to go on and on, with all kinds of stairwells and platforms and windows that Slade has at his disposal in a magnificent attempt to thwart capture. To be honest, the chase felt a bit dragged out, even if Cregar’s final closeup and his smashing through a glass window make up for it.
We are backtracking to the Victorian Age and Whitechappel with the actual Jack the Ripper instead of the “Avenger” running loose for this adaptation of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ story. The 20th Century Fox art department don’t get all of the details historically accurate, but I do feel that Fox had the best recreations of England and London in particular. They always made sure that they incorporated many actual British stars in such productions so there was always a consistency in accents.
This shares certain aspects in common with the earlier Hitch film, but differs with its ending. First we get the new lodger Mr. Slade (Laid Cregar) requesting that the ladies portraits get removed from his room, as in Hitch’s version. Miss Kitty (Merle Oberon), instead of Daisy, is the primary damsel in distress here, being the niece rather than the daughter of room renters, the Bontings (Sara Allgood & Cedric Hardwicke). She is also a very successful stage actress and a brunette, but does not become Slade’s love interest even if he develops an obsession for her later. (Oh… we do get a maid called Daisy, played by Queenie Leonard.)
Apart from Oberon and Cregar, the other big billed star here is George Sanders as Inspector John (or Jonathan as the other character in Hitch’s film was called) Warwick and he has no romantic interest in the star lady.
Filmed in August-October 1943, roughly the same period as Paramount’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MINISTRY OF FEAR, this was part of the great “film noir” boom when all three were released in 1944, emphasizing psychological “demons” in humankind and lots of low-key lighting.
Such films had been around for a while and one would consider Hitch’s THE LODGER as another key example from the earlier decades, but you do see a jump in films resembling these from 1943 (6 features listed at Wikipedia) to ’44 (23). I guess we should properly label THE LODGER a half-noir since it has many standard daytime scenes of a hardly cloudy London (that California sun is mighty bright) and reserves shots of Laid Cregar in stark silhouette and ominous shadows for the indoor shots and nighttime streets.
One other curio: Fox wasn’t sure if it should turn this into a musical or not, since we get Oberon as Kitty doing two lavish, if short, musical numbers; not that the dramatic actress could ever become the next Alice Faye.
I have to praise the impressive tracking shots that open it as we see a drunk patron of the pub make her short trip back home around the corner and…does not make it once she walks around a corner, quite literally. We hear her talk to somebody (“Who are you?”) and then scream.
Although I consider the later murder of Jenny (Doris Lloyd) much more effective and shocking, all of these opening shots are still pretty impressive with the cameras held steady and positioned from a perched pigeon’s point of view. Other memorable scenes here are those of police looking for the killer, again from a high angle and with some nice Caligari-like zigzag compositions that reflect the unsettled state of London’s city-scape mentality.
The screenplay by Barre Lyndon is adequate, as is the cast, but I suspect that the German-born director John Brahm and key cinematographer Lucien Ballard were having much more fun with the visuals than the story. So many freeze-frames make interesting photo art. Especially love the brief scene of Mr. Slade greeting Kitty (dialogue: “You didn’t mind my sending you the little note, did you?” / “I was glad to have it…”) with his arm and body at the door creating a triangle arch way engulfing her as she files her nails all flirtatiously.
I was instantly reminded of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE decades later with Mrs. Robinson’s legs looking just as menacing over an equally suffocated Benjamin.
Also great are the mirrors reflecting four Slaters on screen as he menacingly talks to Kitty in a later scene. Love that final zoom-in to actor Laid Cregar’s face as he breaths heavily before his final leap.
Spoiler alert: Mr. Slade is not Jack the Ripper, as confirmed by Inspector John’s fingerprint analysis. Kitty doesn’t consider him threatening at all until his personality turns Hyde-ish rather abruptly in one, in my opinion, over-acted scene that has little foreshadowing. Slade is very disturbed with a brotherly love loss that is funneled into a hostility towards beautiful women, a fascinating angle that I wish was developed further on screen. Therefore, he must be punished by getting shot and falling into the Thames. Cue the following dialogue:
- Kitty: He said deep water was restful, full of peace. The river drew him, even in the end.
- Inspector John: The river sweeps the city clean.
- Kitty: Carries things out to sea and they sink in deep water.
Despite some flaws, I actually favored this version over Hitch’s silent one. The many memorable camera angles and artsy compositions sell it to me.