The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon (1, 2), Carlyle Blackwell, C.M. Woolf
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard (1, 2)
Based on the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia (1, 2)
Edited by Ivor Mantagu
Distributed by Woolf & Freedman Film Service (UK), Artlee Independent Film (US)
(1:30) Criterion Channel
Hitchcock himself, in the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, called The Lodger “the first true ‘Hitchcock movie’… It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture.”
Only it wasn’t his first picture, it was his third. And although we don’t know precisely how Hitchcock’s style advanced from The Pleasure Garden (1925) to the lost film The Mountain Eagle (1926), we do see some significant maturation from that first film to The Lodger, particularly in Hitchcock’s visual storytelling.
Although The Pleasure Garden opens with a pleasant enough scene with dancing girls descending a staircase, it provides only a general backdrop for the story, a set-up that could have gone in several different directions. Yet from the first scene of The Lodger, Hitchcock gives his audience an unforgettable close-up of a blonde woman screaming. Lit from behind, this moment shocks us not only by its brightness, but also denying us the sound of the woman’s scream. No one in any audience of any era can easily walk away from this opening.
We’re hooked in a far more effective way than we were at this point in The Pleasure Garden.
Cut to an electric sign advertising a new musical: “To-Night, Golden Curls,” followed by the discovery of a woman’s body in the street. A policeman, a reporter, and a crowd of onlookers quickly advance on the corpse. News travels fast, even in 1927, and Hitchcock shows us with a few quick cuts just how quickly it travels. A progression of shots - a teletype, radio announcements, people listening to their radios, police stations, and newspapers - convey the speed and methods of communication. We’ve seen such rapid cuts for so long that they’ve become routine, but Hitchcock’s visual shorthand not only conveys information quickly, it creates tension and accelerates the pace established in the opening. In no time at all, the audience is up to speed with everything they need to know: The killer, known by the press as “The Avenger,” murders only women, always blondes, and only on Tuesdays.
Now that Hitchcock has conveyed this vital information, the next logical step is to show the public’s reaction to it. Callous brunettes laugh in relief and terrified blondes fear to walk the streets, some donning dark wigs for protection. A newspaper boy calls Tuesdays “my lucky day” as mobs of people hungrily purchase the latest edition. A man in a coffee shop pulls his coat collar over his face, attempting to scare a woman. This combination of fear, scorn, and indifference create the perfect milieu for the next scene: the arrival of a strange man who walks up to a local residence displaying the sign “Rooms to Let.”
As the stranger comes to their door to inquire about the room, the landlady Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) lets him in. Hitchcock does a marvelous bit of sleight-of-hand here, allowing his audience to presume that this lodger (Ivor Novello) is the Avenger, since everything about him shouts “villain.” He’s tall, with searching eyes, the lower portion of his face covered, carrying a sinister-looking leather bag. This lodger immediately begins taking in his surroundings, making sure this is a safe place for him, as people with something to hide will almost always do. The room is filled with portraits of fair-haired women which he immediately turns to the wall.
In a wonderful shot, Hitchcock has the lodger stand in front of a window, the shadow of the lattice crossing his face like the sights of a gun (or a cross).
The landlady’s daughter Daisy (June Tripp) comes in, laughing at what the lodger has done to the pictures. How will he react? The next morning when Daisy brings him breakfast, the lodger grins as he picks up the knife. In a later scene, he plays chess with Daisy, warning her as she moves a game piece, “Be careful, I’ll get you yet.” These moments of the woman on the precipice of danger and the killer toying with her are elements Hitchcock will return to time and time again, so it’s both interesting and rewarding to see him playing in this particular toy box so early in his career.
Throughout these scenes, we meet Joe (Malcolm Keen), who also rents a room in the Bunting house. Joe is a policeman (essentially a beat cop) working on the Avenger case and is also in love with Daisy. Even in 1927, audiences probably knew where this was going.
Hitchcock contrasts the silent, mysterious lodger with Joe, who’s not very sophisticated or bright. Joe assures Daisy’s father (Arthur Chesney) that they’ll catch the Avenger by the next Tuesday. “When I put a rope around his neck, I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger,” Joe claims. Oh boy…
Joe even carries around a pair of handcuffs, which he foolishly uses on Daisy as a joke that goes wrong long enough for the lodger to realize that Joe’s a cop, albeit a stupid one. In later films, Hitchcock’s inspectors would (mostly) gain more knowledge and professionalism, but for now, he’s having fun with this doofus.
As mentioned before, part of the fun of The Lodger is in watching Hitchcock’s growth as a visual storyteller. Two of the film’s most famous scenes involve the actions of the lodger himself. In the first, we see the Bunting family on a lower floor of their rooming house, observing a hanging light fixture shake and sway due to the movement of the lodger walking around directly above them. Then Hitchcock show us an image of the lodger’s legs from below, walking on glass, which gives him the appearance of walking on air, a shot that’s both startling and somewhat disturbing, yet tremendously effective.
A far simpler shot follows only the lodger’s hand on a banister as he moves along the staircase. The scene is practically black except for the illumination of the hand, which recalls the illuminated glass of milk Cary Grant carries up the staircase in Suspicion (1941). Hitchcock says of the staircase scene in The Lodger, “All such touches were substitutes for sound. I wanted to show, by means of that shot, that the woman downstairs was probably hearing a creaking noise” (from a 1972 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels first appearing in Samuels’s book Encountering Directors, reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Interviews , Sidney Gottlieb, ed.). “Staircases are very photogenic,” Hitchcock remarked. Later in the film, we see another staircase moment, reminiscent of the famous descent in Notorious (1946).
Hitchcock’s use of shadow also features prominently in The Lodger. In addition to the window lattice shadow previously mentioned (and several other more conventional shadows utilized throughout the film), Hitchcock provides a tremendous show as the killer’s shadow falls upon and practically envelops the back of an unsuspecting girl on the street. When she turns around and she faces the shadow, we see the same type of look that opened the film...
...but it (unlike the first shot) also points ahead to a shot Hitchcock fans have seen time and time again: that of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower scene from Psycho (1960), just as the shower curtain has been yanked back.
Although we’re only two films (three, if you count The Mountain Eagle) into Hitchcock’s filmography, The Lodger is the film we’re more inclined to examine and study further, giving us a great insight into the director’s emerging style and tastes (as well as his obsession with blondes). Although I have only seen this film streaming (twice), I look forward to buying the Criterion Blu-ray, which includes a new 2K restoration and a wealth of supplements, including Hitchcock’s next film, Downhill (1927), also from a 2K restoration, and also starring Ivor Novello.
Once again, thanks for joining me on this journey through Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. Stay tuned for more.
Photos: Criterion, Travis Simkins, The Hitchcock Zone, Medium, IMDb, DVD Beaver