Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lodger

THE LODGER                B+              
aka:  The Lodger:  A Story of the London Fog
aka:  The Case of Jonathan Drew
Great Britain  (92 mi)  1927  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Who but Hitchcock could take what is essentially a Jack the Ripper serial killer movie and turn it into an unabashed love story?  Not likely the original ending planned, as the film is in part based upon a 1915 comic stage production that Hitchcock saw called Who Is He? by the playwright Horace Annesley Vachell, a dramatized version of an original 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based upon the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that ends ambiguously, with the reader never sure if the lodger is the murderer or not.  Hitchcock would have liked to create a similar ambiguity about the guilt or innocence of the lodger (Ivor Novello), where by the end it wouldn’t be so clear cut, but this was impossible, largely due to the star status of matinee idol Novello, where the public wouldn’t have accepted him as a killer, much like the use of Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), the biggest star Hitchcock had ever worked with at that point, where RKO studios insisted Grant be a hero instead of the villain, culminating in a substitute ending.  So while it’s not entirely the film Hitchcock would have liked, it is his first true suspense film and the first to bear his distinct imprint.  Being the earliest makes it in many ways more interesting, as these ideas are not yet formulated or polished into the “Hitchcock” brand where he eventually became known as the Master of Suspense and are instead expressed in a more raw and untested format with ideas still inventively taking shape onscreen and in his head.  The restoration includes an energetically dramatic musical score by Nitin Sawhney and the London Symphony Orchestra Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) - trailer - YouTube, one that bears the influence of Bernard Hermann, as it pulsates with a string-heavy sense of tension and urgency throughout, with a few jarring moments, including the interesting use of a song, adding a quiet romantic poignancy to go along with the lush, darkly scored melodrama, where there is also the prevalent use of both a sepia-toned and blue color scheme.  This is the first Hitchcock film to dwell on the subject of murder, where the entire town of London is in a panic as headlines reveal a 7th murdered victim, always choosing Tuesday nights to target a young blonde woman, and always leaving a personally signed note attached, seen here as the Avenger.  From the outset, Hitchcock demonstrates a flair for building tension and creating a pervading sense doom that hovers over the city like a blanket of depressing fog that never seems to lift.  As people on the street wildly describe what they’ve seen, where onlookers literally swarm all over the dead body frantically searching for clues, not waiting for the police and not realizing, apparently, that they’re disturbing a crime scene by tampering with and destroying possible evidence.

Out of this foggy gloom comes a knock on the door, where a brilliantly colored sepia-toned light literally bathes the person at the door in a yellow glow, where our first glimpse offers an unworldly look of the lodger, whose behavior is odder still, a quiet and mysterious man in search of a room who does not wish to be disturbed, who insists that the photographs of women in the room be removed, making the landlady Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) a bit nervous, but she admittedly needs the money, paid in advance.  The Buntings have an attractive daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), that we see do some modeling work, where she is quite relaxed while many of the other girls are crawling over one another to look at the latest news about the Avenger, wearing brunette wigs when going out to avoid being the next victims.  Adding fuel to the fire, Daisy’s boyfriend is Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), one of the detectives assigned to find the killer, where his tidbits of news keep the Buntings overly inquisitive to the point of obsession about the matter, where soon the landlady starts to think the peculiar behavior and secrecy of their lodger merits further investigation, warning Daisy never to be alone with him, where they literally eavesdrop and spy on everything he says or does, always thinking the worst, constantly fed by the paranoid driven views of the police force who are ready to string a rope around the killer’s neck before they’ve even caught him.  While little more than busybodies, this kind of mischievous meddling is found throughout Hitchcock films, where a classic example is Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist in The Birds (1963), who becomes the town crier reminding everyone that they will be perfectly safe from the birds, who are lovely and perfectly harmless creatures, before she’s seen cowering in a hallway after a particularly ferocious attack.  Actually, the blanket of fog seems to seal in the malicious gossip and the pervasive feeling of doom just as tightly as the apocalyptic and neverending presence of birds did in Hitchcock’s 60’s disaster flick, where similar to the threat of birds, Hitchcock amps up the tension by flooding the screen with a malevolent misdirection and misunderstanding, where the police are continually shown as incompetent, the landlady and her husband are atrociously biased amateur sleuths, while the public’s fear is always elevated to a lynch-mob atmosphere, where they are easily susceptible to all forms of gossip and rumor.  This misdirection of frenzied hysteria plays right into the wrong man themes of nearly a dozen Hitchcock films, among which include The 39 Steps (1935), Suspicion (1941), Strangers On a Train (1951), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), North By Northwest (1959), and FRENZY (1972).              

One of the darkest and cruelest subtexts in the film is detective Chandler’s sexual jealousy, where he overreacts in crude fashion against the lodger, not because he suspects he’s guilty, but because the lodger is drawing the interest of his girlfriend Daisy, which seen in modern context may be the equivalent of her new love interest being a black man.  In the detective’s narrow mind, this is too outrageous for him to comprehend, so using the underlying, socially accepted view of providing her with protection, he relishes with a sadistic glee the idea of being able to put handcuffs on the guy and charge him with the murders.  While there are many subtexts to this film, one not often mentioned is the openly gay lifestyle of Novello, who along with Montgomery Clift in I CONFESS (1953) are the two most physically attractive gay men Hitchcock ever worked with.  In this film, the secrecy of the lodger, along with his aristocratic nature, arouses overt suspicion in others, especially the lower class, where they don’t trust him or like him and find him odd, where the landlady goes so far as to search through the belongings in his room when he’s not there, while the police conduct a similar search with a search warrant, both on a fishing expedition hoping to uncover hidden secrets.  The public scorn that the lodger faces is similar to that of openly gay men, particularly in the 1920’s, where nearly all were closeted due to the harshly negative ramifications.  While on the surface Novello has matinee idol good looks, and onscreen there is a physical attraction, but this is accompanied by an underlying need to expose him to public scorn and humiliation, to out him, as it were, leading to a lynch mob mentality of people wanting to tear him limb from limb.  Instead of gay, the storyline creates a kind of bogeyman serial killer, elevating the perceived immorality of homosexuality, viewed in that era as a crime, to a far more egregious offense, but gays and transgenders have a history of being targeted for particularly vicious and hideous crimes, perceived today as hate crimes, where for many in society, particularly religious conservatives, they retain that bogeyman status.  What’s significant in Hitchcock’s film is not any recognition of a gay mindset, but how he examines the very real consequences of mob mentality, exploring the swirling public passions that ignite into an irrational mob hysteria surrounding this issue of a perceived bogeyman, where too many innocent people have already been targeted and in fact lost their lives over this kind of misperception. 

Born in London at the end of the Victorian era, Hitchcock was destined to make unusually stylish suspense thrillers, where this was the first to showcase Hitchcock’s brand of sophisticated thriller, as well as his trademark dry, sometimes morbid humor, but the film is also notable for utilizing a litany of Hitchcock themes, including visual cues that he would reference for decades to come.  The everpresent staircase figures prominently throughout, initially in the claustrophobic confines of the Bunting household, but never more illustriously than in the finale, where it may as well be Scarlett O’Hara making her noticeable entrance down this grandiose staircase.  The striking look of the boldly decorated title cards are designed by the Cubist-influenced artist E. McKnight Kauffer, which recalls Godard’s similar use of giant headlines often screaming across the screen, while the influence of German Expressionism on the film is particularly evident, especially the dim glare of the streetlights consumed by fog, but also the clever use of a glass floor, where the audience sees the lodger pacing back and forth upstairs, causing the chandelier to sway on the ceiling, where of course they can’t really see through the ceiling, but it’s a way of literally altering reality through pure cinematic imagery, a way of seeing something that’s not really there, which may as well be the theme of the film.  There is an exquisite softness in the cinematography when the lodger and Daisy first kiss, shown in extreme close up with soft focus, looking magnificently expressionist and avant garde, using an experimental style that predates Bergman’s Persona (1966), where due to style alone it’s also one of the most extraordinarily romantic kisses ever captured onscreen.  Almost unnoticed in the film is the very clever use of a flashback sequence, where the audience has already been informed that the first of the Avenger’s murders is the lodger’s sister, insinuating that the lodger is not the murderer, that he is instead on a noble crusade to track him down, obeying his mother’s dying wishes, where the images of dancing with his virginal sister at her coming-out ball supposedly clears the lodger of malicious intent, yet what it actually shows is that he was in a perfect position to kill her, suggesting the possibility, at least, of a lying flashback.  While Hitchcock may have placed this clue as a red herring, commonly called MacGuffins (The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins), as he already knew from his producers that the lodger could not be the murderer, so this is strictly an early sign of that personal Hitchcock touch.  The film was improved upon and remade decades later as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with Joseph Cotton playing the smoothly eccentric role of the evil Uncle Charlie, and it’s not at all inconceivable to see signs of Novello’s lodger in Norman Bates, the pale, hypersensitive stranger from the consummate Hitchcock thriller Psycho (1960), where Hitchcock loved to misdirect audiences and play games with them, again transferring the 1920’s sexual inference with gay actor Anthony Perkins, but Hitchcock always considered this morbid little film a delicious black comedy, where Norman at one point utters “We all go a little mad sometimes.”  Despite its slow and languid pace, certainly part of what’s so thrilling about experiencing this silent film’s staggering originality and wildly ambitious scope is that it anticipates Hitchcock’s forthcoming genius.   

Note – At around the 3-minute mark Hitchcock’s back can be seen by the audience working the telephones as a newspaper editor, and again just a few minutes before the end he plays a spectator in the crowd, seen with his left arm over an upper railing wearing a flat cap as an angry crowd tries to attack the lodger, while his wife Alma Reville, the assistant director, also makes a brief appearance, credited as a woman listening to a wireless.