Welcome to the second week of Weekly Hitch, in which I watch most of Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order for a year and then try to make you read about it. Fun, right?
For week two of the project we arrive at Hitchcock’s third film, 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Hitch’s second film, The Mountain Eagle, is considered lost and may never be seen again – so we had to skip over that and continue on with a really great and pivotal film – a movie that Hitch himself would later call “the first true Hitchcock picture.” So let’s get the week underway with, The Lodger.
The Lodger is the story of an older couple in London who begin to suspect that the man renting their spare bedroom (film star, playwright, composer and celebrity of the age Ivor Novello) might be a serial killer who is going around murdering blonde women in the night – and worst of all, their blonde daughter Daisy (played with clueless charm by June Trip) might be falling in love with him!
The film opens with the murder of a young blonde woman and the flashing lights of a theatre promising “To-Night Golden Curls” (a touch of which Hitchcock would always be proud). The sequence progresses as the discovery of her body – and of a small piece of paper bearing a triangle and the signature of the killer, The Avenger – leads to speculation and few among the crowd. An old woman saw the man – describes how he covered his face, a reporter then phones in the news which soon ends up in the paper, and on the wireless radio, and then flashing in lights all over the city… The Avenger has struck again!
Elsewhere the news hits some young women – the brunettes are laughing, the blondes scared – and among them is Daisy (June Tripp), a carefree blond woman who seems oddly at ease with all the murder and mayhem.
At Daisy’s home her father is talking with Daisy’s boyfriend Joe (Malcolm Keen) – who is a policeman – and teasing Joe that he must be a terrible cop to not catch a serial killer, because I guess dad knows everything like a smart-ass. Then Daisy arrives home and Joe tries to tell her that he loves her in an adorable cookie-cutter scene involving an actual heart-shaped cookie cutter, but Daisy is unsure of her feelings for the plain and upright Joe. Then the lights go out because apparently in the 20’s you had to pay for your gas or electricity by literally putting coins in a meter in your house like a slot machine.
While dad puts the light back on, a knock comes at the door – and THE LODGER arrives. He’s creepy and has his face covered and is clearly channeling Count Orlock from Murnau’s Nosferato. This is Ivor Novello – matinee idol and super celebrity. And he wants to rent the spare room.
Up in the room, the lodger is upset by all the paintings of blonde woman, he hides a suspicious bag, he has lots of money and he’s really creepy and unsettled. Everyone notices except Daisy who is pretty much in her own fantasy world of animated birds and cheery gumdrops.
But as time goes buy, and the family notices more and more unusual coincidences between their lodger and the serial killing Avenger… questions must be raised. Could it be?
Daisy, meanwhile, is blissfully ignorant and falling in love with the lodger, they play chess and share moody looks, all while the audience is tormented with the thought that every time he picks up a fireplace poker or length of rope he’s probably going to kill her to death.
Soon Joe the boyfriend decides to put all the pieces together – searches the lodger’s room, and finds a hidden bag full of damning evidence like a map tracing all the murders and a gun and newspaper clippings all about The Avenger!
They arrest the lodger on the spot, put him in handcuffs – and then he runs away because you could do that back then. But before he goes, the lodger tells Daisy to meet him at a special place, and she agrees because she’s a fool who goes to meet with fugitive suspect serial killers.
At the meet-up, the still handcuffed lodger tells Daisy that he’s the brother of The Avenger’s first victim and that he promised his dying mother that he’d avenge, I guess, the Avenger’s murder of his sister with vengeance. And Daisy buys it all. They go to a pub so she can buy him a brady to warm up, and in the pub everyone notices that he’s definitely suspicious and hiding handcuffs. Then they leave and Joe comes in looking for who he claims is The Avenger and the mob chases after the lodger.
But then! Joe gets word that the REAL AVENGER has been caught, so he goes and saves the lodger from the mob and everyone lives happily ever after – and we have seen a man wrongly accused be redeemed, while never actually getting to see a real serial killer at all.
Exciting and romantic, The Lodger truly has to stand as the first honest-to-goodness Hitchcock film, and far and away the best of his silent era, in my opinion. The movie is taut and well constructed and the quantum leap in directorial style between this film and the earlier Pleasure Garden is rather astounding.
The Lodger has layers, of catholic symbolism and meaning, of persecution and paranoia, it’s a commentary on fear and the mentality of the mob in age of – what they considered then – to be instant communication. The movie is fraught with tension and uncertainty and the performance of Novello, while occasionally a bit over-the-top, really creates a screen hero who is both deeply unsettling and perfectly sympathetic.
I was lucky enough the see The Lodger last summer in its fully restored glory and accompanied by a live pianist who had a doctorate in silent film music – and honestly, watching this movie with a live crowd of people was a transporting experience. The thrills and laughs and sighs of delight were probably just as they had been nearly 90 years ago, and watching it again this week I felt the same exhilaration.
Hitchcock may not have been in complete control of himself here, the camera work is at varying times subjective and objective, occasionally cutesy and sometimes just odd – and his use of symbolism is often more a heavy-handed clubbing than not – but there is so much of his future work in this film, and the story is so wonderfully and visually told, that you cannot help but see the entire modern age of film – the 50 years that would follow this work – being shown to you in this one silent wonder.
That said, I did have to have to stop and take a nap while watching it – because I was sleepy.
The story of The Lodger‘s making is nearly as interesting and exciting as the film itself – though not quite.
Based on the story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger was produced as a play in 1915 called “Who Is He?” – which Hitchcock claims to have seen at the time. (Not that hard to believe, as Hitch was an avid theatre-goer) The story and play were then brought to the attention of Michael Balcon at Gainsborough who decided to set Alfred Hitchcock to direct the picture, giving the young man one more crack at directing in the wake of having his first two films both shelved by C. M. Woolf – who ran the largest distributors group in England.
Woolf, according to rumour and record, had been influenced by Hitchcock’s former boss – director Graham Cutts – who was seemingly jealous of the young and ambitious Hitchcock, and so would take every opportunity to badmouth Hitch’s films to the distributors. And after two successful campaigns against Alfred, it seemed that this latest film might be Hitchcock’s last chance.
But the Hitchcock who undertook to direct The Lodger was not the same man who set out to Germany 2 years before to direct his first films. Hitchcock’s time in Munich, and his exposure to other artists like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang and the expressionist movement had begun to deeply affect the young British director. And Hitchcock put all of these new influences and ideas into The Lodger.
Production on the film must have been an artist coming of age for Hitchcock, a realization of so many of his influences and intentions – and it shows in the way that he would come back to certain shots and motifs and ideas for the rest of his career.
Take, for instance, the slow descent of a staircase by Ivor Novello in the second half of the picture. A hand slowly moving along the rail of a spiral staircase. And then compare the same shot to one from Vertigo – filmed roughly 30 years later:
As Hitchcock would go on to say; “Style is self-plagiarism.”
Other Hitchcockian elements that were laid down in The Lodger are his famous cameo (in this film he sits at a newspaper desk with his back to camera), the significance of drink, religious symbolism, the wrong man accused, inept police, and it goes on and on. This one film seems to have set fire to Hitchcock’s imagination and solidified what he would always be trying to reach – the perfect ideal of his own style.
And then, once production had wrapped came Hitch’s biggest challenge yet; showing it to C.M. Woolf and securing the distribution for the film. This would be a make-it or break-it scenario for Hitchcock. One more film stuck away on a shelf could have meant the end of his directing career. In fact, so nervous was Hitch that while the men in charge were screening the film, he took Alma (who was by this time his fiancée) for a stroll to avoid being anywhere near. And when word finally came back to him… it was not good. They hated it.
The distributors had said they found the plot incomprehensible, the filming too dark and moody, they hated the expressionist lighting and angles, by and large they said the film was a mess. It would be shelved for good. Hitch had lost.
But, Michael Balcon wouldn’t give up. He took the film to a somewhat prominent film critic of the time named Ivor Montagu, who liked the work and suggested a some changes which could help clarify the story and elevate the symbolic elements. Hitchcock was reluctant at first, but agreed – and when the film was next presented having made the changes, it was given a release, and would go on to become the most popular British film of the time.
The Lodger was an enormous hit with both audiences and critics, and it saved Hitchcock’s career – but not without a little help, good luck, and the faith of those around him. In later years Hitch would downplay the efforts of Montagu and Balcon and the screenwriter Eliot Stannard, but there can be no doubt that while the film was the first true Hitchcock picture, it took many hands to make it so.
And now the question falls, how does The Lodger fit in with the rest of Hitchcock’s work? I think it may be clear by now that I place it as the cornerstone of everything he’s done. From Spellbound to Saboteur to Psycho to Vertigo to Shadow of a Doubt… there is almost no great Hitchcock film which does not in some way owe a little debt to the success of this, his first true picture.
One need only look at this image of Ivor Novello, looming in shadow on the staircase in The Lodger;
And then compare it these two shots from Spellbound and Psycho…
And suddenly you can easily see how the legacy of The Lodger became imprinted on everything Hitchcock would do for the rest of his life.
And then there is murder itself. Hitchcock would spend his life dealing in murder, in tying sex and violence together, in relating the crime of passion to passion itself. And while his first film The Pleasure Garden had murder – it did not have the intimacy, the disturbing sexuality of murder woven into the film from the outset. A blonde woman screaming would become a starting pistol for Hitchcock and his work – it would be as much a calling card as his face or his droll English voice.
The Lodger was a launching point for Hitchcock, and after its success he would go on to hire a publicist and begin to market himself as a name and force to be reckoned with. However, it would be a while yet until he matched the success of this film – and there would be many more trials and troubles between The Lodger and his place among the greatest directors ever.
Next week I’ll watch Hitchcock’s follow up called Downhill, in which he reteams with actor Ivor Novello – but moves away from murder, at his own risk.