The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

A mysterious boarder (Ivor Novello) is a serial killer. Or is he? You have 90 minutes to decide. "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog."

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Scenario by Elliot Stanard, based upon the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Produced by Michael Balcon, Carlyle Blackwell. Music by Ashley Irwin. Photographed by Gaetano di Ventimiglia. Edited by Ivor Montagu. Art direction by C. Wilfred Arnold, Bertram Evans. Starring Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June, Malcolm Keen, Ivor Novello.

If I’m allowed to make one stray observation about director Alfred Hitchcock, I would say that he was a man born to make movies with sound. Think of the most potent sequences from Hitchcock’s oeuvre: the piercing shriek of strings during the most intense moments in Vertigo, or the ree!-ree!-ree! of Psycho’s shower sequence. Perhaps the way a cheerful radio always plays as counterpoint to the suspected grisliness outside Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window. Or the menacing flutter-flutter of birds landing onto a jungle gym, one after the other, after the other, prepared to attack, in The Birds. The man loved to play with acoustics. Don’t get me wrong. He was also an intensely visual director (his arguably finest masterwork, Vertigo, only makes a lick of sense if you pay strict attention to the way it is shot). But he hit his stride later in his career, when he possessed every tool that modern cinema could provide (and he loved that modernity, too–he even played with the growing field of 3D in his Dial M for Murder). This idea of mine that Hitchcock was best suited to sound film hit me as I viewed The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which is his first ever feature-length production. It is silent, and in its strategy you would be forgiven if you perceived a frustration the filmmaker has with his format. It’s a silent film that doesn’t want to be one. It’s an inauspicious start for one of the most legendary directors of all time. But not a worthless one.

The Lodger, based on a novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, is founded in a neat conceit: it draws a modern (well, then-modern) parallel for the story of Jack the Ripper, who of course has provided the impetus for countless movies throughout the years, because the case still compels a powerful fascination, being one of the first well-documented intersections between drawing-room society and premeditated murder. In The Lodger, an unknown serial assailant (here called “The Avenger,”…yes, really) preys upon the blonde (and only blonde) women of London. The police are baffled, and an undercurrent of hysteria permeates the day. Seemingly far removed from the mayhem is Mrs. Bunting (Marie Anault), who is landlady for a boarding house, where she lives in domestic bliss with her daughter, Daisy (June) and her husband (Arthur Chesney), who basically wanders around the background and looks cross, perhaps because no one has remembered to give his character a name. One day a mysterious man comes to Mrs. Bunting’s door. He’s distant, pale, has an angular face, and is rather deeply unpleasant: he’s history’s first recorded member of Team Edward. He doesn’t want to answer questions about his past. He throws Mrs. Bunting a wad of bills and asks for privacy, although he does insist that she remove the portraits of young women that litter the walls of his room.  Well, that’s not a good sign, is it?

The lodger, named Jonathan Drew (Ivor Navello), is a peculiar, secretive man, certainly troubled. He grows close to Daisy, who works at a fashion parade with other nice girls, but their burgeoning affair is given two obstacles. First, Daisy’s beau, Joe (Malcolm Keen), who doesn’t much like this mysterious man living in his sweetie’s house. Secondly, Jonathan’s spontaneous nighttime constitutionals make her soon suspect the worst about him: that he is the Avenger. (The Avenger, much like The Ripper, doesn’t leave fingerprints). Or maybe he’s just a weirdo.

I am now going to have to struggle with all of my might to resist giving spoilers, not because they are huge, but because, percentage-wise, there’s not much more plot left to reveal. Mrs. Bunting continues to spy on Jonathan leaves the house in the middle of the night, for parts unknown, probably to go gallivanting around town with his murdering. She inspects the room in his absence and finds evidence that is as suspicious as it is circumstantial. Meanwhile, Daisy continues to work at the fashion parade, showing off designer dresses in a gaudy arena to an audience of appreciative men (which is a forum not too hard to tilt in the direction of creepy). And things heat up when the people of London get involved in the hunt for the Avenger, and Joe begins to actively investigate Jonathan.

It sounds like the makings of a spellbinding thriller: the collision of the mundane with the sensational, the inflamed imagination of an innocent leading to very real (if unverified) paranoia, and perhaps even the familiar plight of the innocent man wrongly accused (if Jonathan’s eventual protestations at the police are to be believed). All of these are themes, of course, that will inform Hitchcock’s later work, and it is worth a look to see them in embryonic form here. But the noose never tightens in The Lodger, and it becomes a curiously remote experience. Sequences arrive and promise suspense, but they don’t pay off. There’s an absence of nuance throughout; it never gives you more than one thing to think about at any time. The most illustrative moment concerns a climactic pair of handcuffs, and who will see them, and when. The concept is Pure Hitchcock™, but the execution is flaky and uncertain.

The film suffers under a discomfort with the silent form. The acting generally favors naturalism over exaggerated pantomime, which, for the medium and story on hand, feels perhaps a mistake. Dialogue is frequently extended and just as often unsupported by title cards. The effect is like watching a more sophisticated-than-average conversation for a silent film, but one that we’re not made privy to. The broad strokes are easily identifiable, but there are lengthy parts where we’re just watching people’s lips move. Well…what are they saying?

Hitchcock was reportedly a perfectionist (and I think that comes through in his classics). So, if you know that, it’s hard not to wince with sympathy pains at The Lodger, which is mostly made of rough edges. Transitions are clunky, and sometimes the blocking is flat and artificial (Mrs. Bunting’s search through Jonathan’s room, for example). The film seems to be yearning for something transcendent: more visuals evoking the gloom of London after dark, more development of the awkward love triangle, evocative sound effects, a mournful piece of music…something. Instead, we get something that feels compromised, right down to its score, which is so ill-matched it sounds like a radio left on in another room for an hour and a half.

It is with Daisy that, I think, that the film reaches its finest levels of success, but that’s probably only because it complements so well Hitchcock’s later work. And it is telling that his first ever leading lady is…well, she’s a classic Hitchcock blonde, darn it. Winsome and sweet, she’s the kind of girl you would understand men going mad over, even if she often seems stuck for conversation. The script makes a point of unwholesome attention being cast her way, and even though she’s a grade-A fashion model, there’s a definite point being made when Jonathan visits one of her shows and seems to leer at her. Of course, Jack the Ripper, in real life, targeted prostitutes, and there’s clearly a link being made between professions where women treat their sexuality as a marketable commodity. There’s a subtle (but definite) hint of sexual frustration in Jonathan Drew, who looks on at Daisy and her beau, unwholesomely. And notice the moment where Jonathan stares at Daisy’s cute little feet splashing in a tub of bathwater.

Hitchcock, of course, favored an icy sexuality when photographing his female characters, and was frequently criticized for objectifying (even festishizing) femininity in his work. Oh, and Hitchcock did also have a serious thing for blondes. So what do we make of The Lodger, since it is about a man who turns women into objects to possess or fear? Jonathan sees Daisy and Joe’s relationship with jealous disdain, and has his own difficulties treating her as a person rather than an object of lust. A later revelation about his suggests a man permanently warped by a woman, one that has colored his every move ever since. In effect, Hitchcock made a first film that was in many ways about the topics that he would explore in the future, and here he casts the character he would most sympathize with as a potentially psychotic weirdo. A harsh bit of self-analysis for Hitch, or just all in good fun? That’s the thing about Hitchcock, you never quite know.

But there has to be ending, of course, where rights are wronged, and loose threads are tied up, and boy does The Lodger finish with a shrug. Everything gets explained, and much of what came before is realigned into something more approaching a quasi-heroic subtext, which is a bit too tidy, and sweeps away the psychological underpinnings in favor of a stock romance and a final moment straight out of The Thin Man. The resolution of “The Avenger” plot I will not reveal, but I will temper my frustration with it by linking it to Hitchcock’s concept of “The MacGuffin,” which is the element that gets the plot started, even though it’s actual nature is irrelevant. Ah, poor Avenger…you were always just the MacGuffin, weren’t you? Shame that all those girls had to die. Shame you had to pick such a goofy name, too. In a sense, the MacGuffin is best ignored once the real thrills begin, but when neither element is up to code, it only reminds how slight the whole enterprise is. And that, after all this time, is how The Lodger feels. Slight.

The Lodger is a mood piece, and every so often it does provide some haunting imagery. When Jonathan enters the boarding house, he is wrapped in winter clothing, and he seems to bring with him a waft of fog—he comes in, literally, under a cloud. Later, he’ll become trapped on an iron fence, as two separate crowds on different planes try to pull him in opposite directions, like angels and devils battling for possession of a soul. Isn’t it nifty the way the other fashion parade girls casually tie leather gloves to the hair under their hats to trick the Avenger into thinking they’re not blondes? Why can’t women in modern-thrillers be that instinctively smart? And there is something to be said for the ghostly countenance of Ivor Navello, who is…don’t take this the wrong way…perfectly plausible as a potential killer.

There’s even nice little visual grace notes (spare as they are), which manage to tell the story. Note how everything we need to know about Joe and Daisy is said when Joe visits his paramour and bakes cookies with her. He uses a Valentine’s Day cookie cutter, and he plants a heart-shaped piece of dough in front of her, lovingly. She laughs and throws it back at him, playfully trivializing his affections, and he quietly rips the cookie in half. Nice But if you can sense that I’m grasping at straws here, my only defense is that I think The Lodger is rather stifling to think about. It just doesn’t really offer much, and the best ways to discuss it are to bring in ideas from other works. As I viewed it, I ended up thinking more about Alfred Hitchcock then about the people in it, and whether they would live or die.

I can’t help but conclude that The Lodger is best appreciated in an academic sense. There is little here that would distinguish it from later, better works in the suspense thriller genre, and its sense of detail leaves much to be desired. You can feel within it a sense that silent film is maybe not the best medium for this story. And indeed, The Lodger has been remade in 1932, 1944, and 2009, all to varying degrees of success, all much more empowered by an increased ability to create mood. The Lodger, truly is the work of a skilled artist with one hand tied around his back. But you watch out for this kid Alfred Hitchcock. He’s going to go places. Just you wait.

GRADE: B-

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