Alfred Hitchcock meets “The Lodger”

22 01 2010

“The Lodger was the first true Hitchcock movie . . . I took a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” Alfred Hitchcock’s second picture, was released in 1927. Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (credited in the movie as “Mrs. Belloc Lowndes”!), it was inspired by an urban legend about a landlady who thought Jack the Ripper had taken up residence in one of her rooms.

The novel is about another serial killer, and the lodger did indeed turn out to be the murderer. Even though the book was a bestseller, Hitchcock made significant changes to the plot, something he would do time and time again through his films – although not for his usual reasons. In later years, Hitch’s changes were dictated by an interest in streamlining the story, or in changing it to suit his personal interests. In this case, though, the story changed because the star, the multi-talented Ivor Novello, did not want to portray a murderer.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see “The Lodger” as the first true Hitchcock picture. The lodger is suspected of being a killer; the police are both bumbling and threatening, the pretty blonde is in danger. But at the time, it must have come off as a surprisingly adept thriller from a novice director, and it resonated with its audiences not only because the novel had been a hit but because in 1927, the memory of Jack the Ripper was still relatively fresh for residents of London.

The serial killer of “The Lodger” is The Avenger, and although we never learn much about him, his presence looms over the story. The lodger has moved into a spare room in the home of young, fair-haired Daisy, whose boyfriend is a police detective. The lodger is strange: aloof, formal and too well dressed for the neighborhood. (The cop shows his relative lack of class in the first half of the movie by wearing tweed suits, tugging at his collar and scratching his neck.)

Eventually, Daisy becomes interested in the lodger, much to the displeasure of the cop. He puts a few clues together and decides that the lodger must be the killer. As usual in Hitch’s movies, the cop is wrong – the lodger is in fact on the trail of the killer, who murdered his own sister.

There’s a lot of suspense in the movie, as we watch the lodger act in a suspicious manner, but the movies’ finale is all action: He’s arrested, breaks free, meets Daisy, takes refuge in a pub, and is chased and nearly killed by an angry mob.

“The Lodger” had a lot to recommend it besides the story, though. Hitch had traveled in Europe and studied movies extensively, and “The Lodger” shows a director who wrote like a Brit, shot like a German and edited like a Russian. The movie has a distinctly German expressionist look, from the title card on.

There are scenes that really demonstrate Hitch’s budding cleverness in his approach to psychological thrills, like the one in which Daisy, her mother and the detective hear the lodger pacing overhead. Looking up at the ceiling, they imagine him walking – and Hitch superimposes an image of him actually pacing (shot from below through a sheet of glass) against the ceiling. Another scene shoots a stairwell from above as the lodger descends, with only his hand visible. Later, as the detective sits in the park contemplating the clues, they appear, one after the other, in the footstep the lodger has just left in the dirt.

It’s this sort of visual cleverness that quickly established Hitchcock as a master, even if his next few movies weren’t really thrillers.

Lastly, since this sort of thing seems to be de rigeur, I’ll mention that Hitchcock appears in “The Lodger” toward the beginning of the movie, his back to the camera, seated at a desk at the newspaper office where news of The Avenger’s latest killing is being printed. If you watch the clip above, some people seem to think that he also appears as the man in the black hat just to the right of the lodger when he is hanging from the fence, but I’m not convinced, as that man appears to have a mustache.

Next time, I’m planning to take a step back to look at “The Pleasure Garden.”


%d bloggers like this: