UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS : Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’ (1927) [6/10]

warning : contains significant plot spoilers

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In 1913, Marie Belloc Lowndes – sister of the now much better-known Hillaire Belloc – caused a sensation with her best-selling novel The Lodger, a fictionalised version of the unsolved 'Jack the Ripper' killings which had terrorised London only a couple of decades earlier. In the book the Ripper figure is known as 'The Avenger', preying solely on blonde-haired women; the chief suspect is 'Mr Sleuth', the enigmatic, bible-quoting, woman-hating, aristocratic lodger in the house of the Buntings – a middle-aged couple whose long experience in 'domestic service' has inured them to the odd habits of the moneyed gentry. The climax reveals The Avenger and Mr Sleuth to be one and the same, though he eludes capture by the police.

A dozen years later The Lodger reached the screen as what's regarded as the first of the countless films inspired, either directly or obliquely, by the Ripper story – and also the first 'proper' Alfred Hitchcock movie (the director later regarded 1925's The Pleasure Garden and 1926's The Mountain Eagle as essentially minor, apprentice works.) But The Lodger was to undergo considerable changes on its journey from page to screen. The screenplay, credited to Eliot Stannard, is officially based on both Lowndes' book and also her 1916 play Who Is He? (co-written with Horace Vachell), which had been a notable success on stage in the West End where Lionel Atwill (later to enjoy a long career in Hollywood b-movies) played the villainous protagonist.

In the movie version, updated to mid-20s London, the lodger is never referred to by name – although some prints identify him in the credits as 'Jonathan Drew'. As played by the era's great matinee idol Ivor Novello, he's a bizarre figure: more automaton-like in his movements than human, though at the same time forever trembling with some severely-repressed emotion. Tall, deathly-white of visage with coal-black, eyes and gleaming, brilliantined locks of similarly jet-like hue, Novello's Lodger comes across like a quiveringly effete alien who's been beamed down to awkwardly mingle with the scruffier, livelier denizens of the great metropolis.

From his very first entrance, the lodger's culpability is very heavily implied: his movements are suspicious, his alibis non-existent, his passionate interest in the Bunting's blonde-haired daughter Daisy (played by an actress billed only as 'June') alarming – especially as she's semi-betrother to detective Joe (Malcolm Keen), who's just been transferred onto the 'Avenger' case. As the film progresses, the lodger's behaviour becomes more and more sinister – to a near-parodic degree – and the audience (especially those sections familiar with the Belloc Lowndes book) wait for the penny to drop and the lodger to give himself away.

But this doesn't happen. The lodger is arrested and handcuffed, and goes on the run – with Daisy in tow. Finally he explains his version of events: the Avenger's first victim was his debutante sister, and he promised his elderly mother (on her death-bed, no less!) that he'd track down the murderer and bring him to justice. Even at this stage, however, we're far from convinced by the lodger's tale – an implausibly treacly confection to modern sensibilities. Astonishingly, it turns out to be true – just as the lodger is about to be torn apart by the baying public mob, Joe turns up to announce that the police have apprehended the Avenger in flagrante delicto… and all (apart from the Avenger, who never appears and whose identity is never revealed) live happily ever after: Daisy and the lodger are engaged, much to the delight of the former's socially-ambitious parents…

Watching The Lodger today, the decision to make the title character innocent – and as soon as Novello landed the role, there was never any possibility of another outcome – seems an exceedingly strange one. There are no other suspects, and the lodger's weird manner and habits seem to loudly announce his guilt whenever he's on screen. In retrospect, however, the film becomes less of a suspense drama and more an example of the kind of deadpan, midnight-black joke which would crop up more than once later on in Hitchcock's career – as well as being the first instance of his trademark 'transference-of-guilt' whereby innocent men are forced to suffer for sins committed by others.

In a prefiguring of later Hitchcock pictures like Rebecca, Sabotage and Frenzy, the script emphasises the story's class-related subtexts: while the Buntings are delighted by the prospect of having steady-earner Joe as their son-in-law, they're even more elated when the lodger – whose breeding and wealth they instantly recognise – takes an interest in their chorine/model daughter. Once the minor matter of his possibly being a homicidal killer is out of the way, the Buntings can barely contain themselves in the closing scene. By this stage the third player in the picture's bizarre 'love triangle' (and there are triangles everywhere in both the action and the intertitles) poor old Joe, is nowhere to be seen, and is presumably off at the station giving the Avenger the third degree. The Buntings look on beamingly as the lodger embraces June in the hall of what looks like a palatial townhouse, in front of the requisite vast stone staircase – which Daisy will imminently ascend as she enters a whole new social milieu. It looks rather like the hapless protagonist's family residence in Hitchcock's other 1927 melodrama Downhill – another example of the director valiantly making the most of decidedly flawed story material.

Stuck with The Lodger's absurd sleight-of-hand plot – the lodger must seem the very epitome of criminal guilt until the climax reveals him as the very reddest of herrings – Hitchcock clearly tries to have as much fun with it as possible, pushing drama into melodrama wherever possible and inserting numerous stylistic visual flourishes (colour-tints abound), many of them borrowed from the German expressionism of Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene. His use of on-screen 'texts' is particularly striking (and proto-Godardian) in the early stretches as the various news media broadcast the latest reports of the killer, and later on there's an audaciously slow and intense close-up of Novello's eerily stylised face which seems particularly ahead-of-its-time. The cumulative result is often impressive, though The Lodger is – shall we say – put in its place somewhat when juxtaposed with Lang's treatment of similar themes from only a couple of years later, in the ageless M (1930).

Neil Young
28th May, 2007

THE LODGER : [6/10] : aka The Lodger – A Tale of the London Fog : UK 1927 : Alfred HITCHCOCK : 80 mins (approx) seen at the Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 27th May 2007 – public show (paid  £4.00) with live piano accompaniment