Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

[This post is an early contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running, starting tomorrow, from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was one of Alfred Hitchcock's first films, and certainly his first really major work — Hitchcock himself considered it his first true feature. This moody, slowly paced silent is a variation on the Jack the Ripper tale. A mysterious killer called the Avenger is murdering blonde girls in the London night, creeping through the fog, killing women and then vanishing without a trace. The only witnesses who have seen him say that he wraps his face in a scarf, obscuring his features. So when a young new tenant (Ivor Novello) arrives at the Bunting family boarding house, his face wrapped in a scarf, the family naturally becomes suspicious of him. The Buntings (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) come to suspect that the new lodger could be the slasher, even as their daughter Daisy (June Howard Tripp) falls for the handsome young man, pushing away her parent-approved current boyfriend, the policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen).

Novello's introduction is calculated to generate suspicion: he appears framed in a doorway, wrapped in a trenchcoat and scarf, his wide eyes glaring above his hidden nose and mouth. It's an introduction worthy of Nosferatu, and he briefly seems like a supernatural being, gliding into the boarding house, bringing with him the foggy air and the threat of murder. Soon, he starts behaving in less supernatural but equally suspicious ways, carrying around a suspicious bag and asking his new landlords to take down all the paintings in his room. Hitchcock stages several scenes that hint at the new lodger's sinister intentions towards Daisy — gesturing at her with a knife and a fire poker — but turn out to be utterly innocuous.

Despite the premise, though, the film is far more about sex and romance than it is about the is-he-or-isn't-he suspense centering on the killer's identity. The love triangle gives Daisy a choice between the mysterious stranger who her parents seem to dislike and the familiar, stolid Joe, who her parents like — of course this isn't much of a choice at all. There's plenty of indication that she's already getting tired of Joe, and the new lodger just provides an additional distraction. At one point, she's kissing Joe, and Hitchcock cuts to a tilted angle from above, looking at the couple as Daisy peeks over Joe's shoulder, bored of his affection, her eye catching the movement of the chandelier that dangles down in the foreground, its shaking a sign of the lodger pacing around upstairs. Joe's idea of romance is pretty unsatisfying, anyway, tied up as it is with his work and his obsession with death. "When I've put a rope around the Avenger's neck," he says in one of the film's infrequent title cards, then continues in another, "I'll put a ring on Daisy's finger." In between the two cards, Hitchcock playfully inserts a closeup of Joe sticking out his tongue and miming a hanging, making a grotesque face of death.

This perverse vision of sex and death as an interconnected pair is contrasted against the lush romanticism of the scenes between Daisy and the lodger, though of course death hangs over this pair too in the form of the suspicions about the lodger's identity. There's a beautiful image of the lodger and Daisy walking through a tunnel at night, silhouetted in the midnight blue, a street lamp shining by a bench at the end of the tunnel. It's a very romantic image, and they sit by the lamp, embracing, gradually moving in for a kiss, while Hitchcock defuses the sensuality of the moment by cutting away to the jealous boyfriend lurking nearby. The potential kiss is interrupted here, but the tension resumes when Daisy and the lodger return home, and again ever so slowly seem to fall towards each other, their movements hesitant but graceful, a sexy slow-motion waltz of restrained passion and delayed gratification. Hitchcock then shoots their actual kiss in such an extreme closeup that their faces seem to tower on the screen, two planets being sucked into one another's orbit at a glacial pace. Then there's a high angle shot that mirrors the earlier one where Daisy was kissing Joe, her eyes glancing upward, but here she has nothing to see above her, no greater desire than what she already has with this man; she's not looking for something else, just rolling her eyes towards Heaven, and after a moment she closes her eyes again, satisfied.

The film's sensuality is joined with its low-key suspense in the scene where Daisy takes a bath, stripping out of her clothes as steam from the water swirls around her, Hitchcock's editing playfully suggesting her impending nudity while cutting away just a second before she'd actually show anything immodest to the camera. In a distant hint of the bathroom terror of Psycho, Hitchcock then suggests that the lodger is going to break into the room: there's something so vulnerable about getting naked to bathe, and even at this early point in his career Hitchcock hints at what it would be like to get attacked like this. But of course, everything in this film is a feint, a misdirection, so once again the lodger's initially sinister-seeming actions turn out to be innocent. Hitchcock wanted to leave the resolution of the story ambiguous, as it was in the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel it's based on, but in a pattern that would recur several times in Hitchcock's later star vehicles, the studio didn't want to imply that a handsome matinee idol like Novello could be a killer.

Before the tidy and predictable resolution, though, The Lodger is an interesting early suspense film from the man who would soon become the master of the form. The pacing is a bit slow at times, especially in some of the scenes with Daisy's parents, who provide a little out-of-place comic relief and spend many plodding scenes speculating about the mysterious, slightly strange lodger. A few flaws aside, this silent remains a worthy early example of Hitchcock's future brilliance.


Sam Juliano said...

"This perverse vision of sex and death as an interconnected pair is contrasted against the lush romanticism of the scenes between Daisy and the lodger, though of course death hangs over this pair too in the form of the suspicions about the lodger's identity,"

Fabulously framed, and surely a significant early work that easily trumps the two you reviewed after it, and a highlight of 'The Early Years' box set. Even the comic relief provided by the parents foreshadows the full maturation of that element to be seen later in the great British classics from the 30's. But there is no doubt that THE LODGER is far more concerned with sex and romance than it is with suspense, which of course is a balance that will be reversed soon enough. Wonderful work in your blogothon series.

Ed Howard said...

This is pretty easily the best Hitchcock silent that I've seen, the most complete statement of his early work. It's rich, fascinating stuff, even if as a mystery or suspense piece it does fall flat.

Marilyn said...

This is one of my favorite Hitchcocks, not only for the romanticism you suggest (I'm a little in love with Novello) but also for its place in showing the mature Hitchcock in the making. I personally am glad that Novello turned out not to be the killer, though it is too bad Hitch couldn't have his way more often - the ends of his films tend to be the least satisfying parts of them. Fine essay, and thanks for being part of the blogathon, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Marilyn. You, Farran and Rod did a GREAT job with the blogathon, as always. It's always one of the best and most important events in the whole blogosphere.

I like this one a lot too, and you're right, it's definitely the first major sign of the "mature" Hitchcock to come.