The following reveals plot details and spoilers.
The Lodger" was Alfred Hitchcock's third silent movie and the first film of his to find a general release and receive widespread public attention. His first, "The Pleasure Garden", had garnered mildly positive reviews but could not find exhibitors; his second, “The Mountain Eagle” (now lost) was also shelved and didn't get shown at all until after "The Lodger" was released and had already become successful. The latter film though, was immediately lauded by the critics when they eventually saw it, who praised its striking expressionistic style and Germanic emphasis on strange camera angles and shadowy lighting effects; it also proved popular with audiences of the day, who quickly made it a phenomenal success. Yet things almost didn't turn out that way for the twenty-seven-year-old Hitchcock’s first foray into the genre he was to make his own: when the film was first screened for C.M. Woolf, chairman of Gainsborough's distributor company, he pronounced it ‘unshowable’, and it too was shelved for several years, plunging Hitchcock into despair. Gainsborough’s top director at the time, Graham Cutts, also badmouthed his rival’s efforts, encouraging the studio to lose faith in Hitch's radical new cinematic style.
Luckily, Gainsborough Pictures needed more films quickly in order to cash in on some recent successes, and although "The Lodger" seemed incomprehensible to the company’s studio executives, it did at least happen to feature Welsh matinee idol Ivor Novello -- the most popular British screen star of the day. Gainsborough's managing director, Michael Balcon, brought in Ivor Montagu (a frequent collaborator from thereon in during Hitch’s British career) to re-edit the film into something that might be considered 'commercially appealing'. But when Montagu saw it, he recognised it as streets ahead of anything else coming out of Britain at the time; he got together with Hitchcock to make a few cursory re-edits for plot clarification and the final chase scene was re-shot. Montagu also encouraged Hitchcock to make the film more extreme in one respect: all but the most essential of the film’s title cards were eliminated, leaving it to depend almost entirely on visuals to tell the story. This was in line with the latest trend in German cinema, but it was a revelation for British audiences at the time.
Hitchcock had first become interested in the story after seeing a play based on the best-selling novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes, which took the Jack the Ripper myth as its inspiration. In the film, fog-bound London is in the grip of hysteria as a serial killer of women is on the loose and hunting his victims along the Thames Embankment. He always kills on Tuesday nights and his victims are always fair-haired ladies (thus beginning a career-long obsession for the master of suspense); a note is found pinned to the victims with the identification, "The Avenger", written inside a triangle. Witnesses describe a saturnine figure dressed in a dark long-coat and carrying a black Gladstone doctor’s briefcase -- his faced obscured by a scarf.
Backstage at a London fashion house, the models read about the latest murder. One of them, Daisy Bunting (popular British star of musicals, June Tripp), feels particularly disturbed by the killer’s penchant for blonde-haired girls, since she is one herself. She arrives home -- a lodging house run by her parents -- late that night to find her father and prospective boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), discussing the murders. Joe is a policeman and is being teased by Mr Bunting about the London police force’s ineffectiveness in capturing the killer. The house is plunged into darkness as the gas-meter runs out, but at that very moment there is a knock at the door. Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) answers it to find a tall dark willowy stranger standing in the doorway clutching a case, his androgynous features wrapped in a scarf against the cold, foggy gas-lit night. He turns out to be there on account of the sign appealing for a Lodger, which the Buntings have displayed in their window. Mrs Bunting shows the stranger to an upstairs room. Later on, the Lodger requests that some paintings be removed from the room he’s been given and Mrs Bunting finds that he has already turned them to face the wall. All of the paintings feature blonde-haired women!
As the days pass, the lodger and Daisy spend more and more time together and a romantic interest is discernible between them; but Mr & Mrs Bunting's suspicions are increasingly aroused by the stranger's reclusive ways,his effeminate appearance and the sense of his being an outsider who doesn’t fit in. When Mrs Bunting discovers the lodger sneaking out of the house on a Tuesday night she becomes even more worried -- especially when the next morning's papers reveal that another Avenger murder took place just around the corner that previous night. The lodger starts visiting Daisy at the fashion house and buying her gifts; this makes Joe increasingly jealous. He discovers a pattern in the sequence of murders which leads directly to the Bunting's house. Joe and several colleagues converge on the lodger's room where they confront him and search the place. They find his black bag -- which contains a picture of one of the victims -- a gun and a map indicating the exact location of each murder.
The lodger tries to explain that the picture is of his sister, who had been the first victim of the Avenger, and that he's been tracking the killer himself ever since, planning to avenge her death. Now consumed with jealousy (Daisy has since broken off their engagement), Joe refuses to believe him. The lodger is handcuffed, but manages to escape -- Daisy eventually finds him shivering on a bench where the two often met, and she takes him to a tavern to warm him up with some brandy. Unfortunately, some of the patrons realise that there is something odd about the couple; later, when Joe and some other policemen arrive and mention they are looking for a handcuffed man, the tavern customers turn into a lynch mob and rush out to accost the fugitive. The angry mob gets larger as the chase quickens; meanwhile, Joe receives a phone call from head office telling him that the real Avenger has in fact been caught red handed ten minutes previously. The mob, though, has by now caught up with the lodger, and as he tries to vault a fence his handcuffs get caught on a spike, leaving him dangling as the angry crowd paw at his suspended, helpless form. Then, just in time, Joe arrives to save the unjustly persecuted stranger, as a newspaper boy's billboard announces the real Avenger's capture … After his recuperation in hospital, we next see the lodger (who is of course, extremely rich!) after his romantic wedding to Daisy. Mr and Mrs Bunting, who once regarded him with suspicion, now greet the lodger and their daughter with deference in the unaccustomed grandeur of the couples' stately home.
At the time of the film's release, audiences and critics alike were excited by its expressionistic style and clever use of visual effects (the very things that confused Woolf and Gainsborough's studio executives). Some of the standout sequences include the Bunting family nervously listening to the lodger pacing up and down upstairs (which Hitchcock portrayed by having a one-inch-thick glass floor/ceiling made, and filming the soles of Ivor Novello's feet as he paced back and forth); the lodger's descent down a staircase, filmed with just a single white hand visible as it slides down the bannister; and the film's elaborate opening montage.
These scenes still stand out today, but the film also inevitably resonates in the light of the subsequent reputation of its director. This was Hitchcock first thriller, and it is noticeable just how prominent already are the themes and devices which would later become associated with him: the fear of authority figures, especially the police, and a preoccupation with confinement -- in this case, expressed in the ritualistic handcuffing of the Lodger -- are the most obvious examples (most famously, handcuffs play a prominent role as a plot device in "The Thirty-Nine Steps"); and, of course, the theme of the innocent man on the run became synonymous with the name Alfred Hitchcock. Novello’s effeminacy appears to be code for homosexuality (always a fascination for the director), and his quirky demeanour anticipates that of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” as does the devotion to his dead mother which drives him to seek out the killer whose name, the Avenger, provides a reflection of his own motives.
If anything, this latter ‘outsider’ theme is almost overplayed here, with the lodger being portrayed as a Christ-like figure in the climatic lynching scene. Ironically though, this motif only played a role in "The Lodger" out of necessity -- it was a requirement of having Britain's leading matinee idol as the lead that he should be exonerated at the end of the film! In the original novel the lodger is indeed the killer, and Mr Bunting is happy to collude in his escape from justice as long as she is paid her rent each month. However, Hitchcock managed to use the changes forced upon him to his own ends. Novello's audience appeal is used throughout, deliberately to induce a certain degree of moral ambiguity. Novello’s possible secret identity as the killer is signalled to the audience long before the characters in the film pick up on it, and yet we are still also manoeuvred into sympathising with him nonetheless. It is also darkly suggested that part of Daisy's attraction to the lodger character is based on precisely this possibility that he might, indeed, be a blonde-hating murderer. By the time Novello's character has been found to be innocent, the audience has already been made complicate in endorsing the accusation against him (although it was Hitchcock who manipulated us toward that conclusion in the first place!) and so there is certainly an air of perversity and sadism surrounding the film’s conflation of the social mechanics of romantic love and the drives of a murderer.
Instead of being a study in the psychology of a serial woman killer, the film becomes an examination of the dubious facade of moral decency maintained by the 'man in the street'. We never learn anything about the real ‘Avenger’ -- instead the film concentrates on how the public (mostly represented by Joe the policeman and the Buntings) are themselves corrupted or manipulated by the climate of fear and paranoia whipped up in the media by killings. The film's opening montage lets us know where Hitchcock's interests truly lie: a title card flashes up on the screen repeatedly: "To-Night, Golden Curls, To-Night, Golden Curls!" The backlit image of a screaming blonde girl in the process of being murdered then fills the screen. A series of images follow depicting how the news of this brutal event is spread and turned into a 'product' to be consumed by a public eager for sensation. We see a reporter scribbling down a wide-eyed witness's description while the bustling crowd around them joke and lark about; the hurly-burly of the newsroom as the copy phoned in by the reporter is prepared and printed (MURDER! – wet from the press!); the news being broadcast over the airways (MURDER! – hot on the air!); and people eagerly buying the latest papers, or listing to their radios to find out the most up-to-date details of the case. Already it is apparent that it is not so much the murderer and his unexplained motives, but the general populace -- and their consumption of murder as entertainment -- which is being placed under Hitchcock's moral microscope.
Hitchcock later called "The Lodger" the first real 'Hitchcock' film as it was the first project developed specifically by him rather than being just another assignment from the studio. The film has now been beautifully restored by the Scorsese Foundation and the BFI after years of only being available in blurred, scratchy public domain 16mm prints. The imagery has been greatly enhanced with intelligently applied tinting in blue and orange and occasionally pink ,in a manner which really identifies the implied mood of the scenes in question; and musician and composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly commisoned score draws on Bernard Hermann’s work for many of its themes, but does so in a way which is perfectly in keeping with the film’s status as the first personal Hitchcock project. I was unsure at first about the wisdom of incorporating specially written modern pop ballads into the score, but Sawhney proves adept at fleshing out the emotional content of the scenes and his lyrics and musical contributions are intelligently applied in areas in which they are likely to enhance the intended response Hitchcock might have planned for them. Best of all is the quality of the HD transfer itself which looked fabulous on the DVD check disc I had to review from. The Blu-ray should be a must!
The disc also comes with a nineteen minute interview with Nitin Sawhney on his eclectic musical background and his compositional technique as well as a demonstation of his musical intentions in certain specific scenes. We also get a stills gallery featuring poster designs, behind the scenes stills, production photos, contemporary Hitchcock portraits and the handful of production photos that are all that remain of Hitchcock’s lost film “The Mountain Eagle”. Network have definitely produced the definitive edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s first great masterpiece: an essential purchase.