“He went out late last night—and half an hour later he came creeping back, as if he didn’t want to be heard. You don’t think…he…?”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ivor Novello, June Tripp, Marie Ault, Malcolm Keen, Arthur Chesney
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard, based upon the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Synopsis: London is terrorised by a killer calling himself “The Avenger”, who on consecutive Tuesday nights has murdered seven young women with golden hair. A witness to the latest crime catches a glimpse of the killer and reports him to be a tall man, with the lower half of his face concealed by a scarf. Special editions of all newspapers are soon being rushed to the public, and extra radio reports are broadcast, as people variously react to the news with horror or excitement or bad jokes. Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) hears it while at work at her job as a mannequin, while her father (Arthur Chesney) hastily procures a paper on his way home. In his kitchen Mr Bunting finds his wife (Marie Ault) and Joe (Malcolm Keen), a young policeman who is courting Daisy. When she arrives shortly afterwards. Joe tries flirting with Daisy, but she is more interested in the news of the murder. Suddenly, the lights in the house dim; at the same moment, there is a knock at the front door. Mrs Bunting answers it, and finds on her doorstep a tall young man (Ivor Novello) with his face is swathed in a scarf, carrying only a small black bag. He asks about rooms to rent… When Mrs Bunting invites him upstairs, the newcomer must tear his attention away from the fair-haired Daisy. He take the rooms without haggling over the price and, as soon as Mrs Bunting has gone to make his supper, carefully locks his bag away in a cupboard. Mrs Bunting returns to finds her new lodger turning all the pictures in the room—pictures of young women with fair hair—to face the wall. He explains nervously that they were making him uncomfortable, and asks that they be taken away. Mrs Bunting calls to Daisy for help, and as the girl enters, the lodger again watches her fixedly. She returns his look with some shyness. Afterwards, when Mrs Bunting reports the lodger’s strange reaction to the pictures, Joe’s sarcasm begins to annoy Daisy. The three are interrupted, however, by a sound from upstairs: the sound of someone pacing restlessly back and forth… Over the next few days, Daisy and the lodger become better acquainted. Joe arrives with the news that he has been assigned to the Avenger case. He tries flirting with Daisy, but when as a joke he puts his handcuffs on her, she becomes panicky and upset. Daisy accepts Joe’s apology, but begins to treat him with some aloofness as she spends more and more time in the company of the lodger. The following Tuesday night, hundreds of policemen, Joe included, pour into the streets of London, in anticipation of another Avenger murder. The same night, the lodger creeps from the Buntings’ house, his face hidden by a scarf, and his black bag in his hand. His soft steps are, however, heard by Mrs Bunting; and she hears, too, as he slips back into the house some time later. In the morning, there comes the news of yet another murder…
Comments: Luck and accident play a part in any professional career, of course, and perhaps in the realm of artistic endeavour most of all. Having been sent to Germany to work out his apprenticeship, the young Alfred Hitchcock made The Pleasure Garden, a melodrama of unhappy relationships and sexual misdemeanour. If the material was routine the director’s visual approach to it was not; and on the strength of his demonstrated prowess with startling imagery, producer Michael Balcon invited Hitchcock to direct The Lodger, an adaptation of the hugely successful novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes which was the first fictionalised use of Jack the Ripper, thinly disguised as a murderer – a serial killer, although the term did not then exist – called “the Avenger”.
Although neither Balcon nor Hitchcock could have realised it at the time, no other project could possibly have offered the director such a chance to find himself as a film-maker; indeed, a more perfect marriage of artist and material can hardly be conceived. The Lodger is the film where Alfred Hitchcock, aspiring director, became “Alfred Hitchcock”, brand name. Here, in embryo, are all of the themes and motifs that over the following fifty years would define and enshrine Hitchcock as one of the gods of filmdom.
And yet the world came very close to having no Lodger—and perhaps, consequently, no Hitchcock either, at least as we now know him. When the film was first shown to its potential distributor, C. M. Woolf, his reaction to it was violently negative. In the face of a threat to shelve the film altogether, Michael Balcon hired British jack-of-all-film-trades Ivor Montagu to help rescue it.
The extent of Montagu’s contribution remains somewhat controversial – he is listed in the film’s credits for “titling” and “editing” – but most accounts agree that he encouraged the re-shooting of several sequences, and significantly reduced the number of title cards. The result of this reshaping not only launched Alfred Hitchcock’s career, but was hailed in the press as possibly the best British film ever made.
The irony of The Lodger is the very thing about it that today seems most Hitchcockian was thrust upon the young film-maker against his will. The film’s source-novel has a landlady slowly coming to suspect that her mysterious Lodger is in fact the murderer who has been terrifying London: suspicions that over the course of the narrative are proven correct. It was Hitchcock’s intention also to have his Lodger prove guilty, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
When producing this film, Michael Balcon pulled off something of a casting coup by securing screen and stage actor Ivor Novello for the lead role—but things hit a snag when Novello, his eye on the box-office, refused to have his character turn out to be guilty.
Today, Ivor Novello’s fame rests chiefly upon his contribution to British music and song-writing, and to the British stage, with his screen career largely forgotten. At the time, however, he was a movie star in the full sense of that expression, and the guarantee of profitability that came with his attachment to the project gave him enough power to get his own way; certainly enough to override the objections of a rookie director.
The finished film conveys a certain ambivalence on Hitchcock’s part about this turn of events. On one hand, he obviously knew how important Novello’s involvement was to the financial prospects of his work, and he exploits his star’s matinee idol looks to the full: the camera lingers on Novello far more frequently, and far more lovingly, than it does on the film’s leading lady, June Tripp, including giving him a series of profile shots that John Barrymore would have killed for.
At the same time, Hitchcock is clearly having a little fun throughout at his star’s expense. Ivor Novello seems to have been fairly open about his homosexuality, but while this was known and generally accepted amongst those with whom he worked, it was kept a secret from the paying public. (Some things never change.) One wonders, then, if audiences of the time understood what Hitchcock was telling them in the title cards of this film—and how far Ivor Novello himself was in on the joke. I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls, observes Joe, more truly than he knows, when he hears of the Lodger’s demand that all the pictures of fair-haired women in his rooms be taken away; Daisy’s look of annoyance in response is a classic. Later, no longer so sure of the Lodger’s intentions – or lack thereof – Joe asks Mrs Bunting if the Lodger could mean Daisy harm. Don’t be silly, Joe – he’s not that sort, replies Mrs Bunting, to whom also falls the last word, both on the Lodger and on Ivor Novello himself: Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.
The novel upon which The Lodger was based was published in 1913, and depicts a pre-war world of servants and masters, gaslight and horse-drawn cabs. Hitchcock’s The Lodger, in contrast, is cutting-edge contemporary. The Buntings are comfortably lower middle-class – or upper lower-class – and their daughter, Daisy, unashamedly a worker who earns her own keep as a mannequin. Around the family swirls a fast-paced world of chorus girls and fashion shows, electric lights and telephones, and an all-pervading mass media. News of the gruesome murders reaches all points in an instant via newspapers, radio and flashing headlines in public places. The energy of this film’s opening scenes, and the economy with which the scene is set, indicate a guiding hand which had found its true metier. The fact of the murders, the killer’s habits, and the reaction of the public – horror, fascination, nervous laughter – are all conveyed in a series of brief but potent tableaux.
The film proper opens with a shock close-up of a woman screaming in terror, but as would so often prove to be the case with Hitchcock, horror and humour are soon jockeying for supremacy: we cut to a group of chorus girls pulling off their blonde show-wigs—under which some, the ones looking worried, actually are blonde. One girl examines her hair in the mirror, clearly wondering whether it is light enough to put her in danger; while the brunettes allow themselves some tasteless joking at their fair sisters’ expense. Meanwhile, over at Daisy’s fashion-house, one model remarks tartly, “No more peroxide for yours truly!”, while another demonstrates her simple defence mechanism: bunches of false dark curls, which she tucks under the brim of her hat. In scant minutes, the milieu of this film has been deftly and powerfully sketched.
We cut then to the scene of most of the film’s action, and observe the intrusion into the Buntings’ small world of their mysterious Lodger. Ivor Novello’s contribution here is hard to assess. He succeeds, undoubtedly, in conveying the sense that the Lodger is a man at the very end of his tether, one struggling with a terrible personal burden; but in doing so, his acting is so very stylised and theatrical, throughout it teeters on the brink of – and intermittently tips over into – the realm of outright camp. While this is disconcerting for modern viewers, it does have the effect of marking the Lodger as a person apart, a loner in the most absolute sense.
Moreover, whatever we make today of Novello’s acting, it must be acknowledged that Hitchcock’s handling of the character of the Lodger is sometimes very awkward. In order, presumably, to heighten the impact of the Lodger’s ultimate exoneration, there is a clear attempt made throughout the film to make him look guilty, and at times it is taken too far. There are a number of quite clumsy moments, such as that in which the Lodger, grinning inexplicably, makes an equally inexplicable lunging gesture with a butter knife. However, these missteps are also balanced by some better, more ambiguous, touches, such as when the Lodger and Daisy are playing chess: she bends down to pick up a stray piece, and he makes what looks like an ominous grasp for a poker…but when we cut back, she is replacing the chessmen, and he is calmly tending the fire.
As Joe the detective, Malcolm Keen has the dubious honour of first bearing the brunt of Alfred Hitchcock’s life-long suspicion of the police and the workings of those in authority. With only a very few exceptions, The Law does not fare well in the Hitchcockian world—although perhaps it fares better than those whom The Law pursues. Here Joe seems more interested in scrounging cups of tea from Mrs Bunting, and finding opportunities to flirt with Daisy, whose boyfriend he at least tacitly is, than in doing his job. Even when he is eventually assigned to the Avenger case, his visits do not become any less frequent.
Nor is Joe much more successful as a suitor than as a policeman. When I’ve put a rope around the Avenger’s neck, he announces, with a gesture to suit his words, I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger; while earlier he observed jocularly, I’m keen on golden hair myself, same as the Avenger is. When Daisy winces at these crudities, we can only wince in sympathy right along with her.
(Although of course these days, even as we wince we recognise that Alfred Hitchcock is here declaring his own proclivities.)
However, Daisy’s rejection of Joe’s advances is not only because of their inherent crassness, as we well know and as Joe soon finds out. Typically for a Hitchcock film, Joe’s justified suspicions of the Lodger are based not upon any professional competence, but upon his sexual jealousy.
Also typically, Joe has the chance to do the right thing, but chooses instead to abuse his legal power. The search warrant that Joe executes upon the Lodger’s rooms turns up what initially looks like damning evidence: a map showing the location of the murders – marked with triangles, the symbol of the Avenger – a gun, and a picture of the killer’s first victim. Compelled, the anguished Lodger declares that this is a picture of his sister. This, a hard, checkable fact, should have given Joe pause; but in front of Daisy, in the face of her repeated declarations of faith in the Lodger’s innocence, he will not back down, persisting with the arrest for murder and, with far too much relish, putting his handcuffs – the same handcuffs with which he earlier played an unfunny joke on Daisy – on his romantic rival, an innocent man.
But this is an Alfred Hitchcock film, and so we must tread very, very carefully when we use the words “guilt” and “innocence”. It is true that the Lodger is not guilty of murder; at least, it is true that he is not guilty of those murders known as “the Avenger murders”. But by his own confession, the Lodger intends to commit premeditated murder: the murder of the Avenger, in revenge for the death of his sister. His distress at the news of each fresh killing is not just because another innocent girl is dead, but because he has failed to carry out his plan. When he finally tells Daisy his story, he concludes by saying mournfully, And now – I shall miss him: regretting, that is, that he shall not have the chance to commit murder himself. Moreover, when the Lodger is arrested, his first impulse is to go for Joe’s throat; Joe’s underlings have to drag him off. His technical innocence is therefore only circumstantial, and we are not surprised when fate conspires to inflict upon him a savage punishment.
Throughout The Lodger there is, as intimated, repeated use of a symbolic triangle. It is the symbol of the Avenger; it is a symbol associated with Daisy, whenever she is mentioned in the title cards; and of course, the story centres upon a classic love triangle. The moral culpability of both Joe and the Lodger we have examined; unsurprisingly, Daisy herself is no unsullied innocent, either. At the very least she is guilty of stringing Joe along – a bird in the hand, we gather – continuing to flirt with him, and allowing him to kiss her, even when his rough advances have begun to grate on her, and her eyes are turned in another direction—literally: at one point, as Joe embraces her, Daisy’s eyes lift to the ceiling, above which is the Lodger’s room…
Daisy’s interest in the Lodger is certainly capable of a mercenary reading. As her mother recognises at a glance, the Lodger is a gentleman; more than that, he’s a toff, one rich enough to leave money lying carelessly about his room, and to buy the kind of expensive present that might well turn the head of a working girl, even if her rightly alarmed father does take the step of rejecting it on his daughter’s behalf. (Although by this time the Buntings have begun to think the unthinkable, they seem in general to be far more concerned about their daughter’s virtue than about whether or not their Lodger is a serial killer!) But while Daisy’s motives are, in the end, left to our interpretation, the Lodger’s are too clear for comfort, inasmuch as his initial attraction to Daisy stems, unmistakably, from the fact that she reminds him of his dead sister. There is a distinctly unhealthy undercurrent to the relationship that subsequently develops between them.
The Lodger was not Hitchcock’s earliest deployment of a blonde: his leading lady in The Pleasure Garden was also fair (although not naturally: both Virginia Valli and June Tripp were compelled to lighten their hair for their roles). But this is the director’s first frank examination of the pleasures and pains of being a blonde. They may end up married or they may end up murdered, but blondes will never, like mere brunettes, simply fall by the wayside.
Blondes, real, dyed and wigged, are everywhere in this film; it opens with one, screaming unavailingly for her life, then cuts to an entire chorus line of them, their unnatural curls dominating the screen. Blondes cover the walls of the Lodger’s rooms: even Mrs Bunting has succumbed to their decorative pull. The Lodger turns away in distress from these frozen images, but he is drawn against his will to the live and laughing Daisy: again and again, without her knowledge, and almost without his volition, his hand reaches out towards her hair.
There is a disturbing quality to this fixation, whatever ultimate interpretation one places upon the Lodger’s actions; but it does lead to one of the funnier sequences in this film, when the Lodger attends one of the fashion-shows in which Daisy is modelling. As an apparently unattached and obviously wealthy male, he attracts two hopeful females, one either side of him, who go through all sorts of manoeuvres to attract his notice, hitching their skirts above their knees, asking him to light their cigarettes, and so on. His attention never wavers from Daisy for an instant. We are given ample opportunity to observe that both of these disregarded women are brunettes. In the world of The Lodger, they never stood a chance.
Apart from the blonde motif, there were plenty of opportunities in The Lodger for Hitchcock to exercise the visual style that won him this assignment in the first place. The most celebrated moment in the film, the one that captured everyone’s imagination when this film was first released, shows Hitchcock struggling with, and winning out over, the limitations of silent cinema: the Lodger’s restless pacing upstairs is heard by Daisy, Joe and Mrs Bunting downstairs; Hitchcock shows it to us by briefly replacing the floor of the Lodger’s room with a glass plate.
Equally striking is the use of chiaroscuro. The director’s apprenticeship in Germany had fired him with an admiration for the Expressionist cinema of that country, and for the work of F. W. Murnau in particular; and it shows in such sequences as that of Mrs Bunting’s night vigil. As she strains her ears to capture the soft sounds of her Lodger’s comings and goings, the unhappy woman is almost dwarfed by the ominous shadings of her own bedroom.
Another critical moment occurs when the Lodger first occupies his rooms. The cries of the newspaper boys in the street below cause him to slam his window in anguish: the movement casts upon his face a shadowy cross, a literal foreshadowing of his ultimate fate.
The fetishising of handcuffs is something that Hitchcock would return to again and again in his career, often with a wicked twist of humour; one remembers in particular the outrageous manoeuvring of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. Here, however, he plays it absolutely straight, and the result is agonising. When the Lodger is being led away by the police, Mrs Bunting faints, causing enough of a distraction for the Lodger to break away. Later Daisy finds him, but despite their efforts to slip away unnoticed the handcuffs attract attention. When Joe uses the phone in the pub that the fugitives have just visited, his unguarded words are enough to set a vengeful mob in motion.
It is now, just too late, that Joe learns that the real Avenger has been arrested. To his credit, he recognises instantly the enormity of the injustice he has perpetrated, and its possible consequence: My God! They’ll tear him to pieces! Desperate to escape the crowd that is howling for his blood, the terrified Lodger tries to scale a metal fence. He slips, his handcuffs catching one of the spiked fence posts; and here we get the first of all those indelible cinematic images that we associate with the words, an Alfred Hitchcock film: the Lodger, suspended by his handcuffs in mock-crucifixion, helpless and frighteningly vulnerable as the mob descends upon him…
Well, he survives, just; survives to participate in a “happy” ending as embarrassing as it is contrived. One wonders if that was Hitchcock’s intention, his revenge for having his hand forced.
The curious thing about The Lodger is how exactly the events surrounding its production prefigure those associated with Suspicion some fourteen years later. Now as then, Hitchcock’s desire for a guilty leading man was thwarted by his producers; now as then, there is an unmistakable sense of wrongness about the denouement of the film, one induced by the dislocation between what we are told and what we see.
While the Lodger is on the run, he takes the opportunity to tell Daisy – and us – his story. By his account, he was dancing with his sister at her debut party when the lights went out. We see a hand switching off the lights…and a moment later, in the middle of a darkened, crowded ballroom, the girl is killed. How? And why? Why her? And why was she killed in the middle of a crowd, when all the other victims meet their end on lonely streets?
And even allowing for an increase in violence over the course of the Avenger’s killings, the stabbing of the Lodger’s sister is hardly reconcilable with the implied fate of the other victims: after one murder, Joe shudders, The way that fiend did her in… The newspaper clippings we glimpse report that the first victim was “–murdered in brother’s arms at coming-out ball–” How odd, then, that when the lights come on…there’s no sign of her brother.
The timeline also seems off. My mother never recovered from the shock, recounts the Lodger, explaining how he promised his mother on her death-bed that he would bring the Avenger to justice. (To “justice”?) But we’re not talking about something that happened in some dim past, as his elegiac manner suggests: the Lodger’s sister was killed only nine weeks ago; when did his mother die? And when did he begin his quest for vengeance? And – even allowing for Hitchcock’s prejudices – how is that this individual makes as much progress in the pursuit of the Avenger as the innumerable policemen on the killer’s trail?
Over-reading? Perhaps. Yet while these inconsistencies may have been the result of insufficient re-working of the script once the Lodger’s innocence was decreed, it is hard to escape the feeling that Hitchcock was trying to have his cake and eat it too, overtly exonerating his leading man as ordered, while muddying the underlying waters as much as artistically possible…and it is even harder, with the hindsight of Hitchcock’s subsequent career, simply to accept that there is not more here than meets the eye!
False starts, and possibly false endings, notwithstanding, The Lodger was an enormous success, the cornerstone of its director’s future career. Apart from turning out a series of what now look to us like anomalous productions, Hitchcock would also take British cinema into the sound era with Blackmail, then truly find himself as a film-maker with the one-two punch of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. The rest, as they say, is history.
Meanwhile, cinema generally was far from done with the story of The Lodger. The central concept of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel, the idea of the stranger with a terrible secret being taken unknowingly into an innocent home, was too powerful to be long left alone: three more versions of the story would be filmed, one in each of the following decades. The dawning of sound cinema brought with it a veritable avalanche of re-makes, as silent properties were, for better or worse, re-worked for dialogue and sound effects. Amongst the stories so re-shaped was The Lodger; and only five years later, another London landlady would open her door on a foggy evening in the midst of a terrifying murder spree, to find standing there Ivor Novello, looking for rooms to rent…
The Europeans got it, anyway…