“How do you know that he too is not innocent? That these crimes are not some madness, the beast in all of us coming to the surface? How do you know—that he knows what he does…?”
[aka The Phantom Fiend]
Director: Maurice Elvey
Starring: Ivor Novello, Elizabeth Allan, Jack Hawkins, Barbara Everest, A.W. Baskcomb, Shayle Gardner, Peter Gawthorne, Kynaston Reeves, Anthony Holles, Andreas Malandrinas
Screenplay: Miles Mander, Paul Rotha, H. Fowler Mear and Ivor Novello (uncredited), based upon the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the screenplay by Eliot Stannard (uncredited)
Synopsis: London newspapers proclaim another “telephone box” murder by a killer known as “the Avenger”. After discussing the news, George Bunting (A.W. Baskcomb) and his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Everest), debate their own circumstances, and the impossibility of paying their bills unless they quickly secure a new lodger. Working at the local telephone exchange, the Buntings’ daughter, Daisy (Elizabeth Allan), overhears something peculiar: a call cut off by a cry. She reports it to her supervisor. The owner of the Evening Sun newspaper, Lord Southcliff (Peter Gawthorne), tells his reporters that a Bosnian criminologist, Mr Silvano (Anthony Holles), is travelling to London, to investigate the possibility of the Avenger being a man who escaped an asylum in Zagreb some time previously. Lord Southcliff singles out ambitious young reporter Joe Martin (Jack Hawkins), telling him to focus on the Avenger case to the exclusion of all else. At the Buntings’, a knock on the door heralds the arrival of man in search of rooms to let, who introduces himself as Michel Angeloff (Ivor Novello). Mrs Bunting weeps with relief over this turn in her family’s luck, and sends Daisy upstairs with a cup of tea. Already intrigued by the stranger, Daisy does so with alacrity, listening admiringly as the lodger plays upon the piano in his room. The two fall into conversation, and Daisy is startled and amused when Angeloff proclaims the telephone, “A horrible invention”. Meanwhile, Joe Martin arrives, and Mr Bunting criticises him for his failure to collect Daisy after work, as promised to do. Joe shrugs this off, insisting that his job had to come first. Daisy, too, is cold to Joe. He tries to win her over by revealing details of the Avenger’s most recent murder, but when he tells how the victim had her throat cut in a public telephone box, Daisy turns sick, suddenly certain that she heard the murder. Joe immediately telephones his editor, Bob Mitchell (Kynaston Reeves), and gives him the story, including, to Daisy’s dismay, her name and address. He also snatches a photograph of Daisy before running off. The next day, Daisy is all over the newspapers. When Mrs Bunting proclaims the killer, “A beast”, Angeloff argues with her, suggesting that perhaps he cannot help himself. He then asks her to remove from his room the pictures of women that decorate his walls, explaining nervously that he is used to bare walls. Daisy must give evidence at the inquest on the latest victim. Her father attends the inquiry, as does Angeloff. Mr Silvano, the Bosnian expert, testifies that the London killer is Stefan Obolovitch, who escaped from the Zagreb State Asylum. Silvano goes on to describe Obolovitch’s background: his respectable family, his musical training, and the disastrous marriage that apparently triggered his mania against women. As he speaks, Angeloff slips unobtrusively from the room…
Comments: The Twickenham Film Studios have been active in British film in one capacity or another for more than one hundred years—the highlight of its chequered history probably its involvement with both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Today, however, although it still offers shooting stages, the company is chiefly known for its state-of-the-art post-production facilities, in which capacity it has been associated with some of the most expensive and elaborate productions of the past three decades. It was not always so, however: certainly not towards the end of the 1920s, when producer Julius Hagen acquired what was then known as the St Margaret’s Studio with the express purpose of turning out “quota quickies”, the British government’s counter to the American film distributors and their system of block-booking.
For some years, Hagen’s brutally efficient approach bore fruit. The studio was operated twenty-hours hours a day, using “name” actors whenever they could be got hold of. Most notoriously, the film Lazybones starred Ian Hunter and Claire Luce, both of whom were committed to stage productions at the time, and would come to the studio after their evening performances; everyone else involved had to shape their working hours to the stars’ availability.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the often gruelling conditions, Twickenham was an important training-ground for British cinema during this period. Directors Michael Powell and John Brahm both cut their teeth there, as did a number of future stars—Merle Oberon, Ida Lupino, Jack Hawkins, Raymond Massey and Geraldine Fitzgerald, among others; whilst character actors beyond number served time before the Twickenham cameras. The Boris Karloff drama Juggernaut was made there, and so was the Conrad Veidt version of The Wandering Jew (a film that landed its star in jail in his home country, the Nazis’ way of suggesting to him that he not make any more such films).
But it was not to last. In 1935, Julius Hagen declared his intention of moving into the production of more “prestige” films; by 1937, Twickenham was in the hands of the receivers; and in 1938, the same year that the British government revised the legislation controlling local film production and exhibition, Hagen declared bankruptcy. Among the many casualties of this were the Twickenham films themselves. No real concept of film preservation existed at the time, of course, and even if it had, it is unlikely that the “quota quickies”, whose virtues are only now being truly appreciated, would have made it into the lifeboat. With a few exceptions, the Twickenham films are very hard to see today; sadly, some of them no longer exist at all.
The 1932 re-make of The Lodger is a surviving Twickenham film, but only by a hair’s-breadth. It survives not because of any efforts in its home country, but because in 1935 the film secured distribution in America, under the more lurid title The Phantom Fiend; a title presumably intended to draw in the pre-existing audience for horror films. Unfortunately, although we must be grateful for the circumstances that preserved the film at all, that preservation came at a price. Prior to its release in America, The Lodger was severely cut, its eighty-five minute running-time reduced to only sixty-five; only these truncated prints seem to be available today.
Furthermore, the basic issue of the cutting is exacerbated by how clumsily it was done: many scenes are terminated in mid-conversation. The print quality is poor, and so, even more detrimentally, is the sound. This latter may be a preservation issue, or it may be a relic of the difficulties inherent in the conversion to sound film-making, which was still an issue when the film was made. All of these technical shortcomings impact upon our ability to render a fair judgement upon The Lodger today.
Of course, fair judgement of 1932’s The Lodger is made even more difficult by the long shadow cast by its 1927 predecessor. In its own right, the re-make is a reasonably efficient and entertaining little film, but point by point it pales in comparison with its model; watching the two films back-to-back does this version no favours at all. It is not possible, however, just to ignore the Hitchcock film when considering this one, since the screenplay for the re-make was clearly based upon that first version, and not upon Mrs Lowndes’ novel, whatever the opening credits claim.
The Lodger was directed by Maurice Elvey, at that time one of the Twickenham house directors. Always a proficient worker, during his tenure at Twickenham Elvey was responsible for what I am sorely tempted to call a ridiculous proportion of that studio’s output: in 1934 alone, he made no less than eight films! To say that Elvey was no Hitchcock is not to criticise: he did have talent, and was responsible over the course of his career for some very good films—as well as for quite a few stinkers, which is only to be expected, considering the sheer number of productions he helmed. (Of particular interest hereabouts, Elvey directed Claude Rains in The Clairvoyant, and oversaw the British version of The Tunnel.) Clearly, however, his main attraction as a Twickenham contract director was not his creativity, but the efficiency and rapidity with which he could get a film completed.
Like its predecessor, this version of The Lodger is absolutely contemporary, which takes it a further step away again from the novel. This modernising of the story has a variety of repercussions, some of them quite positive. We get a real sense of the times a-changing when Mr Bunting bemoans the recent proliferation of serviced hotels in London: people just don’t want lodgings any more. Nor do they often need an extra waiter, another fact contributing to the Buntings’ strained finances. Daisy Bunting is again a working girl, this time employed as a telephone exchange operator; a thankless and tiresome job that makes Daisy’s attraction to the lodger, with his air of a larger world and his artistic tastes, all the more credible. (No expensive dresses were required for Daisy in this version.)
The telephone, in fact, plays an unusually prominent role in this story—although not as prominent, in its existing form, as originally intended. Instead of cups of tea, here it is the Buntings’ phone that is the constant excuse for Joe Martin to drop in at all hours. (The film opens with the Buntings worrying that they won’t be able to pay their phone bill: it’s hardly surprising.) When told Daisy’s tale of overhearing a murder, Joe leaps onto the line, abusing the telephone operator for not putting his call through quickly enough. “We just love your sort down at the exchange,” Daisy snarks over his unheeding shoulder. We see Daisy at work, too, where her mysteriously cut-off call tells a grim story of yet another murder; and where in due course the lodger, on the run from the police, manages to contact her and arrange a meeting.
What is a very significant omission here, however, and that is any sort of explanation for the Avenger murders, which are collectively hailed as “telephone call box killings”. If there is any reason why the killer should be murdering, not blondes – not even brunettes – not any of the usual targets, but women who are using a public telephone…we are never made privy to it. I’m inclined to give The Lodger the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that this aspect of the killer’s motive was lost when the film was pruned of those twenty minutes. It’s too odd, and too definite, not to have been chosen with a purpose.
(The film’s opening murder is of the Police Commissioner’s own daughter; a fact conveyed only in newspaper placards, and never referenced again, beyond a comment about the Commissioner offering a reward. You’d think a highly specific detail like that would mean something, wouldn’t you? Was this another casualty of the editing?)
Where this film is really lacking – and I don’t believe that this is a false impression caused by poor print quality – is as a mood-piece. The decision to set the story in the present rather than the past was undoubtedly a purely budgetary one: like most Twickenham productions, this was made on a shoe-string, a fact which is not always successfully disguised. (The film’s opening credits really set the tone here: three of the cast members have their names misspelled, and Jack Hawkins’ character is mis-called “John”.) Similar considerations probably prompted the daytime location shooting that punctuates the film; sequences which, while separating the film visually from its model, have the effect of dissipating the enclosed and rather suffocating ambience that is one of the defining qualities of the silent version.
Quite a number of this film’s scenes take place during the daytime, and for the most part the photography is rather bald. A rare exception is a scene between Angeloff and Daisy in his room, where a mirror is skilfully used to open up the frame. Only in two sequences is any real effort made to create an ominous atmosphere. The first comes when the Buntings, who have just begun to admit suspicions of their lodger, realise that Daisy has gone out with him, and can only wait in growing trepidation for the couple’s return, helpless amongst the lengthening shadows of their own house. (There is one pleasingly subtle touch here, one that links this film to its source novel: the more Mrs Bunting’s fears grow, the more stubbornly, and the more frequently, she insists that the lodger is “a gentleman”.) The film’s climactic scene also takes place amongst the shadows, and upon a dark and foggy night…as, of course, it should.
Conventional. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about this film. In effect, what the film-makers have done here is take their model and dismantle everything that made it so unmistakably “an Alfred Hitchcock film”; the unease and ambiguity of the earlier film is entirely absent.
Take, for instance, the central triangle. Instead of the moral murkiness that taints the relationship between Daisy and the unnamed Lodger in the first version, here Daisy is pretty much fed up with Joe and his neglect before the film even opens: his failure to meet her and escort her home through the increasingly dangerous London streets as promised is just the final straw. Although she does refer to him during the inquest as “my fella”, this is to excuse herself for confiding a professional secret to Joe in the first place; at no point, once Angeloff has arrived, does Daisy give Joe anything but a cold shoulder. Nor is there anything at all untoward in the relationship that develops between Daisy and Angeloff.
In fact, under the circumstances, the relationship between Daisy and Angeloff is so very normal, it hurts the film. But this is all of a part with the presentation of Angeloff. If Hitchcock occasionally overshot the mark, making his Lodger look too guilty – and therefore by definition innocent – this film fails in the other direction. Apart from a single, and really too abrupt, juxtapositioning of Joe describing how the latest murder victim had her throat cut with Angeloff drawing a bow across a violin, the film’s attempts to make us believe that the lodger might really be the killer are half-hearted at best. Angeloff’s occasional emotional outbursts make him look, not like a killer, but merely like the kind of “temperamental artist” we’ve seen in far too many other films.
Moreover, the quirks that are supposed to raise our doubts – his objection to the telephone, his request for the pictures of women in his room to be taken away – are completely unpersuasive, particularly the weak, “I am used to bare walls” explanation for the latter. Unsubtle scripting also means that the nature of Angeloff’s “terrible secret” is rather too easily guessed. However, if you wanted to be generous, you could give The Lodger the benefit of the doubt here: perhaps its point is precisely this, just how easily an innocent man can sometimes fall foul of the law—particularly a certain kind of “innocent man”.
Ivor Novello was certainly a prime mover in getting The Lodger re-made. He contributed to the screenplay, although without taking credit. We see his hand most clearly in the decision to make Angeloff a musician, who plays both the piano and the violin and also sings. Another new character touch is having this lodger an immigrant—oddly, a Bosnian.
(I say “oddly” because I can’t think of a film before this that mentions Bosnia, nor another to do so until decades later. No reason is given for this country of origin.)
While Novello’s acting is toned down here from his silent histrionics in the first version of The Lodger, he does take the retrograde step of adopting an outrageous “foreign” accent, an accent that I can only call Transylvanian—and which was presumably intended as a reminder of another film about a dark, mysterious foreigner, who caused havoc upon coming to England. This really cannot have been accidental. Indeed, even if we were inclined to think it was, the script lets us know otherwise, having Lord Southcliff compare the killer, in an amusingly matter-of-fact manner, to, “The vampires of southern Europe, who used to suck the blood of their victims in the graveyards at night, never to be seen during the day.” (It is also during this scene that Southcliff refers to the killer as, “This phantom fiend”.)
In short, we are fairly beaten about the head with Angeloff’s “foreignness”…but in justice, it does pay off. Another change made in this version of The Lodger is turning Joe the cop into Joe the reporter. This is certainly a reflection of when it was made: reporters were everywhere in films of the early thirties. However, we’re not intended to like Joe. He definitely not the hero; we’re not supposed to admire him for neglecting his girlfriend, or for exploiting her in order to further his career. (After countless American films of this era where the most noxious behaviour is obviously supposed to be applauded, this really is very refreshing.)
And as the story progresses, Joe takes on an even more sinister role: that of the Ugly Englishman. Two experts travel to England to help with the chase for the killer: a criminologist called Silvano, who testifies to his belief that “the Avenger” is one Stefan Obolovitch, a psychopath who escaped from an asylum in Zagreb; and Rabinovitch, Chief of Police of Zagreb. Joe himself is at first inclined to dismiss their mutual theory about the Avenger being “a foreigner”…until one of the reasons for Daisy’s recent coldness begin to dawn upon him.
In response to this – and to Mrs Bunting’s description of her lodger as, “A very nice gentleman from the Continent” – Joe snarls, “I hate foreigners!” Later he catches Daisy sitting in the park with Angeloff. When Angeloff rightly objects to his manner – which he takes to himself, on the grounds that, “You cannot possibly have been speaking like that to an English lady!” – Joe explodes. “Ah, shut up, you blasted foreigner!” he spits, before sinking to a parting shot of, “Go back to your own country!” Nor are we quite done with Mr Joseph Martin, who further distinguishes himself while attempting to interview a tight-lipped Mr Rabinovitch at the latest crime scene. “I cannot speak,” says the Chief of Police curtly, waving him away. “But your English is very good!” Joe assures him kindly.
Ivor Novello was, sadly, all too familiar with prejudice, although not this specific kind. While those dealing with him as a musician or a stage actor were generally prepared to judge him purely on his work, film critics of the time were not. They hated him—and all the more for not being able to say outright what it was about him that bothered them. Instead of reviewing Novello’s films, or his performances, they expended much energy in sneering at the star’s “effeminacy”, and in childish insults about him being, “Prettier than the leading lady”. Although homophobia is here replaced by xenophobia, there is a sense in The Lodger that Novello is offering a retort to this kind of vicious and petty attack, in the unvarnished ugliness of Joe Martin’s behaviour, and the contrasting dignity of Angeloff. And once again, it is not Joe’s professional instinct that puts him on Angeloff’s trail, but wounded self-love. He is freshly smarting from Daisy’s dismissal, and Angeloff’s sarcasm, when Mr Bunting happens to read out from a newspaper a description of the escaped mental patient; a description that all of a sudden seems strangely familiar…
But Mr Bunting has another part to play here. After nicking out to his local for a pint on a foggy evening, on his way home he meets Angeloff, who has gotten lost in the fog. Mr Bunting stops to pick up the lodger’s dropped handkerchief, and to his horror finds his hand covered in blood… By this stage, we have progressed literally to a murder per night. The papers deliver the news of the most recent outrage with grim economy, their placards reading simply ANOTHER. After fretting over his discovery, a sleepless Mr Bunting phones Joe, and Joe phones Scotland Yard.
From here The Lodger plays out very much like its model, at least up to a point. Again, the police descend upon the Buntings’ house, having decided without investigation or questioning that Angeloff is really Stefan Obolovitch; again, the handcuffs go on; again, the lodger breaks free. This time around he takes refuge alone in a pub – one frequented mostly by “foreigners”, ironically – where his awkwardness gives him away.
Meanwhile, receiving his message, Daisy has slipped away to “their” park bench, where she hails a figure in the fog who looks like Angeloff…
The Lodger does manage one real surprise here—not so much what it does, but the way that it does it. If the film has been entirely conventional to this point, here it takes a disturbing turn. The resemblance between Angeloff and the published description of the escaped mental patient – which goes right down to the bag they each carry, “The kind that might be used for a musical instrument” – is no mere unfortunate coincidence, as has been clear from the time of Angeloff’s discussion of the murders with Mrs Bunting. Nor it is surprising that Daisy mistakes the stranger who looms up through the fog for her lover. It is Angeloff’s – or, as we must call him now, Obolovitch’s – own brother who he must wrench away from Daisy’s throat and wrestle to the ground. Having done so, he cries out in anguish his own name – “It is Michel – Michel!” – until Stefan’s clouded mind clears, and it is evident that he knows who it is that holds him.
And then Michel – quite deliberately – kills his brother.
Had this been done as part of the rescue of Daisy, it would have been tragic but morally clean. What the film gives us, however, is something quite different: a mercy killing if you like; but one carried out not in the heat of the moment, but after reflection. Was this the plan all along? Did Michel prowl the night, dogging his brother’s footsteps, close enough (we infer) literally to stumble over his victims, merely to stop him—or for this? We do not know. As the film stands today, we cannot know…except for the single hint of Michel’s mournful acquiescence in Mrs Bunting’s insistence that the killer should be, “Put out of his misery”. However, whether the resolution was taken early or at the last moment, the act is one of intent. It is this Lodger, of all of them, this most overtly sane and innocent man, who is finally guilty of premeditated murder.
Comparisons between this version of The Lodger and Hitchcock’s are unavoidable, but unfair. One was the work of an established studio with substantial resources; the other, the product of a company devoted to churning out low-budget screen filler, which occasionally rose above its meagre ambitions. One marked the beginning of a truly brilliant cinematic career; the other was just one more assignment for a reliable journeyman. Still, the re-make isn’t entirely without merit, even apart from the sudden shock of its climax. It cannot compete with its predecessor in terms of visual impact or technical innovation, and it makes no effort to match it in the complexity of its story-telling; but where does it manage to make some ground back is in terms of the acting – and not merely on the always-contentious question of silent-technique versus sound-technique.
Ivor Novello is, of course, still Ivor Novello: he does give a different kind of performance here from the one he gave for Hitchcock, but his acting remains very much an acquired taste. It is the supporting cast that is this film’s one real virtue. In a career that rather too frequently compelled her to “be posh”, you get the feeling that Elizabeth Allan rather enjoyed her outing here, particularly in conveying Daisy’s affectionate but not terribly respectful attitude towards her parents. It is unfortunate that the relationship between Daisy and Angeloff fails to offer her much scope, beyond perhaps the suggestion of a certain preening smugness on Daisy’s part, at having caught a gentleman. A very young Jack Hawkins also does well as Joe, moving from self-satisfaction and cockiness as his career takes off, to incomprehension and then snarling resentment as his love-life goes pear-shaped. Meanwhile, Barbara Everest and A.W. Baskcomb are the kind of reliable character actors upon which British cinema has always depended—and still does.
The problem is that these talented people are all put to – here’s that word again! – such conventional use. It is the modesty of its aspirations that pulls down this version of The Lodger…although in so saying, we must remember that we are not assessing the film that its makers intended us to see, but a version deemed by someone else to be “suitable” – and if the crudeness of the editing reflects that person’s lack of discrimination, it is entirely possible that this film’s more imaginative or daring flourishes were the first thing to hit the editing-room floor. At any rate, I like to think so. And for the record, I shall never forgive that unknown individual for denying me the knowledge of how, exactly, one goes from being one party to a failed marriage to being…the telephone call box killer…
Footnote: While reading around this film, I stumbled over an exceedingly nasty review of Gosford Park, in which Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Northam) appears as a character. The critic’s real target, however, was Robert Altman, at whom he directed some vicious criticisms.
The highlight of this diatribe was, undoubtedly, the shot taken at Altman for including a moment in Gosford Park where a character comments that she, “Heard Ivor Novello sing in The Lodger.” Typical Altman ignorance, sneered the expert. Imagine his not knowing that The Lodger was a silent film…!