I had long wanted to experience Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into suspense, 1927’s The Lodger (sometimes subtitled “A Story of the London Fog”), but could never get through the film because the available prints were so beat up as to make it virtually unwatchable. To the rescue came British Film Institute, which despite the lack of the negative managed to restore the movie beautifully using a tinted print that had been maintained in excellent condition. Hitchcock’s version of the Belloc Lowndes tale as well as the best of the many subsequent efforts to remake it constitute my double feature film recommendation.
The story is set during a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders in London. One of the respectable families in the neighborhood takes in a mysterious lodger played evocatively in the 1927 version by early 20th century entertainment superstar Ivor Novello. His manner is strange, his habits are out of the common and he always seems to be out in the fog when the murders happen. Both the police and the family hosting him begin to suspect that a wolf has found its way into the fold. Hitchcockian magic ensues.
I embed here the restored version, which looks marvelous (Though BFI earns only an A minus because of a bone-headed decision to insert some jarring pop love songs in at particular moments of the new score). But the real attraction here is Hitchcock, who even this early in his career shows how he will come to define with unbounded creativity the suspense film genre. His origins in the silent era no doubt helped him develop his “pure cinema” style of storytelling because of course without sound it’s all about shots, images and editing. What can also be seen in The Lodger is his impish ability to break tension with humorous moments. He and Eliot Stannard also changed the original story in a way that increases tension up to the very end. All in all, the movie serves both as entertainment and an education in the early years of The Master.
Novello went to Hollywood in 1934 and made an ill-fated talkie version of the same film without Hitchcock, but the story was taken up again to much better effect by a different group of filmmakers in 1944, and I recommend it as the second half of a double feature with the 1927 version.
This version keeps closer to the original story, making it as much a character study as a mystery/thriller. This provides a chance for the sadly short-lived Laird Cregar to showcase his considerable talents as an actor. He’s near-perfect as a man whose proper British exterior hides a roiling mass of emotion and need. The rest of the cast is also strong, particularly Sara Allgood as the woman of the house and George Sanders as a police detective. The production values are first rate, with much of the budget apparently spent by respected costumer designer Rene Hubert on a series of flouncy outfits for the bewitching Merle Oberon (More information about her career is in my recommendation of The Scarlet Pimpernel). The result is a movie that if not at the level of Hitchcock’s work is still a handsome and gripping piece of cinema.
p.s. The same story was made again in 1953 as The Man in the Attic and yet again in 2009 as The Lodger. As the man once said, “In Hollywood they don’t make movies, they re-make them”.
p.p.s. In Robert Altman’s fine film Gosford Park, Ivor Novello was portrayed by Jeremy Northam.