February 2, 2017
Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog – UK, 1927
After his debut film, The Pleasure Garden, Alfred Hitchcock turned his attention to the kind of story he would become most known for – that of murder, women in peril, and the budding of love under highly stressful situations. Viewers familiar with his later films will also recognize many of those signature Hitchcock touches – the use of flashbacks to explain key details, quick cuts between the feared and the fearful, transparent views of someone walking on the floor above. There is also the masterful use of light to show innocence and joy and shadows to show danger and confusion. The film builds in intensity and culminates with a series of scenes that are both brutal and sweet. In fact, the film is so cinematically impressive that I actually feel guilty for not liking it more.
The Lodger takes place at a time of immense fear. A serial killer is stalking London and preying on women with golden hair. The very first image of the film is the hauntingly terrified face of one of the killer’s victims, as she realizes what is about to happen to her. Hitchcock then takes us on a tour of regular people, and we see their varied reactions. Many make jokes as a way of coping with something beyond their control; a newspaper seller rejoices, as he sells more newspapers when there is a murder. At a department store, women who work as models disguise themselves as brunettes and hope they make it home safely. The film soon centers on one of these models, Daisy Bunting, played by June Tripp. Daisy is dating Joe Chandler (Malcolm Ken), a police officer who is keen to be assigned to catch the killer. On the night of the seventh murder, a mysterious man (Ivor Novello) arrives at Daisy’s home and requests to rent a room. He is dressed in dark clothes, and the lower half of his face is concealed – just like the killer.
And therein lies the problem. The attire of the stranger is meant to create suspicion, and his subsequent behavior, which is anything but normal, is calculated to multiply these misgivings. He is less a fully constructed character than a caricature of the kind of person that too many movies employ as audience bait. We are meant to be wary of him. This inevitably leads to one of two conclusions: Either he is the killer and all of his quirks and eccentricities make sense, or he isn’t, and none of them do. The former possibility is rather anti-climactic, the latter strains credibility, and neither possibility truly engaged me.
What works better is the character of Daisy’s mother. While most of the characters in the film seem blithely unaware of the stranger’s suspicious behavior, she begins to suspect that something is amiss, and the thought that her daughter could be in danger truly horrifies her. Eventually, she’s sneaking into the stranger’s room and looking for something, anything to either confirm or refute her growing suspicions. These moments call for an actress who can register mental realizations and convey the dread that is building inside her, and for the role, Hitchcock cast Marie Ault. In doing so, he struck gold.
The film is less successful when it tries to establish a connection between the stranger and Daisy. To fall in love with someone like the stranger, one would need to understand what has made as abnormal as he is, and while such a scene is in the film, it comes too late, giving he and Daisy yet another reason to fall into each other’s arms, but not being part of what initially brings them together. I simply never saw their connection. After all, why would a young woman be enamored by someone who sniffs her hair and seems to be emotionally undone by pictures of women? Usually that’s a sign to stay away, not get closer. In fact, the only thing that he does that makes her happy is buy her an expensive dress, and that’s not really a reason to give a creep a date. Still, the film is impressively shot, and I genuinely cared for both Daisy and her mother. Plus, the film ends exceptionally well, so well in fact that it almost makes up for the manipulation that preceded it. Almost. (on DVD)
*According to IMDB, Marie Ault appeared in 79 films from 1916 to 1951. I look forward to seeing more of them.