Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog was not the director’s first film, but it is now regarded as his first serious thriller: the one which marked him out as a director of singular talent and vision. It established the signature elements for which he would become famous: not only his blondes, his taste for the psychosexual, and his technical innovations, but also his effortless confidence in his medium, his careful manipulation of the audience’s expectations, and his keen sense of black humour. The Lodger might seem like a curiosity when compared to classics like Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo, but even without that context it makes for a fascinating film in its own right.
The first thing we see is a woman’s face frozen in something like a scream of agony or ecstasy, her blonde hair bathed in an unearthly glow. ‘To-Night Golden Curls’ flashes across the screen in the style of a neon sign. She has been murdered, it seems, and her death is soon relayed from coffee-bar gossip to the journalist’s notebook, then through telephone, radio, and teletype machine. The only witness saw the killer with his face wrapped in a scarf, and through the communication networks of the modern world, the death of an individual is transmitted into a kind of hysteria around a figure known only as ‘The Avenger’.
The film is an adaptation of the 1913 novel of the same name by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which in turn was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. By the time The Lodger appeared in cinemas in 1927, that notorious case was still potentially within living memory for its audience, yet the film retains an almost total disinterest in the details of the crimes committed. As in a conventional crime story, we follow a policeman as he pursues the case, but he isn’t a Poirot or Holmes, and he has none of their genius for observation or penetrating intuition. He is a blunt instrument guided by jealousy, and as much as anyone else he is shown to be in the total grip of the film’s subject: the aura of mystery around murder.
This, rather than the deed itself, is the central source of interest. The actual killer and victim are rendered almost irrelevant. Instead, in the expression of the story we are shown how this potent aura of fear comes to be amplified all out of proportion by the myriad techniques of publication and broadcast. In this sense at least it remains a film entirely relevant to life in the twenty-first century as much as it was almost a hundred years ago. We possess today this same impulse to share what we consider the worst examples of human nature, and to pursue perceived malefactors in a rush for moral righteousness.
After the initial collage of images that forms the introduction, we follow Daisy, a golden-haired ‘mannequin’, and her relationship with a strange new housemate who moves into the floor above her. He emerges from the darkness wreathed in fog with a scarf around his face; an image which, combined with his reclusive manner and his delicate sensibility, places him as the prime suspect in the eyes of the locals. The lodger himself is played by Ivor Novello, a strikingly beautiful man with a rare presence and natural grace on screen. The long stationary takes of silent film required a whole different kind of acting than today’s movies: every action had to be stylised and wholly deliberate, exaggerated in a way which draws attention to even the smallest gesture. Novello handles this masterfully, imbuing his character’s every action with a sympathetic gentility that immediately leads the audience to doubt his assumed guilt.
At first our man seems a sinister figure. He is unblinking, unsmiling. On seeing that his new room is filled with pictures of women, he insists on turning them all to the wall. When Daisy brings him tea, he draws the butter knife playfully across her stomach in a gesture of imagined violence. Later, over a chess game, he stares at her with what can only be called predatory intent. Not only is he from a different class of English society, but he lives above and apart from the rest of the world, engrossed in his own oblique obsessions, opening his door only to accept the beloved Daisy. As their relationship blooms, to the audience he becomes an increasingly sympathetic figure in relation to the locals around him, while in the camera’s eye their depiction takes on a grotesque quality that verges on contempt.
Hitchcock claims that he originally intended the film’s conclusion to be far more uncertain in its resolution, but pressure from the studio forced him to edit it in such a way as to cast Novello’s character as the unfortunate victim of a series of misunderstandings. But while he may not have killed anybody, he is hardly innocent in the broadest sense, and his character remains defined by secret obsessions and darkly inexplicable gestures. In his pursuit of revenge for the death of his sister, he becomes a shadow of the real killer: a literal avenger in pursuit of a notional one.
This idea of a man—and a movie—besieged by a hysterical mass of ill-informed public has more than a faint air of snobbery about it today. We expect a little more accountability from our suspects, and from our artists. Yet this combination of fascination and fear of the crowd was a common trope of the film and literature of the time, going back to the works of Baudelaire and Poe; rather than simple disdain, it was a style deeply concerned with the ways in which we might cope in the intense nervous excitement of the modern metropolis. The Lodger demonstrates that any expression of individuality must frequently and perhaps necessarily conflict with the lives of cruel, small-minded and impressionable people, but offers no solution beyond the presumption of innocence over guilt, of depth and complexity over hype and artifice.