The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: A serial killer known as the Avenger is on the loose in London, murdering blond women. A mysterious man arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting looking for a room to rent. The Buntings’ daughter is a blond model and is seeing one of the detectives assigned to the case. The detective becomes jealous of the lodger and begins to suspect that he might be the avenger.
Jason: So let’s talk about The Lodger. This is Hitchcock’s Jack-the-Ripper tale (the character is actually “The Avenger” in the film). Hitch had a few minor films before this one, but The Lodger is the one he acknowledges as the “first Hitchcock picture.” It’s when he started incorporating his own style. I liked this film more than I thought I would.
James: Overall, I enjoyed The Lodger. The classic Hitch story is there, and I appreciated the great camera work and some interesting shots.
Jason: However, the transfer is pretty awful.
James: You’re right, the DVD looks pretty bad. There’s dirt and tears and who knows what going on here. But, all things considered, I thought it looked okay. I mean, this film is almost 80 years old. I didn’t have any problems with the sound, although it was consistently mediocre.
Jason: Okay, I’ll give it a break because of its advanced age.
James: The story itself is good but a little drawn out. In order to convey messages and meaning, Hitch had to stay on a character or scene too long for my tastes. Granted, these are modern tastes, so I say that with a grain of salt.
Jason: Your mention of “modern tastes” says a lot for silent movies in general. While watching them, I tend to feel a real distance from the film, not only because of the lack of sound, but because I get the impression I’m missing a lot that audiences of the time might have picked up easily from the imagery. I feel like I’m unable to decipher a lot of the “silent film shorthand.” Does that make sense? Frequently, in The Lodger, the characters have what seem to be long conversations, but we get only one line on a card. Or decisions seem to be made, but I’m murky on the reasoning or motivation that leads to resulting actions. I feel this way about any silent film, but it really struck me this time. I think you have to watch silent films with a certain mindset and pay much more attention to visual cues. I guess that goes without saying, but it’s just that I don’t think our minds are as attuned as those of the audiences of the time.
James: I actually appreciated those scenes in which a character spoke but we didn’t know what was being said. In a way, it reminded me of the process of reading. I had to use my imagination on top of what was shown. This let me interact with the film much more than modern movies. I enjoyed that taste of interaction. I often thought the scenes were drawn out or focused too much on those visual clues, but that’s part of the whole silent thing.
Jason: Don’t get me wrong, I like that silent films require a different mindset. I’m with you. I just really felt the need for some kind of “movie-watching realignment.” That some of the movie was getting by me just because I’m not well versed in this kind of storytelling.
Jason: Back to the actual story. I liked the ramping up of the pace late in the film, as mob rule takes over, as well as what I think is a terrific twist, when we find that the lodger is actually the brother of one of the victims. It completely makes sense that he’d have all that “evidence.” The interesting aspect of that is that Hitch felt stymied by the celebrity of his leading man (Ivor Novello), which wouldn’t allow him to be cast as a villain. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, he reveals that he might have made the lodger the killer after all.
James: I wonder if, at the time the film was released, the audience already knew he wasn’t a bad guy. That could ruin the movie if there’s no suspense.
Jason: Yeah, I think it was an expectation in the audience that the celebrity wouldn’t be the bad guy, that he’d turn out to be innocent and even heroic. But I do think the resolution is still satisfying. The lodger was set up so obviously to be the Avenger that it would have disappointed me if he actually was. I did find myself wondering how he was going to explain away all that evidence, and the reason for his odd behavior involving the portraits of blond women, and Hitch found the perfect way.
James: Personally, I didn’t like many of the characters in this film. The jealous boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen) is a complete dullard, and the lodger himself seems anything but straight. However, I could definitely see the beginnings of Hitch’s fascination with the innocent man accused of wrongdoing. I will enjoy watching the evolution of this theme.
Jason: I hear you about not liking the characters. I definitely got the feeling that Hitch himself didn’t like Joe, and as you said about the “innocent man accused of wrongdoing,” I think this will mark the beginning of another enduring character: incompetent, bungling cops. The woman, Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), is duplicitous—perhaps another enduring character (which we’ll see immediately in the next movie, The Ring)—and the lodger himself, yeah, is strangely effeminate and threatening. He has a fantastic entrance into the home, by the way, when the power is going out, and the door opens, and there he is, looking like Nosferatu in the threshold. He looks like a monster. When he appeared like that, and when he moved around like a bug-eyed alien through the house, man, I would have kicked his ass out immediately and called the cops.
James: I also thought of Nosferatu. Not sure why, but there was something similar in his stance at the doorway. I could see how the character would raise suspicions.
Jason: Speaking of this, isn’t his movement up the stairwell and exploration of the bedroom reminiscent of Psycho? A later bath scene also foreshadows Psycho.
James: I was thinking that was rather risqué for the time. I mean, they showed quite a bit of her. One thing that I thought was missing was a red herring. I mean, sure, the lodger himself is a red herring, but it would be nice to have clues point to someone else, too. And in the end, who is the Avenger? Is that ever explained? I’d like to know the why and who of the killings.
Jason: I don’t think we ever see the Avenger, and that doesn’t really matter. We just know he’s apprehended, from the newspaper.
James: What did you think of the shooting of the film? It definitely wasn’t the best Hitch had to offer, but it certainly showed what he was capable of. My copy of the film was poor enough that the images in the “footprint scene” were anything but clear. Still, I thought that was a cool effect, even if I didn’t quite understand it. Did the police have footprints at the scenes of the crimes? And because of that evidence, Joe made the leap to suspecting the lodger? And what about the “glass ceiling” shot? I wonder if it would’ve been better to show what the people downstairs “thought” the lodger was doing up there, instead of what he “actually” was doing. He was just walking around. But if Hitch had used that technique later, the older woman could’ve imagined him with a body or something.
Jason: You make a good point about the “walking around” on the glass ceiling. I guess this was a case of the coolness of the effect taking precedence over the logic of the scene. But remember that this kind of effect was utterly new for audiences of the time. Maybe the idea of showing this effect, in combination with the idea of showing what characters “thought” he was doing, would have been too much. It’s easy to think about that kind of idea in today’s cinema, but were they ready for it? In many ways, obviously, films were very primitive, and maybe you’re talking about something that’s easier said than done, in hindsight. I wonder if I’m making sense.
James: I agree. I know that would be hell of a hard thing to do, but still . . .
Jason: There were several things I noticed that were interesting and even innovative. First was the use of mirrors, perhaps suggesting the dual nature of the lodger, and by that I mean his innocence versus his perceived guilt. I also noticed a ton of great shadow work, reminiscent of German expressionism, as in Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There’s also a funny scene where a mouse is used as a false scare! Just as in any horror movie today, although today they rely on jarring sounds. But did you notice the Christ imagery? I noticed the first instance, early on when the lodger is peering out his window and the bars across the window create the shadow of a cross on his face. What I didn’t piece together immediately but read about later is how his handcuffs getting caught in the fence creates a kind of crucifixion. All this is pretty great, stylistically and symbolically.
James: Do you know if the audio track was part of the film back then? The reason I ask is I was wondering how hard it would’ve been to make the music sound like a sound effect, such as a scream or a phone ringing.
Jason: I don’t think they had the expertise to synchronize onscreen action with sound effects. Otherwise, they might as well have recorded dialog. I read a review somewhere that said the score was terrible, but how many different audio tracks have been slapped on this film over time? The track I listened to just seemed to repeat themes and end abruptly here and there. Was that the original? I have no idea.
James: Good point. If I’m not mistaken, the audio track had nothing to do with the video, correct? As in, there were separate machines running but timed to one another?
Jason: Yeah, and frequently (most of the time?) there was live piano accompaniment, just a guy reading the music sheets that came with the film. Synchronization must have been tricky.
James: One thing that bothers me about older movies is that the “lovers” fall for each other way too fast for no reason. I’m not sure what it is, but in modern movies it seems more plausible. I mean, did she fall for the lodger simply because he was handsome?
Jason: Funny, I felt the same thing. I guess that’s another byproduct of no audio. There’s a lot that we just have to accept. Take away dialog, and there’s one more blinder we have against character motivation.
James: What did you think of the blinking text in the dark outside the show hall? About the blonde girl show? I liked it at first, but it also seemed overdone. Once it was set up, I didn’t think it needed to be shown again. But I did like the way that some girls were scared of the news, while others laughed about it.
Jason: The blinking text. Yeah. I also thought it blinked a little too much. Hitch’s way of reminding us of what the Avenger was hunting, I guess. I did like how the blondes were scared and the brunettes were laughing it off. This reminds me, in the Truffaut book, Hitch talks about filming that opening shot with the screaming blonde. He emphasized the lightness of her hair by resting her head against a pane of glass, spreading out the hair, and backlighting her with a bright light. That was a funny, lurid shot.
James: I thought most of those screaming shots were downright terrible. Or worse, funny. I mean, those faces were just upturned with their mouths open. That’s not a scream. That’s the “oh face.”
Jason: Maybe that’s just the way people screamed back then.
James: You know, the more I think about it, the less I liked this film and at the same time the more I like it. For example, I didn’t like the details or certain aspects of the characters. For one thing, I wish the Avenger’s apprehension wasn’t done offscreen. Now that I think about it, the final scenes all moved too fast. Those climatic scenes with Novello being chased were too short. It should’ve been drawn out like the rest of the flick. But on the other hand, I like the story itself and I definitely like seeing the beginnings of Hitchcock’s themes. I liked The Lodger’s essence and its historical relevance, but little else.
Jason: Agreed. And that’s really what we’re doing here, right? Watching the early films for a historical perspective on the genius that would come later. It’s fascinating to me to explore these films and keep them in mind when we’re watching the greats. Who knows what connections we’ll make between The Lodger and, say, The Birds. This is going to be great.
James: Say, did you see a Hitch cameo in The Lodger?
Jason: I didn’t notice Hitch, but I read later that he has two cameos in The Lodger: early on as a reporter at a desk, and late in the film, in the mob scene, leaning against the fence. Did you catch them?
James: I think I saw him in the mob scene. The fact that you said he was leaning on the fence makes me think that it was certainly him. I made a note to myself to go back and pause it, but I never did.