Ivor Novello (IMDB)

‘The Lodger’ Is the First True Hitchcock Film and His First Masterpiece

Here we have Hitchcock's first archetype of "the wrong man", his first blonde heroine, and his first cop-boyfriend of ambiguous character. We also have his mastery of image and, ironically for a silent film, of sound.

The 1927 silent film The Lodger, subtitled “A Story of the London Fog”, isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s the one he called the first true Hitchcock film.

Set in a London beset by the Avenger, a serial killer inspired by Jack the Ripper, the story concerns an unnamed man (Ivor Novello) who rents a room from the dumpy and middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Bunting (Arthur Chesney, Marie Ault) and their young grown daughter Daisy (June Tripp), who works as a “mannequin”, or fashion model. The elder Buntings, along with Daisy’s rough policeman-boyfriend Joe (Malcolm Keen) begin to suspect the lodger is the Avenger, a misunderstanding that leads to a frightening climax in which the lodger is pursued by a bloodthirsty mob.

Here we have Hitchcock’s first archetype of “the wrong man”, hounded for a crime he didn’t commit, and also his first mama’s boy, as the lodger turns out to be under the burden of a promise to his dying mother. We have Hitchcock’s first blonde heroine, as all the victims are identified fetishistically by their “golden curls”, and we have the first cop-boyfriend of ambiguous character.

We also have Hitchcock’s mastery of image and, ironically for a silent film, of sound. He comes up with visual ways to express sounds, from the opening image of a screaming woman to the famous “footstep” shots of the lodger pacing on a glass floor as the others look up uneasily at the ceiling and its chandelier sways like a pendulum. Those must be some heavy footsteps. We also have the first symbolic staircase in a Hitchcock film, as the characters rush headlong up and slink silently down the twisting structure.

The film is based on a famous novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes in which the lodger is, in fact, the killer, and at least two later film versions are faithful to this. However, Hitchcock also based the film on a 1915 play, Who Is He?, that Lowndes co-adapted from the book and which Hitchcock explicitly mentions in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut, which is excerpted among the bonus material. In that play, according to the liner notes by Philip Kemp, the resolution was ambiguous. Hitchcock tells Truffaut that the resolution should have been so, and indeed this is how he ended the 30-minute radio version also included as a bonus.

Hitchcock states, however, that he was forced to make the lodger innocent because it would have been commercially impossible to cast matinee idol Novello as a killer, just as he found it impossible later to have Cary Grant’s character be a killer in Suspicion (1941). This makes it sound like a compromised choice, yet the resulting “wrong man” scenario is one Hitchcock continued to pursue many times, and it works like gangbusters.

Another curious aspect of this point is how the scenario plays with Novello’s sexual ambiguity. He was neither the first nor the last matinee idol with a closeted secret, and the film exploits this with surprising directness. First, he’s continually photographed with the type of vaselined glamour close-ups generally accorded the likes of Greta Garbo, and his insistently presented profiles make him prettier than the heroine. Second, the characters all initially assume, by their winks and gestures, that he presents no competition to Joe for Daisy’s affections. He’s “not that sort”, says a laughing Mrs. Bunting at one point, and adds, “He may be a bit queer, but he’s a gentleman.”

The ambiguous meaning is clearly intentional, although this may well also be a line from earlier incarnations. Virtually the same line appears in the radio version, where it clearly refers to that lodger’s religious fanaticism. Herbert Marshall, who appeared in several Hitchcock films, plays the lodger in the radio version, which ends in a metafictional way with Hitchcock (voiced by an actor) interrupting the proceedings without caring to end the story. Hitchcock directed this radio play as a pilot for the long-running CBS anthology Suspense.

Novello is again presented as the sex object in Downhill, the 1927 follow-up included as the most important bonus on this package. Cashing in on the great success of the previous film, Hitchcock teamed again with Novello and writer Elliot Stannard in another production for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures. This time, it’s a sopping wet riches-to-rags melodrama based on a play Novello co-wrote for himself as David L’Estrange, and at one point Hitchcock handles it as slapstick.

Novello’s Roddy Berwick is an all-around college hero, most in his glory when running about the field in his rugby shorts getting tackled by the boys. An early scene, as gratuitous as possible, presents him toweled, shirtless and wet in the locker room as a young woman accidentally gazes at him through the open door. That scene may be a tease, but there’s sex all through this thing, as Roddy, dash it all, becomes another “wrong man” and gets expelled when he takes the blame for knocking up a local gold-digger (Annette Benson). The true culprit is his roomie (Robin Irvine), who can’t risk his scholarship.

Roddy may be innocent of that one, but he spends the rest of the film driven by his own lust or serving that of others, from a faithless wife (Isabel Jeans) to the madame of a French dancehall who sells him to hungry matrons for 50 francs a dance and all you can eat. His lowest rung is indicated by a flophouse patronised by black sailors, and here is where Hitchcock indulges his most hallucinatory and expressionist tricks. At one point, Roddy imagines his censorious father as a uniformed cop, thus conflating an incident from the director’s own childhood when his dad had him locked in a jail cell for a few minutes to teach him a lesson.

The most active thing Roddy every does is passively accept his initial fate, never doing a thing to disentangle himself, becoming a sacrificial plaything of whimsical destiny with parallels to the Jesus worshiped in a Latin prayer in an early refectory scene. In this way, the far-fetched melodramatics of Downhill carry some thematic parallel to The Lodger, which climaxes in a kind of pietà while being 20 minutes shorter and twice as entertaining.

Both tinted prints, restored by the British Film Institute, look as if they were developed only yesterday. Those of us who recall sitting through the lousy Video Yesteryear VHS of The Lodger from the Hitchcock section of Blockbuster Video — back when there was a Hitchcock section, a Blockbuster Video, and VHS — will find this Criterion edition a revelation. Neil Brand composed new scores and discusses his work, and there are visual essays by two scholars as well as interview excerpts with Hitchcock, Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich.

RATING 9 / 10