9/16/09

Hitch on the Hump: The Lodger (1927)

Of all things, we have electric cables to thank for Alfred Hitchcock making his way into the film world. In 1918, Hitchcock was a nineteen year old man working in the advertising department of Henley’s, a company specializing in early electrical supplies. At the time, there was no separation between the writers and artists in the advertising department; they were one in the same. So the young Alfred spent his days writing brochures to sell Henley’s wares and then illustrating them as well. In time he found he had some degree of proficiency with the pen on both accounts. In 1921, when he saw that Famous Players-Lasky, a London based production arm of Paramount Studios, was looking for artists for the captions in silent films, he prepared a portfolio of designs and was quickly offered work. April 27th of the same year was Hitchcock’s last day in advertising and his first in the movie world.

As luck or necessity would have it, Hitchcock ended up working far beyond the job description as a “captionist”, and the hard working young man soon parlayed his break first into a job assistant directing films before working his way into the big chair. In 1925, he helmed his first directorial feature, The Pleasure Garden, followed closely by 1926’s The Mountain Eagle. Unfortunately, neither of those film survive in their entirety. However his third film, which the director himself noted that “you could almost say that The Lodger was my first picture”, managed to survive through the decades. It was also the first script that Hitchcock chose from properties available from the studio, and the young director relished translating a novel that he loved for the screen.

Written by Marie Belloc Lowndes and published in 1913, the novel was a best seller in it’s time, and when it was brought to the stage in 1916, Hitchcock went to see the show and liked it though it departed from the novel by adding in humorous elements. The film was adapted to screen by Players-Lasky writer Eliot Stannard who would pen nine of Hitchcock’s early silent films. Like the stage adaptation, The Lodger would also have some major changes made to it for film viewers.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog concerns a Landlady and her husband (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) who take in a new lodger (Ivor Novello). Soon their daughter Daisy (June Howard-Tripp), a model, falls for the lodger much to the chagrin of her policeman boyfriend (Malcolm Keen), but the copper becomes convinced that the lodger is none other than The Avenger who stalks the streets every Tuesday night killing off young blonde woman.

The first major change to the script came not as a necessity as much as a demand. Ivor Novello was quite the dashing leading man, and it was quite important that his image remained intact. The lodger in the novel turned out to be the murderous Avenger, and it would not do at all for the heart throb to turn out to be the villain. So with some rewrites, Novello turned out to be the first “wrong man” in the Hitchcock pantheon. He also set the framework for many of the Hitchcock leading men with his lanky build and raven hair, a sort of polar opposite to the short, fat, balding director. Hitchcock rather liked Novello, but as biographer Patrick McGilligan notes, “he was wary of the actor because of his acting limitations and his homosexuality, unknown to his female fans but no secret to those around him.”

Another prototypical archetype that first appears in The Lodger is June Howard-Tripp (billed simply as June) as the demure curly headed blonde, a perfect target for The Avenger. June was a dancer and star of musical comedies, but she had screen-tested with Novello a few years prior and the star may have requested her. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was testy about his “fixation with blondes” and in referring to the blondes in his early films he noted that they photographed in higher contrast. Then again he also remarked, “I more or less base my idea of sexuality on Northern European woman. I think northern Germans, the Scandinavians, and the English are much sexier, although they don’t look it.” June, with her nubile young looks, is quite fetching in The Lodger as well as providing an excellent turn as a woman caught between a cop and a suspect.

Even with these early films, Hitchcock was playing with the camera to see what striking images he could bring to life. The first appearance of the lodger at the door with his top hat and scarf wrapped around his face easily brings to mind the influence that the German Expressionist directors like Murnau and Lang had on the young director. It could easily have been a slice of film cut straight from Murnau’s Nosferatu. The other great trick shot in the film comes as the landlords listen to their new lodger pace upstairs. First we follow their eyes to a swinging chandelier and then the floor fades to show the soles of the lodger’s shoes as he walks. In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock noted that, “many of these visual devices would be superfluous today because we could use sound effects instead.” and went on to say, “Today I would simply use the swinging chandelier.” Even if Hitch thought that his trickery was overdone, it is important to note that, as he would do in almost all his films, Hitchcock was constantly interested in experimenting to create new and exciting visuals for his audience.

When the film was complete, it did not garner the high praise that the director had hoped for, and the studio brought in film critic Ivor Montagu to fix the film which the producers sneeringly deemed too “artistic”. Montagu fell in love with Hitchcock’s film, and the promise that the young film maker held. He helped Hitchcock pare down the intertitle cards that numbered near 500, and suggested some minor reshoots to the ending of the film. Other than that he basically left Hitch’s film alone, and it was released in 1927 and was named in Hitchcock’s words as “the greatest British picture made up to that date.” The Lodger also marked another beginning of sorts. Alma Revile worked as the Assistant Director on the production, and soon after completion of the film she became Mrs. Hitchcock. She would continue to work with Hitchcock on his films throughout his career. From inception to script to screen, she became his constant companion and collaborator for the rest of their lives.

For all the times I have railed against film viewers who have trouble watching Black and White films, I have my own prejudices. I find silent film near impossible to keep my attention, and to be honest, The Lodger was no exception. I watched this film in short bursts so I could keep my mind on the subject at hand, and I did find the film enjoyable though by the standards of modern film it has quite a slow pace. If it were not for the interesting use of cinematography, I may have found it less compelling than I did. That being said, I do recommend that any fan of Hitchcock’s films take a look at this one. While it would be many years and many more films before Hitchcock returned to the thriller genre, The Lodger shows that the director was predisposed to dark themes in his film from the very beginning.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. I actually like silent films, but I've yet to see this one. I really liked the history you gave on Hitchcock's start in film.

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  2. Great review on The Lodger... I also liked the tid bits of information on the background of Hitchcock. I work for Zip.ca, Canada's largest DVD rental service. By the looks of your blog, you have a real passion for movies. If in Canada, you should check it out as I'm sure you can find all sorts of movies for whatever you're craving! www.Zip.ca

    Keep up the great blog... I enjoy reading it. :)

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  3. the posturing (and admittedly rather irritating) little popinjaySeptember 19, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    Its interesting to realise that a film being 82 years old is the equivalent of a painting or piece of literature being 400 years old.

    ReplyDelete

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