To watch The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is to discover a forgotten jewel. A story of love, murder and wondrous suspense; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent masterwork is quite simply a treasure.
Hitchcock’s thrillers are like bombs with lit fuses. It’s not so much the explosion but the frightening anticipation that make them so utterly entertaining. The master director’s third film, The Lodger, was the first that bore the staple elements of suspense that leave audiences wheezing with thrills. It is a whodunnit mystery where cinematic tension is built toward breaking point through perfectly constructed scenes and, like many of his films, the plot is centred around an abstract romance between the male and female protagonists – The Lodger surprisingly has a lot of heart.
While a Jack the Ripper style serial killer with a penchant for blondes is on the loose in good old London town a mysterious man arrives at the house of a family to enquire about a room. A close up of the front door opening cuts quickly to a long shot that frames the ghostly figure in the entryway. Pale faced and equipped with a bowler hat and scarf, his glazed eyes widen to make the landlady (Marie Ault) shudder – from the onset the lodger (Ivor Novello) is an intriguing character.
The daughter of the family, Daisy (June Tripp), is a showgirl with golden curls who is seeing one of the detectives (Malcolm Keen) assigned to the case. As a relationship between Daisy and the shadowy gentleman forms, the jealous detective begins to suspect that the man could be the rampant murderer.
Hitchcock once said, ‘blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.’ Like an Edwardian Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak, the blonde bombshell’s presence in The Lodger is paramount to the story. Picking up on the technical and thematic traits that have become to be known as ‘Hitchcockian’ is part of the pleasure of watching the film; a sort of retrospective appreciation occurs. That familiar feeling – one of suspense – is expertly assembled through collages of silhouetted shapes, camera movements and jump cuts. The cockney-killer motif evokes Frenzy while a scene set in a bathroom automatically alerts thoughts of Psycho.
As a young film-maker Hitchcock spent time in Germany and the highly stylised aesthetic of German expressionism is evident throughout – images are so skilfully manipulated that even the natural vignetting seems consistent with the tone of the film. The performance and gothic appearance of Ivor Novello makes the mysterious lodger arguably one of the greatest characters of early British cinema. Despite all the suspense, there is also a convincing sweetness to the story as Daisy is seduced by the lodger’s eerie grace by means of love or obsession.
Withstanding the test of time, The Lodger is a breath-taking technical achievement in film-making with the power to bewitch an audience. Pure Hitchcock disguised by silence.