Genius Of Hitchcock: The Lodger Revisited

Stephen Martin enjoys the Master of Suspense's 'story of the London fog', which has been fitted with a new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney and restored by the British Film Institute for a nationwide theatrical re-release

In A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce reckoned that in the connection between the creative individual and his created work the artist becomes inseparable. "The personality of the artist," he mused, "passes into the narration." It’s an assertion that’s upheld by Alfred Hitchcock, whose art is celebrated this summer and autumn at BFI Southbank. Running until the end of October under the ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ banner, the venue’s vast retrospective includes screenings of all the director’s major features and his early silents. There’s an accompanying book, 39 Steps To The Genius Of Hitchcock, plus talks by actress Tippi Hedren and critics such as Camille Paglia and Charles Barr. It’s an ambitious attempt to reassess an iconic stylist who is inextricable from cinema history.

Hitchcock, as Hitchcockians well know, is certainly inseparable from his movies. Mention of Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) or Rear Window (1954) immediately summons to the mind’s eye – along with Norman Bates’ frenetic knife-wielding and James Stewart’s wide-eyed amazement – the image of that humorously pompous, round-headed, roly-poly figure who famously incorporates himself in the background action of his films.

It seems Hitchcock’s eye-winkingly comic custom began with The Lodger and was simply a matter of needing to do a job himself, rather than pay someone else. By placing himself within the 1926 movie’s newsroom and crowd scenes, Hitchcock couldn’t have known he was originating a small recurring signature for the next half-century. It’s intriguing, tempting and damn near irresistible to search The Lodger for signs of other motifs that developed into common Hitchcockian features.

Philosophy professor and film historian Irving Singer observed that the violent undertones that emerge in Hitchcock are not only reflections upon lingering primitive urges in so-called civilised society, but that this formalistic suspense is designed to allow his audience to experience fear within a safe environment. "Fear and fear not," as the man himself said. It’s an aesthetic that suits the counterpoints of violence and humour, the macabre comedy of the circus clown or commedia dell’arte, and in the restored version of The Lodger it’s expressed in Nitin Sawhney’s excellent new score, which switches from frivolous suggestion to sombre brooding to urgent explosion.

Singer reckoned Hitchcock edited his montages like a musician composes a score, with lifts in mood and shifts in pace. It’s true; Hitchcock did. But Sawhney’s confidence in shading his updated soundtrack with light-hearted touches reflects how we now see Hitchcock as something of an ironist or satirist, as well as a master of fascinating peril. Old music for The Lodger tended towards the serious and conventional, as against Sawhney’s more frolicsome rendering, but then in retrospect we feel Hitchcock saw Man as a violently flawed, if brutally earnest, species and that perhaps the best response to this condition is to raise a mischievous smile.

This restoration reinstates the original atmospheric blue and amber tinting. Adapted from Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel, which was based on the Jack the Ripper case, it’s a tale of a serial murderer who calls himself ‘The Avenger’. Its full and rather prolix title is The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (mist and smog being a common feature of capital living back then) and it bears a regular Hitchcockian theme in the hidden threat that lies in banality and familiarity – birds gathering on telephone cables, for example, or stopping overnight at a cheap motel.

Its director saw The Lodger as "the first true Hitchcock film" and it foreshadows many aspects of what would become the Hitchcockian mindset: suspense, menace, uncertainty, paranoia. The action opens as a panic-stricken crowd is vexed by the latest Avenger murder. With several victims already dead, the violence creates fretful agitation among local people who are strung tight between the twin poles of fear and anger.

The Avenger’s victims are young, blonde-haired women. When the story moves to a nearby lodging house, we meet Daisy, a beautiful dancer, who smiles into her mirror and comments: "I’m keen on golden hair myself, same as the Avenger." Daisy is played by June Tripp and it’s impossible to avoid seeing her in hindsight as an early Hitchcock muse, later joined by Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak et al.

When a dark-eyed stranger moves into the lodging house, he arouses the suspicions of Joe (Malcolm Keen), who is not only in love with Daisy but also a police detective assigned to the Avenger case. The new lodger causes concern among the household with his odd behaviour – turning female pictures to the wall, venturing out late at night, and pacing around his room. (A smart visual effect shows the ceiling disappearing and the troubled on-lookers imagining the newcomer striding across the floor.) The mysterious lodger is played by the strikingly handsome and charismatic Ivor Novello. Again, it’s possible to see Novello as a precursor to Cary Grant, Anthony Perkins and Robert Walker, among others, whose devilish good looks disguised diabolical temperaments in Hitchcock’s later movies.

As the stranger begins taking an interest in Daisy, the uncertain nature of his intentions causes consternation for the other characters and the audience, leading to much mystery and melodrama. The Lodger is rarely seen (even by Hitchcockians) so too much shouldn’t be disclosed, but a flaw becomes evident in the narrative structure that Hitchcock would later correct in his penultimate success Frenzy (1972). This movie is also set in teeming, seedy London and features another killer of young women. The Lodger can be viewed as a flawed blueprint for Frenzy, the chrysalis to the latter’s butterfly.

Yet The Lodger also stands as an enjoyable silent-era feature. It is a curio – though not a classic – in Hitchcock’s canon, showing the later genius in an inchoate form. The movie’s extra value is in offering fascinating clues to the director’s future work and the fuzzy psychological techniques that he would sharpen. Here, the young artist is beginning to see his own art.

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog opens in selected cinemas across the UK today, including an extended run at BFI Southbank, and will be out on DVD/Blu-ray on September 24.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today