Adapted from a successful novel by Marie Belloc, the film reinterprets and offers a solution to the story of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper and reimagines the seedier parts of London in the nineteenth century.1 After an initial sequence that makes clear that the killer known by his calling card as ‘The Avenger’ has just committed another murder, and that his victims are all blonde young women, the film then introduces the working-class Bunting family who run a typical lodging house in a grimy impoverished part of the city. This family centres round Mr and Mrs Bunting (Arthur Chesny and Marie Ault), the elderly and devoted parents of aspiring model Daisy (played by an actress known only as ‘June’), but also includes Daisy’s would-be suitor, police detective Joe Betts (Malcolm Keen). A little later, the detectives who have been assigned to work on the notorious case deduce that the pattern of murders appears to be moving towards the very same lodging house; and the mysterious lodger (Ivor Novello), who arrived there a day after the seventh murder and who was absent from the house at exactly the time the eighth was committed nearby, is held under suspicion. Meanwhile, Daisy and The Lodger fall in love, much to the concern of her parents and the great discontent of Joe, who then turns the murder case into a personal vendetta and a quest to reclaim his damaged masculine pride.
Although officially Hitchcock’s third feature, the director himself preferred to refer to The Lodger as his first proper film. Indeed, it was his first suspense thriller, a genre he went on to make his own with more world-famous films such as Vertigo (1958 USA) and Psycho (1960 USA). It also stands out as the film that drew attention to him as a prominent filmmaker whose approach was for a long time difficult to categorise. In fact, with films like The Lodger, Hitchcock began to shape new categories and drew on a wide range of cinematic and broader cultural influences, from German expressionism to the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud. Moreover, The Lodger was responsible for introducing a range of what were quickly to become classic Hitchcockian themes, for as Robert Murphy has pointed out: ‘What makes the film so fascinating is the way it dissolves into preechoes of Hitchcock’s later work’ (in Pym 2003: 691). Issues of gender struggle and questions about guilt, suspicion and redemption are all wrapped up in an engrossing yarn that encompasses violence, romance, chase scenes and moments of raw emotional intimacy.
The compelling story of The Lodger benefits from a carefully crafted plot, in which twists and turns keep audiences guessing about the identity and motivation of the protagonist until the very end. It does so with very few intertitles, relying deliberately instead on the power of the cinematic image and the melodramatic performance style of its actors.2 Such suspicion of dialogue (intertitled or otherwise) was part of a general concern Hitchcock shared with filmmakers like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang around the introduction of synchronised sound to what had until then primarily been a visual medium. There was a logic to their resistance to change in that they, like Chaplin and Eisenstein, feared that sound would adversely affect the possibilities of filmmaking and make audiences lazier in their consumption of films. As Duguid notes, ‘the limitations of silent cinema meant that directors were forced to be imaginative in using images to convey dialogue and effects’, 3 and many were afraid that such creativity would be lost if the addition of sound were made possible.
In any case, The Lodger shows Hitchcock’s mastery of (silent) film technique in his use of a wide variety of camera techniques and props to communicate the emotions of the various characters. He also deploys a frugal yet strategic placement of intertitles to announce characters, break up the narrative, and to add to the sense of mystery. Perhaps an even greater sign of cinematic sophistication is the staging of much of the plot in the narrow, multilevel boarding house which allows characters on different storeys to be seen interacting with the plot simultaneously. On a narrative level, the film is also quite complex. It moves towards a memorable finale, in which quick cuts between frames from different angles follow The Lodger as he is chased by a bloodthirsty mob. Just before this, a short but effective flashback sequence from The Lodger’s tragic past allows Daisy and the audience privileged access to the motivation for his strange behaviour and his air of melancholy.
The opening sequence, using an almost expressionistic style with quirky tilt angles and shadows, sets the mood of a city terrorised by a mysterious killer. Indeed, as Geoffrey Macnab points out, ‘the pleasure of the film lies less in its being about a serial killer per se than in its manipulation of audiences’ expectations and its evocation of mist-shrouded London streets’ (2007: 11). This section incorporates frantic scenes in a newspaper office, printing office, and out on the streets as people clamour with a mix of fear and anticipation to read about the latest murder in their neighbourhood. Such images are intercut with others featuring catwalk models preparing themselves for work, and the transition from one activity to another is set up by the delivery of a note from the killer to the show that states he is on the lookout for a girl with golden curls. At first all seem to be blonde and hence all ideal targets for the killer, but as their peroxide wigs are removed, it is quickly revealed that only very few possess the features that might attract The Avenger.
Such features, the ‘golden’ hair and translucent fair skin in particular, are exactly those that are on display again three decades later via Rear Window’s Lisa (Grace Kelly, 1954), Vertigo’s Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak, 1958), Psycho’s Marion (Janet Leigh, 1960) and The Birds’ Melanie (Tippi Hedren, 1963). In fact, the idea of a constructed and idealised, yet threatening female identity that is so clearly explored by those later films is pre-echoed in The Lodger by the reference to wigs, make-up and costume, the display of young models, and the playful use of fake dark hair by one of the fair-haired girls to try to outwit the killer. Indeed, while critics continue to debate whether Hitchcock was uncomfortable with and hostile to women, or whether he admired them, it is clear that, as Mark Duguid points out, ‘Hitchcock saw female sexual vulnerability as a powerful dramatic device, which he exploited ruthlessly’. 4
The supposed villain of the piece is portrayed with some ambivalence: the initial careful framing of The Lodger’s face makes him appear menacing and mysterious, while later on he looks vulnerable and victimised. The direct, frontal angle which shows only part of his head as the rest is sheltered from the cold by a thick scarf, adds to the piercing and mesmeric nature of his eyes, his ghostly, translucent skin and sharply contrasting dark hair, all of which make him appear quite monstrous at first. Moreover, his unexpected arrival at the Buntings’ lodging house is prefigured by a flickering and inexplicable extinction of the kitchen gas lamp, and a frenzied malfunction of the family’s cuckoo clock. As Mrs Bunting opens the door, The Lodger seems to appear from the fog itself, creating a memorably chilling moment that sets the tone for the assumptions that are made about this tragic stranger, until it is almost too late. In fact, The Lodger’s eccentric appearance and behaviour have more to do with his upper-class background, but are misunderstood by the Buntings and Joe as evidence of his deviance.
All this helps generate the tone of suspense by which Hitchcock’s work was later defined. The sinister way in which The Lodger turns round all the paintings of women on the walls of his room and then insists that they are removed sets up questions about who he is, where he has come from and what his intentions might be which are left unanswered for the majority of the film. The shaking of the kitchen lamp as he paces above and the use of a transparent ceiling/floor to allow the audience to see his feet as they walk up and down, heighten the effect of anxiety. Moreover, the very timing of his arrival to coincide with the hysterical reporting of the seventh murder and his absence from the boarding house while the eighth is committed only deepens the effect of suspicion within the diegesis and for the audience. Could this man really be The Avenger lurking within their very midst? And yet, his tenderness towards Daisy and her absolute faith in his integrity leads to further uncertainty.
On another level, this is also a film about patriarchy and Joe’s assumed ownership of Daisy as his fiancée-to-be. While he appears to assume a right to become her husband, he also seems to realise that he needs to prove himself to her. She seems less than impressed by his early attempts to woo her, and downright insulted when he sadistically handcuffs her to the staircase while The Lodger watches. He appears to have the approval of Daisy’s parents but has not won her heart. Will his attempts to apprehend the Avenger impress her sufficiently? Her rebuttal of his advances and rejection of his proposal send him into a jealous rage, especially when he catches her playing chess with The Lodger in his room, and later finds them locked in amorous embrace. His determination to win her back becomes entangled with a parallel obsessive quest to capture the murderer and to remove or destroy the threat to his macho sense of self.
All the classic Hitchcockian issues of gender and class difference, fetishistic sexuality, misunderstanding and mistaken identity surface in this gripping silent drama that shows a maturity of style and tone. It oscillates between suspense and humour, fear and tenderness, and demonstrates the young director’s growing confidence in using cinema to connect emotionally with an audience. At this stage, however, Hitchcock did not have as much control over his work as he would later enjoy. It has been reported that he would have preferred to construct a more ambiguous ending to The Lodger’s narrative, but the British studio involved wouldn’t allow the suggestion that The Lodger might actually be the murderer to be confirmed.5 Nevertheless, the film, like its originating story, caught the public imagination and marked the start of the career of one of the British film industry’s greatest directors.
1. The film was also known as The Case of Jonathon Drew and The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. It was supposedly based on an anecdote told by a landlady who was sure that one of her tenants had been Jack the Ripper.
2. Even the intertitles are visually attractive with their ‘explicitly graphic quality’ (Sergeant 2005: 89) thanks to the deco-style designs of McKnight Kauffer.
3. Mark Duguid, ‘Hitchock’s Style’, 2003–06. Available at www.screenonline.org.uk/tours/ hitch/tour3.html (accessed 14 July 2006).
5. Novello (1893–1951) was a box office draw in the 1920s: he was praised for his acting ability as well as his good looks.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: Piccadilly Productions. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Screenwriter: Elliot Stannard. Cinematographer: Gaetano di Ventimiglia. Editor: Ivor Montagu. Cast: Marie Ault (Mrs Bunting), Arthur Chesny (Mr Bunting), June (Daisy Bunting), Malcolm Keen (Joe Betts), Ivor Novello (The Lodger).]
Geoffrey Macnab, ‘Still making a killing’, Independent, 4 May 2007, pp. 10–11.
Robert Murphy, ‘The Lodger’, in John Pym, Time Out Film Guide 2004, London, Penguin, 2003, p. 691.
Amy Sergeant, British Cinema: A Critical History, London, BFI, 2005.
François Truffaut, Hitchcock, London, Simon & Schuster, 1985.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.