I surprised even myself when it took me ten days to finally get over to the BFI Southbank for their Hitchcock retrospective. The reason for this unprecedented delay? Why, the Olympics! The excitement of a sporting event that won’t be repeated in the host city for many years to come kept me away from even the most inviting of cinema screenings. Yet I gave in eventually; The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was my choice of film, a 1927 silent Hitchcock with a new score by British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney.
I was keen on seeing one of Hitchcock’s early works as he often remarked that the visual aspect of a motion picture was by far the most important; he didn’t immediately embrace the arrival of talking pictures. Of course, many of his later films would come to be regarded as masterpieces, but it was very interesting to trace many of Hitchcock’s motifs – the ‘wrong man’, and a strange fascination with blondes – back to The Lodger, which features both a man (innocent?) suspected of a murder and a fair-haired female as a protagonist.
The film opens with a dead body – well, no surprise there. We learn that a tall, mysterious man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face has been murdering blondes, one every week. This is where Hitchcock’s delicious black humour first comes into play, and an old female witness is terrified by the sight of a member of the crowd imitating the villain. Later on, a stranger with an ominous shadow emerges from the fog into the doorway of a London house, and points at a sign saying ‘Room to Let’. He conceals half of his face. He makes an effort to remove the pictures of blonde women that adorn the walls of his living space, and through his elusive behaviour suspicions begin to rise among the occupants of the house. Could this man be the feared murderer, and if so, could he strike next at the young lady who lives downstairs?
As with all silent films, The Lodger is a very visual experience. The unsettling, sepia-toned sight of the stranger waiting at the door cannot be forgotten. The influence of German Expressionism is also witnessed in Hitchcock’s lighting and camera tricks, particularly in the shot when the lower ceiling of the house becomes transparent, and we glimpse the feet of the lodger pacing up and down the room above. It is clear from viewing the film that Hitchcock established his visual mastery early on, although it would be another 30 years before Vertigo, perhaps his boldest cinematic move, would be released.
The new score is decidedly hit-and-miss. While in most places it succeeds in propelling the story along with a nice modern twist, there are a few moments of weird incongruity. One part of the soundtrack includes some slightly cheesy lyrics being sung that accompany the images onscreen. I’m not a seasoned soundtrack listener, but it was definitely a distracting moment, and my friend and I shared a look of disbelief upon hearing the first lyric. I would have also liked more of a musical crescendo when we first meet the lodger, although that may be seen as clichéd. It’s a flawed score, but one that, for the most part, encourages you to stay with the film.
The Lodger isn’t a ‘great’ Hitchcock film. It’s inspiring, and should definitely be seen in comparison with his famed Hollywood productions, although it doesn’t quite reach the suspenseful heights that those productions achieve. It undoubtedly has some standalone moments, though; the night walk of our murderer-or-not is supremely tense, as is his onscreen introduction. As a silent film, it’s easy to look at the expressionistic faces of the actors as dated, but the creepiness of Ivor Novello’s performance as the titular character helps The Lodger to succeed as an early example of Hitchcock’s fixation with crime and morality.