"The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" is a thriller about a serial killer based on Jack the Ripper but updated from the 1880s to the 1920s. A man known as "The Avenger" has murdered several young women. All his victims were blonde, and all the killings took place on Tuesday evenings. A young man takes a room as a lodger in the home of a Mr and Mrs Bunting. (The man is referred to in some cast lists as "Jonathan Drew", but this name is not used in the film itself). The man is secretive and mysterious, and is obviously a well-to-do gentleman, so it is not clear why he has taken a room in a working-class area.
The Buntings have a daughter named Daisy who works as a model and showgirl. A friendship grows up between Daisy and the lodger, much to the dismay of Daisy's policeman boyfriend Joe. Mrs. Bunting, however, suspicious of the lodger's secretive ways, comes to believe that he is the Avenger, and tells her husband. Joe, who has been assigned to the Avenger case, also has his suspicions. The audience are left pondering whether the lodger really is the Avenger or if Joe, jealous of his attentions to Daisy, is trying to frame him for crimes he did not commit.
"The Lodger" was Alfred Hitchcock's third feature film after "The Pleasure Garden" and the now-lost "The Mountain Eagle". Unlike some of the director's other works from the twenties it is a suspense thriller, the genre for which he was later to become famous. Like virtually all films from the twenties it was shot in monochrome, but in this case that word does not necessarily equate to "black-and-white" because different scenes were tinted in different colours. (Hitchcock also used this device in "Downhill", also dating from 1927). Orange is generally used for daytime scenes, and for indoor night-time scenes to indicate artificial lighting. Blue is used for outdoor night-time scenes, and one scene set in a darkened, unlit room at night is indeed in untinted black-and-white.
The film introduced some of what were to become Hitchcock trademarks, such as a cameo appearance by the director and a blonde heroine. (Daisy is of course blonde). It also introduced a theme which was to become a common one in Hitchcock thrillers, that of a man on the run because he is wrongly suspected of a crime he did not commit. This theme was to reappear in (among others) "The 39 Steps", "Young and Innocent", "Saboteur", "Spellbound", "Strangers on a Train", "I Confess", "The Wrong Man", "North by North-West" and "Frenzy".
Strangely enough, however, Hitchcock's original intention was to leave the question of the lodger's guilt open. The producers, however, insisted that the script be changed to make it clear that he is innocent and to provide a happy ending in which his innocence is vindicated. The reason, apparently, is that Ivor Novello was a highly popular star of the British cinema during this period and the studio felt that audiences would not accept him as a villain.
I think that in this case the producers were right. In the film that we have, as soon as the question "Is the lodger guilty or innocent?" is answered in favour of his innocence, suspense is maintained because a new question arises, namely "Can the police rescue the lodger from the angry mob which is threatening to lynch him?" Hitchcock could, if he had wanted, have made a film in which the lodger really is the killer. Such a film would have had a different ending, centred upon the question "Can the police arrest the lodger before he can kill again, with Daisy as his intended victim?" What Hitchcock could not have done, at least while working within the framework of the suspense-thriller genre, was to have made a film in which question of the lodger's guilt remains ambiguous. Suspense depends upon there being a character with whom we can sympathise or identify and in whose fate we can therefore take an interest, whether that character be a young man wrongly accused or a girl in danger from a killer. Make the main character a man who may, or may not, be a murderer, and that element of sympathy or identification is lost.
Silent films made on a serious subject are, unlike the slapstick comedies which were so popular during the silent era, are difficult for the modern viewer to evaluate because they relied upon acting techniques which had to be developed over a relatively short period of time, approximately the first three decades of the last century, and which then became obsolete with the coming of sound. "The Lodger", however, is an early Hitchcock masterpiece and a very powerful piece of work, its visual style clearly influenced by the German Expressionist movement of the twenties. Its look, with many dark, brooding night-time scenes and expressionist chiaroscuro photography, not only looks forward to the later Hitchcock but also to film noir in general. It played an important role in the development both of British and of international cinema. 9/10
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