It’s fitting that Alfred Hitchcock’s first film—or at least what he considered to be his first film—opens with the director’s favorite subject matter: murder. Perhaps no other director has been so singularly obsessed with the idea of murder than Alfred Hitchcock. It’s the fear of the Hitchcock damsel, the suspicion of the Hitchcock voyeur and the fall of the Hitchcock everyman.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog chronicles the story of a small home amidst a series of murders by a serial killer who calls himself The Avenger. He targets young, blond women, killing them in the dark of night in the fog filled streets and alleys of London. Daisy (June) is a potential victim, beautiful with a golden head of hair, especially given the fact that the murders have steadily been moving closer to her neighborhood. Therefore, when The Lodger (Ivor Novello) takes up residence in the house his odd mannerisms and strange behaviors immediately put him under the suspicions of The Landlady (Marie Ault).
And well they should because Ivor Novello gives an unsettling performance. As he slowly and stiffly strides across his room and casts his eyes around the room he displays an almost inhuman mechanical movement. The way he picks up a knife, sits in a chair and lights a lady’s cigarette is done with such oddly mechanical and awkward motions that he sees more like a reanimated corpse than a human being. And when his eyes finally do settle on something it’s unnerving.
But it’s not all creepy theatrics as Alfred Hitchcock brings his signature brand of morbid humor to the table, mainly in the character of Joe (Malcolm Keen), a cop on the case of The Avenger. He hangs around the house in the hopes of wooing Daisy, but crack jokes about death as a kind of pickup line. He’d be better sticking to his early romantic gestures, such as when he cuts two hearts out of dough and places them over each other. Daisy casts off the heart closest to him, which he then rips in half while putting on his most vulnerable look.
This demonstrates one of the joys of watching this film: seeing Hitchcock work in the silent era. He has to work with images and intertitles to shape his tale in interesting ways. The heart scene is probably the film’s best example, but Hitchcock finds a way to insert a little more of a morbid air into the mix. Throughout the film he shows a flashing sign that boldly declares “tonight golden girls.” The upbeat music plays directly against the fact that each time it’s shown it is foreshadowing the murder of one of these “golden girls.”
But beyond the storytelling developed through the image, the film has more than its share of interesting aesthetic choices. As the title suggests there are a number of nighttime scenes shrouded in mist and fog, creating an uneasy atmosphere. Lighting is the film’s strong suit as The Avenger is signified by a distinct shadow and there are a number of dynamically lit scenes that appear to be nothing more than incidental moments. There’s also some nifty camerawork given the timeframe such as a shot inside a moving car and a shot that is just inches away from being captured at a point of view angle.
And the way the film paces these images reminds us that Alfred Hitchcock was first and foremost known as the master of suspense. The Russians may have been the ones who figured out how to intensify a scene by cutting back and forth between several events but The Lodger shows that it was Hitchcock who mastered it as he creates tense moments of cutting between mundane events that have the potential to take a turn for the violent.
But even the best mastery of Hitchcock’s technical and aesthetic skill would be nothing without a good story and that’s what makes The Lodger an involving experience. Maybe I’m just a sucker for silent melodrama but I found The Lodger to be one of Hitchcock’s more involving emotional experiences. And that is what makes The Lodger one of Hitchcock’s more egregiously overlooked and involving films.