Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
It’s impossible to walk into a project like this essay without some preconceptions. For instance, if I’m writing about a film I know and love, like Vertigo, my mind will automatically start forming introductions, paragraphs, and analysis even before I rewatch it. I think it’s natural and I don’t really try to fight it. Because each time I watch one of these movies my perception of it changes. Those preconceptions are still there, informing how I watch and how I write, but hopefully I can still judge the film based on how I’m feeling today.
When I picked The Lodger, a movie I hadn’t seen since film school twenty years ago, the narrative immediately presented itself: Hitchcock’s breakthrough silent film, the movie that established his genius, a stunning performance by Ivor Novello, a conflicted ending, the template for all the brilliance that would follow. Most of that is still true. Except for one major thing: I didn’t love the movie.
On its technical merits it’s a brilliant film. Hitchcock is doing some amazing things with lighting and building tension. The plot, based on the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes (and subsequent play Who Is He?) is excellent, if a little underdeveloped for a feature. London is gripped by a spate of Jack-the-Ripper type killings of young attractive blond women by a man known only as “The Avenger.” Amidst these killings a mysterious young man (Ivor Novello) comes to rent a room from an older couple with a beautiful daughter, Daisy (June Tripp). While Daisy & The Lodger fall in love, the couple starts to suspect that he is the killer, and the neighborhood police officer begins the search. It culminates in Hitchcock’s first chase scenes, a terrifying run through the streets of London with an angry mob.
The film is also the start of Hitchcock’s murderous association with blondes. Against a repeated refrain in the gorgeous animated titles (added afterwards by Ivor Montagu, who was brought in when the studio was wary of the film, which would become one of the biggest hits of the year) we see “To-Night: Golden Curls.” Hitchcock introduces a blonde dead woman, then goes into a bit of comedic business over women’s hair colors. Novello is appalled by paintings of women with blonde hair, and is both attracted to and fearful of Daisy and her blonde curls (more on that later). It’s the start of Hitchcock’s most-publicized fetish, the idea that he always had to have a blonde. And yes, it’s mostly true; in most of his films after The Lodger there’s a blonde woman in the cast.
But as much as people want to make out the “Hitchcock ideal” of the icy, cold blonde, that character only appears in a handful of films. Daisy in The Lodger is an assuming young shopgirl. Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent is a wide-eyed young girl. Joan Fontaine in Suspicion is a shy young heiress. Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a warm maternal figure. And on and on. Hitchcock created memorable roles for actors and actresses alike because it made his films better, and those roles were dictated by the story’s demands as much as they were by his preference for blond women.
Back to The Lodger. It’s a film of highs and lows. The highs are some of Hitchcock’s highest, starting out with a brilliant montage showing the murder of a young woman, the crowd gathering around her, news spreading through the city, a group of dancers in a burlesque discussing their hair color, and finally leading us to our lead character, Daisy (June Tripp). The lows are tedious dialogue scenes and, sadly, Ivor Novello himself.
Some critics have claimed that part of the reason Novello is so dreadful in this film is because of his homosexuality (a well-known “secret” in the British film industry at the time). This is preposterous; to claim that a man couldn’t play a love scene with a woman because he’s gay is not only stupid, it’s offensive. Novello was a handsome singer/songwriter with little acting experience. It was Hitchcock’s brilliant idea to cast him against type as a brooding killer but Novello’s acting isn’t up to the task. He never comes close to embodying the charming menace of, say, Cary Grant in Suspicion. And unfortunately, the studio couldn’t have their poster pretty boy as a murderer; while Hitchcock had wanted the film to end with some ambiguity (as it does in the play, where the audience is never sure if the Lodger is the killer or not), instead the mandate came down: Novello can’t be the killer.
Hitch and his screenwriters (including his wife Alma) came up with a great idea: Novello is not the killer, but a distraught brother out to avenge his sister. This bit of plot goes a long way towards explaining why Novello’s sneaking out of the house late at night and is distraught by paintings of fair-haired women. It also sets up a fairly creepy idea where Novello is attracted to Daisy and keeps fingering her blonde hair, because it reminds him of his sister? Is he making out with his sister?
Unfortunately this idea doesn’t hold up when you’re watching the film and already know the outcome. The instant Novello sets foot in the house there’s no modulation in his performance; he’s the creepiest, most suspicious person ever. Novello overplays so much that it’s laughable. And while I’m really not the type of person to gripe about plot, much of The Lodger is absurd. Perhaps the most preposterous moment is the idea that the older couple who own the house suspect that Novello is the killer, and suspect that he might be out to kill their daughter…yet they continue to let him live in their home. Hitch was not yet at the point where the brilliance of his filmmaking could paper over such gigantic plot holes.
I’m going to contradict myself now. In past essays I’ve talked about the commonly held belief that Hitchcock thrived in silent film and while he responded to the technical challenges of sound film, he always longed for the silent days. This plays into a longing for yesteryear that was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s when Hitchcock gave many interviews about his career, and he was as eager to glorify the old days as much as anyone. There exists a belief among many historians and critics that silent filmmaking was more “pure,” perhaps, more artistic.
However I’m starting to think that it’s all bullshit. Hitchcock directs the montages and action sequences in The Lodger with remarkable technique, but when the time comes for dialogue to push the story along, the film falls flat. While silent filmmaking honed his unparalleled visual sense, Hitchcock achieved his greatest successes with sound. A film like The Man Who Knew Too Much, made just seven years later in 1934, is worlds more entertaining, fast-paced, and energetic than his best silent film.
And I don’t think it’s just that he had more time to build his craft. When you’re considering Hitchcock’s great masterpieces, can you imagine Rear Window without Thelma Ritter cracking wise?Vertigo or Psycho without that Bernard Hermann score? Or Notorious without the give and take between Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman?
The Lodger is considered Hitchcock’s best silent film, and while there are sequences in it that rival anything he produced, as a cohesive film it barely holds together. Like most of his silent films it’s remarkably theatrical and full of long scenes of people talking to each other on a flat set.
I think as much as Hitchcock bemoaned sound filmmaking later in life, it was actually a huge help for him. It let him streamline his films and insert witty banter in place of silent slapstick. As much as The Lodger enjoys a tremendous reputation, it’s also clear that it’s only his third feature film. There are several Christ metaphors with Novello that are clumsily executed (Hitchcock would sheepishly admit that they were unnecessary in later years). I’m going to work on developing this theory, that while Hitchcock is a product of the silent film industry, he only achieved his true greatness in sound film.
This week is a shorter essay than normal (that’s either good or bad, depending on how you feel about 3,000 word essays on 89 year old silent films). On Sunday I launched a Kickstarter for my business, Alternate Histories, to print some big glossy calendars for 2017. They’re really expensive upfront and I’m asking people to preorder a calendar to help me absorb the cost of printing them (and hey it funded! Thanks!).
That’s been taking up a lot of my time, and I’m now realizing I have to finish proofing and preparing the damn thing. Plus managing that much social media interaction takes a ton of time.
I always get a little nervous promoting myself or my work this much. It feels like I’ve been having this conversation a lot with myself and other people. I think we’d all like to feel that back in the “good old days” (whenever/wherever that was), artists didn’t have to resort to this kind of self-promotion. That they just created art and that was it. Someone else did all the hard work.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe for a few rarified people. Maybe if you painted the Sistine Chapel.
I think hustle/promotion has always been part of the game. It’s changed, sure. Instead of trying to get reviewers to come to a show or staging outlandish happenings to get attention, we clamber for likes and follows on social media. Some of it’s fake, some of it’s helpful, but it’s how the game is played.
A big part of putting art out into the world is just that: the confidence to put a frame around something (literally or metaphorically) and say: “Hey world, I made this and you should check it out.” Hitchcock knew this too; from his early days in Britain, he understood the power of a good interview not just in promoting his own work, but in consolidating his own power & influence.
The success of The Lodger would point Hitchcock towards his career as the Master of Suspense. Yet when watching it now, it feels like an early, immature work. In later years, Hitchcock would find ways to make the narrative elements of the film just as interesting as the chase scenes and show-stopping sequences; here, he seems to be saving all his talent for the killer scenes while the rest of the movie falters. Downhill and The Farmer’s Wife are less dynamic pictures, but they’re more cohesive. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be until 1928 and Blackmail when Hitchcock first combined a successful narrative with his now-trademark suspense and thrill. The Lodger is an innovative, stylish, yet incomplete template for the genius for an incredible career.
As for me, I’m thrilled that my project got backed. If it goes well, this could be a major money maker and game changer for me around the holidays. I’m not gonna lie: the past couple big projects I’ve done have fell apart or never really gotten off the ground. Maybe this will be a big success, or maybe not. But it felt good to see it get funded to quickly. It felt good to get a win.
The Lodger is streaming on Youtube with a particularly awful, horrible score. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon with a much better, more appropriate score.