The Lodger

(United Kingdom 1927)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Ivor Novello, June, Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, Helena Pick, Alfred Hitchcock
Genre: Thriller/Crime
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard, Alfred Hitchcock, Marie Belloc Lowndes
Cinematography: Baron Ventimiglia
Composer: Paul Zaza
Runtime: 75 minutes

"Suspense, as opposed to mystery, is giving information to an audience in order to make them worry, whereas mystery is merely withholding information" - Alfred Hitchcock.

While this wasn't Hitchcock's first feature film, he refers to it as the one that set the pace for his later films, the first to show his vision, style, and bravura. The most interesting thing about this film, other than its technical virtuosity and the horribly ineffective soundtrack, is the fact that it wasn't supposed to end the way it did. Hitchcock wanted The Lodger to be the killer, which would have made a more predictable film (granted in 1926 audiences weren't spoiled by the bastardization of the genre and everything could have been "surprising" if the right amount of suspense and tension were provided). Instead, there were pressures to let matinée idol Ivor Novello out of the killer role, probably because people didn't want to picture Novello as a killer. Ironically, the fact Novello wouldn't end up as the killer made this film even better, a lot more interesting and compelling.

A serial killer who calls himself "The Avenger" is terrorizing London, killing young and beautiful blondes on Tuesdays. The people who saw him described him as a tall man wearing a scarf that covers half of his face. As the film begins, we see a shot of a woman screaming and people surrounding the murder scene. It takes 15 minutes for the main character, The Lodger, to enter the film because the time is devoted to generating interest in the murders and describing the killer. It's devoted to, as Hitch said, giving information to the audience in order to make them worry. The brilliance of Hitchcock's Lodger character is he's mysterious, intimidating, and suspicious. He enters the picture wearing a scarf that covers half his face, asking the Bunting family to rent him their lodge.

The instant realization most of the audience has is the Lodger is the Avenger because of the way the camera smartly works to create an aura around him, to show him in a mysterious, dark, and menacing fashion. His eyes convey terror and intimidation; the Bunting family is scared of this weird figure coming to town and renting their lodge. They're suspicious, afraid of what they don't know, and Hitchcock makes us sense this, involving the audience more than any cheap "horror trick" like gore or impressive frantic action would have. Remember that the key is giving the right information and surrounding it with an environment that conveys tension and suspense.

The Buntings' daughter Daisy (June) is set to marry her fiancé Joe (Malcolm Keen), a policeman eager to work on the Avenger case. Joe discusses the case with Mr. Bunting (Arthur Chesney), saying he'd make a name for himself by capturing The Avenger. While he appears to be someone who talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk, the way Hitchcock pictures him doesn't totally exclude the fact he might be the killer himself. His eyes look menacing, and he's constantly talking about the murders in a suspect way.

While the Avenger keeps killing young women, Hitchcock develops the characters and relationships they form. Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) starts having doubts about the Lodger's activities. In particular, he doesn't want to see pictures of young women on the wall, instead requesting their removal. Also, he paid a month in advance. He's still a "gentleman" to her, but she doesn't know how that will affect her or her family. Daisy starts knowing the Lodger better, and finds herself in love with him, totally fascinated by his weird charm and kind demeanor even if strange and rather suspect. At first they hide their emotions, but when Joe finally finds out The Lodger's problems start and Hitchcock moves the plot from a character study to a lesson on how to resolve a "whodunit" plot.

Moved by his jealously and rage, Joe, who has been assigned to the Avenger case, starts believing The Lodger is the killer. He tries his best to get a warrant to search his room. Even the Buntings are suspicious and feel they must find a way to keep Daisy away from The Lodger. When Mrs. Bunting sees The Lodger mysteriously leaving on a Tuesday night, her suspicions that The Lodger is The Avenger are confirmed, at least in her mind.

What follows is the perfect culmination to a well-presented story. As with Dario Argento's "Tenebrae," we're shocked to see what unfolds before our eyes not because information wasn't given to us and the solution to the case was something we didn't have the elements to discover. What we're surprised by is the fact it didn't make sense for THE killer to be A killer. From the beginning, Hitchcock gives us hints of what would happen in the end. It might have been something that Hitchcock didn't want to do at first, but the ending makes perfect sense, with The Lodger trying to avenge the death of his sister by finding the Avenger and killing him for what he's done. He can't see pictures of blonde women on the wall because that reminds him of his sister. He moves mysteriously, trying to hide from the public eye because he's scared of being caught.

I could have done without the happy romantic ending, but the plot centering on The Avenger is just brilliant. If I didn't read the synopsis of the film, talking about a man wrongly accused of a murder (thanks for the spoiler, BTW), I would have believed The Lodger was the killer from the beginning. Everything was done to make us believe he was, and when we find out why he wasn't that man, it satisfies you because his actions make perfect sense. That is suspense; that is tension. It's not about some bullshit surprise because your plot doesn't make any sense but you need to send people home happy with their incoherent surprise finale. It's about involving us in the story, giving us little hints that might not make sense at first but in the end piece together like a jigsaw and make us understand what happened. It's all about disseminating information in the right way and using the mood to generate tension. Hitchcock has always been a master of this, and this was the first film where he showed that.

Many of today's average moviegoers will think the film is overbearingly over the top as far as acting goes, but you've got to consider the time it was shot. Being a silent film, you have to convey emotions with your facial expressions, and in this case with a soundtrack that doesn't help at all. The "overacting" is actually something I don't mind. The look on Novello's face when he sees his project discovered is priceless. The brilliant thing about his character is that he's at first very mysterious, leading us to believe he's the killer, but gradually we find out about him and why Daisy is so interested by him, captured by his charm. Even if the Lodger ended up as being the killer, we would have felt bad for him. Really, a brilliant character, and considering the time, a fine performance by Ivor Novello.

The only real big flaw of the film I have to mention is the soundtrack by Paul Zaza. In the '20's, soundtracks were as important as the actors themselves because it was the only way to convey emotions, tension, romance...the message. Zaza's incoherent uninvolving score pales in comparison to Bernard Herrmann's masterfully effective works. Herrmann not only used basic music sentences to underline the tension and to help generate it (watch Psycho, for example), but also gradually tells a story with his music. It was lighthearted when it needed to be, but would gradually evolve, getting darker and deeper when it needed to. Zaza's score is just a collection of fairly well realized overtures that make little sense and don't involve the audience or help Hitchcock's vision. Thus, it doesn't fulfill its duty. The most dramatic moments are adequately represented, but it's in the most "light" moments that the inadequacy of Zaza's score comes to the forefront because it fails to convey the mood change. A really bad choice for a soundtrack, but Hitch would later learn and start working with Bernard, one of the all time best composers.

Even with its flaws, this is certainly one of the most interesting works of tension I've ever seen. Considering the technique already displayed in an age where such thing was virtually unheard of, it's refreshing and fascinating to see how Hitch learned his craft. The plot is brilliant and backed up by great technique and visual bravura. The only downside is you might as well press the mute button because the soundtrack won't help you anyway.

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