At the Movies

Michael Wood

The Lodger (1926) was Alfred Hitchcock’s third film, following The Pleasure Garden (1925) and the lost Mountain Eagle (also 1926). He made six more silent films before turning to sound. He told Truffaut that The Lodger was his first exercise in his own style, adding: ‘In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture.’ The film certainly has all kinds of elements we associate with the later master, including especially the theme of the wrong man, the figure whose guilt is confirmed by every sort of plausible sign and therefore seems an excellent candidate for lynching (or justice, to make a distinction Hitchcock thought was barely tenable). If Cary Grant, in North by Northwest, has a corpse in his arms and a knife in his hands, how can we not assume he is the killer? Do we think he just happened to be there, happened to grasp the knife after the fact? We do, as a matter of fact, but that’s because we’re a movie audience and Hitchcock has just shown us these events. Who could reach this conclusion from the murderous picture alone? This double model of inference from appearances – what they emphatically seem to say, what they might improbably mean – is everywhere in Hitchcock. It’s not just that appearances are deceptive. They are definitive, but with a little slippage. They tell a true story, the story that would almost always be true, but about the wrong person.

This effect is very finely wrought in The Lodger, since the signs of guilt are so hefty it’s hard to see what other story they could be the signs of, but a curious hesitational quality creeps into any recent watching of the film, either in a cinema or on DVD or in the excellent new print now to be seen at the BFI and other venues. We are seeing a Hitchcock film, no doubt about it: there’s a suddenly transparent ceiling, which allows us (and the characters) to see pacing steps above; there are amazing blue night-time exteriors that contrast strongly with the black-and-white indoors. But we are also seeing a clunky old silent thriller, with terrible acting and gestures of sinister foreshadowing that make The Cabinet of Dr Caligari look like a model of cinematic understatement. This might be a matter of then and now, or what we think of as then and what we imagine to be now, and the new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney certainly enhances this possibility, underwriting every obvious inference with jerky old-time pastiche. Early audiences needed all this dreadful signposting, we are supposed to suppose. The lodger covers the lower half of his face, as the serial killer known as the Avenger is said to do. The lodger says to the girl who looks all too much as if she may be the Avenger’s next victim: ‘Be careful, I’ll get you yet.’ He’s referring to the game of chess they are playing, but we know a double entendre when we’re hit over the head with one. Could this lodger possibly be the Avenger? The girl’s mother and father think he is, and so, we must guess, did every member of the old audience after the first six or seven hits over the head. We’re faster at this kind of thing now, we can pick up clunky hints in a second, so a post-Psycho audience, say, needs only to see a girl in a bathtub to start worrying. It is, I admit, a trifle disappointing when the supposed killer, in The Lodger, just knocks on the bathroom door and has a polite (silent) conversation with the bather.

This disappointment may help us to see what’s wrong with the tempting then-and-now scenario. What if the clunkiness of the film is not a historical hindrance but part of Hitchcock’s design, his interest not only in the innocence of the wrong man but in banality of the wrong story? The first print of the film was not appreciated at the studio, Victory Films. The head of distribution said it was ‘dreadful’ and refused to release it. Michael Balcon came to the rescue, and got Ivor Montagu to re-edit it. But what was wrong? Was the film too clunky or not clunky enough? Let’s look.

The opening is spectacular, and very quick. We see a terrified woman’s face but not what she is terrified of. Bright lights flash out the words ‘To-Night Golden Curls’, presumably advertising a show, but there is no theatre or street to be seen, only the intermittent words, which can just as easily serve as a handy superscript for the killer’s thoughts. He specialises in blondes, we are told later, and likes Tuesday nights. Then we see a body lying on the ground, a witness talking to a policeman, a gathering crowd. We learn that the Avenger has struck for the seventh time. We are on the Embankment in London.

Hitchcock now gives us what we might think of as a homage to Dziga Vertov: a montage of sensational news being delivered, disseminated as gossip, printed (‘Wet from the press’ is the ironic title-card comment), broadcast. We see the presses, the voices, the readers, the listeners. The strategy seems to be merely to delay the beginning of the story proper but that’s because we don’t know yet about the lynch mob that is going to dominate the end of the film. Crowds are important because they are the basic believers in the wrong story, its congregation. If we are really alert we shall spot Hitchcock himself in the newspaper office and later in the yelling crowd: a signature appearance that was not yet a signature.

Finally the story starts. Daisy (billed simply as June) is a fashion model who lives with her not very well-off parents. She has a regular but uncaptivating boyfriend who is a police detective. They have been talking about the serial killer, and the boyfriend says he also likes golden hair – his idea of a compliment to Daisy, and Hitchcock’s idea of the heavy shallows of frivolity. Then the signs start. The gaslight dims. There’s a knock at the door. The visitor stands there looking haunted and cinematic, as if auditioning for whatever vampire role might be going. Everyone is terrified. But it’s all right, or may be all right. The gaslight went down because the meter needed feeding. The visitor has come about the announced room to rent, and he is only Ivor Novello, not a would-be Bela Lugosi, even if he has half-covered his face like the Avenger.

Hitchcock said he thought no studio or audience in the 1920s would think Ivor Novello – writer, composer and stage idol – could be a killer, or would want him to be. This perception surely changes the whole story of The Lodger, for viewers both then and now, although we may think it’s the heavy signing that alters things rather than the casting. Novello is handsome, moody, haunted, scary, boring, occasionally charming, with no real transition between any of these impressions. William Rothman in his recently reissued book Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Suny, £21.50), says Novello looks at the camera ‘as though he recognised it as equal in rank to himself’ (while Cary Grant in later Hitchcock films scarcely seems to acknowledge the camera at all), which is perhaps a way of saying that Hitchcock accepts or uses Novello as the subject of a series of ambiguous snapshots – ambiguous not because we wonder whether or not he is the killer but because we can’t figure out what possible plot twist could make him into something else.

The answer – it’s perhaps worth not giving the whole game away even at a distance of 86 years – is perfectly satisfactory but does mean that innocence and guilt can be represented by exactly the same story and the same signs. The point is not that there is no difference between them but that there is no difference between their representations. Novello is arrested, escapes, then is spotted in a pub and chased by a gesticulating mob, to end up dangling by his handcuffs from a spiked railing. Just in time the actual Avenger is arrested elsewhere and offscreen. Novello recovers in a hospital and gets together with June, to the delight of her now no longer suspicious parents.

It’s worth pausing over the brilliant last few shots. As Novello and June move into a concluding embrace, the ‘To-night golden curls’ sign flashes out behind them. They kiss and the sign flashes again. We see June’s face in contented close-up, Novello’s image almost vanishing upwards, leaving only his chin and teeth in view. This insistence on June’s blissful look – she is not just untroubled, she has banished the very idea of trouble from the universe, she looks like a person imitating happiness in a movie – provides the film’s one genuinely frightening (as distinct from riddling or intriguing) moment. But why? The recurrence of the murderer’s slogan is creepy, and may suggest that certain kinds of killers are just lovers who have adopted unsound methods, but this is surely too crude. My sense, as you will probably have guessed, is that this happy end is too close to what might have been its unhappy reverse – remember everyone’s suspicions and the raging mob – and that Hitchcock wants us to think of this. He also probably wants us to remember that the capture of one serial killer doesn’t abolish serial killing, except within a particular plotline. There are fanciers of gold curls everywhere, in the theatre, on the streets and in the home, and one man’s innocence does not rid the world of guilt.

The Lodger is based on a play, which in turn was based on a rather good novel, also called The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes. There the lodger is guilty, a man with a religious mania he takes out on women. But the mood of the novel is in many ways similar to that of Hitchcock’s film. If in the film we worry about what the signs of guilt can mean if they don’t mean guilt, in the novel the chief characters, the husband and wife who house the lodger, worry about what to do with their suspicions of their tenant’s activities. They can’t go to the police, because they’re afraid of getting tangled up with the law, which they are sure can come to no good; and at the end of the novel they are grimly awaiting (but not really expecting) some kind of release – maybe someone will catch the killer, or he will move somewhere else. What’s more, they don’t just suspect their tenant, they know he’s guilty and have proof that satisfies them even if it might not satisfy the police. They have to call their knowledge suspicion because they’re afraid of it, and at one point the husband has these truly Hitchcockian thoughts: ‘The most awful thing about it all was that he wasn’t sure … If only he really knew! If only he could feel quite sure! And then he would tell himself that he had very little to go upon; only suspicion – suspicion, and a secret, horrible certainty that his suspicion was justified.’ Hitchcock’s trick is to unjustify the ordinarily justifiable suspicion, and underline the horror of the wrong certainty. Well, of the right one too.