The Lodger (1927). 91 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ivor Novello (as Jonathan Drew/the lodger), Marie Ault (as the landlady), Arthur Chesney (as her husband), June Tripp (as Daisy Bunting), and Malcolm Keen (as Joe Chandler).
Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger is one of the earliest movies to express some of the director’s deepest preoccupations: the pursuit of an innocent man who is confused with a killer, the intersection of sex and murder, the experience of people who suspect someone in their circle of being a criminal, and the suffocating nature of crowds. As such, The Lodger is a rich repository of trademark Hitchcock elements, including his first cameo, and the director himself called it the first true Hitchcock film. At the same time, and paradoxically, the movie bears the marks of some of the other great European filmmakers of its time, such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The Lodger is best understood as a transitional film in which we can see the director toying with the dominant visual styles of the continent as his own thematic predilections emerge. What is remarkable is how well those preoccupations (which reach their creative zenith in his later movies) work in the visual milieu of his contemporaries.
As the movie opens, London is plagued by a Jack-the-Ripper-style serial killer who calls himself “the Avenger.” With his face wrapped in a scarf, he murders fair-haired girls on Tuesdays in the city and leaves a triangular calling card. One night a woman who has a room to let receives a mysterious visitor who wraps his face in a scarf as the killer does. He rents the vacant room, pays cash in advance, and asks that she remove the portraits (all of fair-haired girls) from the walls.
The landlady’s daughter Daisy becomes smitten with the lodger, much to her boyfriend Joe’s chagrin. Joe is a detective who comes to believe the lodger is the killer. After obtaining a warrant, he searches the lodger’s quarters and finds a gun, news clippings about the killer, and a map with the murders marked with triangles. The lodger tries to explain, but Joe handcuffs him. Subsequently, the lodger escapes into the fog (still handcuffed), where Daisy finds him. He explains that he is innocent, that his sister was a victim of the Avenger’s, and that he has sworn to track down the criminal. A mob becomes aware of the handcuffed lodger and, thinking he is the killer, chases him through the city. Joe learns that the real killer has just been caught and struggles to protect the lodger, who is surrounded by the crowd and caught on a fence. After Joe rescues him, the lodger recovers in a hospital and is reunited with Daisy and her family.
It is easy to see the influence of Murnau in The Lodger, with the angularity of the artwork on the title cards, the use of tinting, the dominance of shadow, and the creation of an unnerving atmosphere. The plot about a mysterious murderer who strikes at night is reminiscent of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which focuses on a vampiric nightstalker. Of course, in The Lodger we never see the true killer; in contrast, Nosferatu offers many thrilling scenes where the vampire Count Orlok is in full view. But what both movies share with us on screen at length is the panicked and climactic crowd activity that results as the public grows more restless and obsessed with the killer. Whereas Murnau’s crowd hunts down Orlok, however, Hitchcock’s crowd is full of people who jump to conclusions about the lodger and nearly kill him while the real murderer is apprehended by police. Unlike in Nosferatu, the mob’s hysterical pursuit of the lodger is frightening and oppressive, a cautionary lesson on rushing to condemn.
True to its continental influences, The Lodger is artful in its careful selection of repetitive visual elements, such as the flashing neon sign reading “To-night: Golden Curls” that appears hauntingly on the London cityscape, advertising beautiful showgirls but also reminding us of what is chiefly on the killer’s mind as he stalks the streets. Although the sign’s content is coincidental and innocent, it nevertheless becomes a cruel irony. The public advertisement of a physical feature that many of the young women in question are trying to hide calls attention to the worrisome nature of the nocturnal outside world—not merely the open city streets but also the oblivious purveyors of enclosed nighttime entertainment. It seems for a moment that the movie might develop into a commentary on the exploitative nature of entertainment marketing (we see the backstage environment of both the showgirls and the department store models, and Daisy is one of the latter), but The Lodger does not particularly make more of this interesting angle.
As the “Golden Curls” light shines off and on in the dark landscape, we also become aware of the movie’s prevalent use of fog. The London fog in this movie is evocative of the invasive and the unknowable. Like a character in its own right, the fog creeps through the city and envelops the killer; it is right at the door on the night when the lodger first appears. The almost supernatural nature of the fog is at odds with the methodical detective work that we also see. Detectives such as Joe and motivated individuals such as the lodger can trace the movements of the killer and formulate plots about where he will strike next, creating a plan to capture him before he strikes again. But the killer’s union with the fog also serves to amplify his threat, making him seem unescapable, uncontrollable, and beyond the reach of the investigation’s rationalism.
Just as Hitchcock envelops the outside world in an opaque mist, the interior of the lodger’s dwellings offers us its own symbolism. There is, for example, the trembling light fixture in the house where the lodger stays. We know that the lights downstairs move when he mysteriously paces upstairs. We even see, in a marvelous shot, his feet moving across the floor with the fixture plainly underneath and the regular flooring replaced with a pane of glass for effect. The scene underscores the double agitation taking place: the lodger is nervous and the landlords grow distressed as they perceive his nervousness. Why is he worried, they wonder? Could this be a sign of his instability, a clue that he is the murderer? The shaking chandelier emphasizes that the mystery of who this apparently unstable man is develops within the context of an intimate residential space, and the tension builds in part because of the mingling of public crime with private domestic interior, where a potential killer eats off of our china, moves up and down our staircases, and even comes close to entering the room while we bathe.
The pacing lodger’s psychology is twisted enough that we may find it easy to believe he is the killer early on, and one of the things that I love about this movie is that even as it comes to maintain his innocence, it still suggests that he is a peculiar person. Ivor Novello’s lodger is possessed, weird, preoccupied, and temperamental. His mood can change quickly and unpredictably; for example, he becomes disturbed by the presence of portraits of young blonde women on the wall and immediately demands that they be taken down. We later learn he is sensitive—perhaps investigating the murder of his sister and so many other blonde women has made him reluctant to look at blonde women at all, but if that is true, it is probably true because he is already a bit tweaked, a little high strung. The fact that the lodger is tracking the killer around the city on a map with little triangles to mark each slaying because he is obsessed with the case may be possible, but it seems likely that the killer’s obsessive symbolism has infected even his secret notes.
The story originally left the guilt of the lodger ambiguous. This ending was changed when Ivor Novello joined the cast—the studio refused to associate him with such a dark possibility. But we can see how the movie is planting real seeds of doubt about his character even in the final version, seeds that do not feel fully resolved at the conclusion. It is not so much that the movie does not work, but that its initial scenes work too well. We grow almost accustomed to suspecting the lodger, and we delight in the thrill of thinking that there is a killer living under the landlords’ roof, so close to the innocent Daisy. It is difficult to abandon the suspicion that we harbor about him, even after he reveals the circumstances of his sister’s death and how he came to be obsessed with the murders. The movie taps into universal concerns about being mistaken for something we are not, about being suspected and unjustly accused, but it wants us to transition from belief in guilt to belief in innocence a little too quickly.
I have spent a lot of time discussing the character of the lodger, but it should be noted that the entire cast is outstanding. Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney are a pleasure to watch as the suspicious landlords. Even the environment is wonderful: the house where most of the activity takes place is a hulking old vintage residence with antique furnishings and a wonderful delineation of spaces. The setting, both the house and the city of London, is evocative of brooding mystery, but the real story is about the lodger crossing over the threshold in that early scene and coming inside. It is one of Hitchcock’s best expressions of the invasive nature of horror.