Friday, April 20, 2012

Michael's Movie Pick #1: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

Ken O is currently away from the ship’s helm while he takes care of his wife and brand new son. During that time we are forgoing our normal updates for something special. Every month Turner Classic Movies has a Guest Programmer who chooses the films they show for that night. For 9 days we’ll be acting as we were the Guest Programmer. So you’ll get 3 movies from me, 3 from Brandon, and 3 from our guest writer Michael May! A huge thank you goes out to Michael May; please go check out his Adventure Blog.

Many people – including Alfred Hitchcock – consider the silent film The Lodger to be the first, “real” Hitchcock movie. He’d made others before it, but his genre of choice at the time wasn’t the thriller. He got his start directing melodramas like The Pleasure Garden and Fear o’ God. They were dark stories about infidelity and immoral men trapping helpless women in unwanted relationships. And The Lodger didn’t mark an immediate turning point in Hitchcock’s body of work. The same year it came out, Hitchcock directed The Ring, about a boxer and his unfaithful wife. The year after, it was Easy Virtue, featuring a newlywed woman with a dark secret.

But the themes of those films reflected something that interested Hitchcock to the end of his long, famous career. He was fascinated by the connection between love and hate, or put another way: between sex and violence. In melodramas it revealed itself through the horrible ways people treat those they claim to love. In The Lodger, Hitchcock explored it through the idea of the serial killer: a man so inflamed by lust that he can only express it through murder.

In The Lodger, you can see Hitchcock playing with ideas – both story and visual – that he would come back to in Psycho. There’s even a scene where the bathing heroine is watched and menaced by a potentially homicidal voyeur as the camera focuses on the drain and the girl’s feet.

The story opens in Victorian London where a Jack the Ripper-like killer called the Avenger is terrorizing the city. Every Tuesday night he kills a young, blonde woman and by the time the film begins he’s on his seventh victim. Most of the action takes place in a boarding house where Daisy – a young, blonde model – lives with her parents. Daisy happens to be dating Joe, the lead investigator on the Avenger case, but that and her fitting the killer’s demographic aren’t her only connections to the madman. The film gets its title from the arrival of a new tenant at the boarding house: a handsome, mysterious man whose style of dress matches descriptions of the murderer. The unnamed lodger also has a habit of going out on Tuesday nights, a map of the Avenger’s murder sites, and a strong dislike for the paintings of blonde women in his rooms. But he sure does take an interest in Daisy…

It’s no wonder that he does. Daisy is friendly and light-spirited and she quickly draws the lodger out of his shell, much to the chagrin of her parents (who are beginning to suspect him of being the Avenger) and Joe, who’s loutish sense of humor is pushing Daisy away (he handcuffs her against her will as a joke at one point and is confused about why that might upset her).

It’s a brilliant setup for a story, made better by not revealing the truth about the lodger until the very end. In fact, Hitchcock originally intended to leave the end of The Lodger ambiguous, making audiences decide for themselves whether the title character is also the killer. The producers didn’t go for it though and forced Hitchcock to add a late, but conclusive declaration about the man’s guilt or innocence. For most of the movie though, it’s impossible to tell. As the pressure of not knowing builds – it’s impossible not to fall in love with Daisy and care about what happens to her – the danger-filled tension shows why The Lodger is the prototype Hitchcock film.

The film has been remade a few times since (or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Marie Belloc Lowndes book it’s based on has been re-adapted); once with the actor who played the lodger in Hitchcock’s version reprising his role in 1932. More famous though is the 1944 version starring Merle Oberon as the girl (re-named Kitty) and George Sanders as her policeman boyfriend. It’s interesting that this version takes the opposite route from Hitchcock about the lodger’s guilt, showing that the story really can go either way. Or – as the recent 2009 version with Simon Baker and Alfred Molina demonstrates – another way altogether. In other words, The Lodger has a strong, flexible premise. It comes as no surprise though that no one makes it work better than Alfred Hitchcock.

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