We are so used to thinking of Alfred Hitchcock as the Master of Suspense that it comes as a surprise to realize that he was nearly a decade into his career as a director before he definitively latched on to the genre that was to become his stock-in-trade. Not until the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, released in 1934, did he embark on the string of suspense thrillers that would make his international name and become, with only rare exceptions, his chosen territory for the best part of the next half century.
Of the seventeen features Hitchcock directed before The Man Who Knew Too Much, nine of them silent, only three can be classified as suspense thrillers: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Blackmail (1929—his first sound film), and Number Seventeen (1932), with its cheerful throwaway nonsense. (1930’s Murder! is a whodunit, a genre Hitchcock always claimed to despise. “Murder mysteries are cerebral exercises,” he observed, “whereas suspense stories are emotional experiences.”) The rest include melodramas, social comedies, a boxing drama (The Ring, 1927), staid adaptations of stage hits—and even a fluffy period romance, Waltzes from Vienna (1934), about the rivalry between the elder and younger Johann Strauss, which Hitch described as a “musical without music” and “my lowest ebb.”
Not surprising, then, that he looked back on The Lodger with affection, calling it “the first true Hitchcock movie.” Not only is it a suspense thriller but it foreshadows, in a good many of its plot details, themes and preoccupations that are now recognized as key elements of Hitchcock’s cinematic world.
The script was adapted from the 1913 novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, a prolific and popular author of the period and the older sister of the writer Hilaire Belloc. Inspired by the notorious Jack the Ripper killings of 1888, the novel tells—as does Hitchcock’s film—of a London family who, having rented a room to a mysterious young man, come to believe he is the serial killer terrorizing the capital. The chief difference between novel and film is that, in the former, the lodger does indeed turn out to be the killer.
But since Ivor Novello had been signed to play the lead, the ending quite clearly had to be changed—no way could the elegant young matinee idol portray a sadistic, deranged killer. Born David Ivor Davies in 1893 into a musical family in Cardiff, Novello had first achieved fame in 1914 for composing the song “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Its sentimental patriotism (“Keep the home fires burning / While your hearts are yearning. / Though your lads are far away / They dream of home”) proved Novello’s skill at capturing the public mood, and led to its becoming probably the most frequently performed number in Britain throughout the First World War. (Once America entered the conflict, it went down very well across the Atlantic too.) Novello’s own combat experience was limited. In 1916, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service (precursor of the RAF) as a probationary flight sublieutenant. After twice crashing his plane, he was transferred to clerical duties for the duration.
Beginning in 1916, Novello also composed hit musicals, and after the war he turned to acting, onstage and in films. By the time he was cast in The Lodger, he had starred in nine movies, two of the most successful being The Rat (1925) and its sequel, The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Both directed by Graham Cutts, at that time Gainsborough Studios’ top filmmaker, and written by Novello himself (with his writing partner, Constance Collier), they feature Novello as Pierre Boucheron, a denizen of the Paris underworld. Though Pierre is a crook, he is viewed romantically and treated as a flawed hero; from here to a serial killer would have been far too much of a jump, and wholly unacceptable to Novello’s numerous fans. Though it seems the idea of having the lodger proved innocent may have come from a now long-forgotten 1915 stage adaptation of Belloc Lowndes’s novel by H. A. Vachell, entitled Who Is He?, which Hitchcock had seen. In this play, apparently, the lodger turns out to be an eccentric philanthropist who wanders about at night presenting homeless people with buns stuffed with gold sovereigns. None of this twaddle, fortunately, appears in the film.
To adapt the novel, Hitchcock teamed up with Eliot Stannard, who also scripted all but one of his silent films (the exception being The Ring, credited solely to Hitchcock, although even here it seems Stannard may have had some input). Hitch was notoriously ungenerous about acknowledging his collaborators, and Stannard doesn’t rate a single mention in François Truffaut’s book-length interview with the director. But he had been writing scenarios since 1914, and an article in Kinematograph Weekly of March 3, 1927, describes him as “easily the most experienced as well as the most prolific of British screenwriters.” In his book English Hitchcock, Charles Barr suggests that “this sustained collaboration with an experienced scenarist was just what the ambitious young director needed at this stage, enabling him to find and define himself.”
So determining how much of the plot originated with Stannard and how much with Hitchcock would be difficult. (Hitch took no cowriting credit, but then he often didn’t, though he was almost always closely involved with the scripting of his films.) It could be that the director picked up ideas here that he would go on to repeat and develop in his later work or, equally possibly, that the plot of The Lodger allowed him scope to explore preoccupations that he had already been mulling over. The most obvious of those is the first appearance of the theme, to be revisited in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), The Wrong Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959), and elsewhere, of the falsely accused man hounded by the authorities while trying to establish his innocence—a theme that many commentators, especially French critics, have linked to the director’s Catholicism (the doctrine of the transfer of guilt is a common, though often disputed, element of Catholic teaching). And usually, as here, the fugitive’s only ally is a young woman, who believes in him and helps him.
Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes, in his films and in his personal life, has often been remarked upon; at times, as in his now notorious treatment of Tippi Hedren while shooting The Birds (1963), it could take on sadistic overtones. His penchant, as he more than once suggested, was for “the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered.” The Lodger offers the first occurrence of this fixation: the killer, who calls himself the Avenger (just who or what it is that he’s avenging we never find out), targets only blondes as his victims. The opening shot of the film is of a blonde woman screaming, followed by a neon sign flashing against a background of darkness advertising a show called Golden Curls; in the film’s final shot, as the lodger (we never learn his name) embraces another blonde woman, his fiancée, Daisy (June Tripp, billed only as June), the same sign flashes in the background—hinting, perhaps, that even though the Avenger has been arrested, blondes may still be at particular risk.
From that first appearance of the Golden Curls sign, we cut to a theatrical dressing room, possibly backstage at that same performance, where the showgirls are taking off their costumes and makeup and preparing to go home. And here we encounter another recurrent Hitchcock theme: the prurient callousness of the general public with regard to violent crime. As the blondes among the showgirls nervously don dark wigs, their brunette fellow dancers, far from sympathizing, make fun of them. Shortly thereafter, at a coffee stall, a man pulls his coat collar up over his face to frighten a woman; the other customers are much amused. Later we see people eagerly grabbing newspapers and devouring lurid published details of the latest murder, while the newspaper seller gloats that Tuesdays, when the Avenger always chooses to strike, are “my lucky day.” Yet when the lodger is fingered by the police as the killer, an outraged mob of Londoners rushes off in pursuit, set on lynching the supposed monster.
The overpossessive and morally ambiguous policeman boyfriend, another recurrent Hitchcock character (Blackmail; Sabotage, 1936; Shadow of a Doubt, 1943; Notorious, 1946), makes his first appearance in The Lodger, as does one of the director’s most famous quirks, the brief, wordless cameo appearance in his own film. In The Lodger, he shows up as a newsroom editor. This, Hitch told Truffaut, “was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on, it became a superstition, and eventually a gag. But by now it’s a rather troublesome gag.” It has also been suggested that Hitch is a member of the lynch-mob crowd at the film’s dramatic climax, but this appears to be a misidentification.
But what’s perhaps most striking in The Lodger is the tyro director’s eye for composition and his technical ingenuity, marking a considerable advance on his first picture, The Pleasure Garden (1925). (His second film, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, remains lost.) The “glass ceiling” device has become deservedly famous. Soon after the lodger moves in, his host family, sitting downstairs, glance up uneasily, and in the absence of sound Hitch shows us just what they’re hearing: the ceiling becomes transparent (a one-inch-thick sheet of plate glass is faded in via double exposure), and we see the man’s feet, pacing restlessly in his room. No less skillful, if less obtrusive, is the fluent crosscutting in one of the film’s key episodes. The landlady, Mrs. Bunting, lying awake, hears the lodger stealthily letting himself out of the house late at night. She takes advantage of his absence to search his room. In the middle of this sequence, we see the next murder take place: another blonde woman is the victim, killed in the same small courtyard in Westminster where, later, handcuffed and on the run, the lodger will await Daisy’s arrival. After the killing, a figure looking very like the lodger walks rapidly away.
Sixty-five shots in just over six minutes, with no title cards to interrupt. Some disconcerting camera angles, including one straight down the staircase as we see the lodger’s disembodied hand sliding down the banister. (We might think this represents the landlady’s point of view, but the next cut makes clear that it doesn’t.) Hitchcock keeps up the rhythm tenaciously, at one point upping the tension by making us think Mrs. Bunting will be caught snooping: she’s still in the lodger’s room as we see his key in the front door. But no—by the time he comes upstairs, she’s safely back in her bed, though her repeated worried glances, straight into the camera as if involving the audience in her misgivings, tell us that her suspicions haven’t dissipated. And the news the next morning will serve only to confirm her worst fears.
With hindsight, The Lodger can’t be rated a flawless masterpiece. In the lead, Novello (never the subtlest of actors) gives a stagy, mannered performance. Some of the visual symbolism is heavy-handed, as when the frame of a window casts the shade of a crucifix across Novello’s face, foreshadowing his near martyrdom. Even Hitchcock himself later conceded that certain stylistic flourishes—such as the glass ceiling—bordered on the gimmicky. Even so, the film shows Hitch eagerly reaching out and exploring territory that few if any of his contemporaries among British filmmakers had thought to venture into.
Before directing his first film, Hitchcock had worked at Neubabelsberg Studios, on the outskirts of Berlin, where Gainsborough had set up a coproduction deal with the leading German company, UFA. There he had been able to watch such directors as Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau at work. (His first two films as a director had been made in conjunction with a smaller German outfit, Emelka Studios of Munich.) In London, he often attended screenings of the latest Soviet films at the Film Society’s cinema on Regent Street. These influences fed into The Lodger, which, with its dramatic shadows, unexpected angles, and incisive editing, often looks more like a German or Soviet film than like one of the stylistically sober, even staid, British films of the period.
Not everyone approved of this audacity. C. M. Woolf, chairman of Gainsborough’s distribution arm, whose hostility toward Hitchcock would last well into the following decade, attended the initial screening of The Lodger and announced that he could scarcely understand a frame of it. The film, he stated, was unshowable. Luckily, Michael Balcon, Gainsborough’s production head and one of Hitch’s strongest supporters, believed that only minor adjustments were needed and called in Hitchcock’s fellow Film Society member (and cofounder of the society) the cineliterate Ivor Montagu to give his opinion of the first cut. Montagu was highly impressed by what he saw. Years later, while conceding the film’s weaknesses, he recalled being struck by the way that, “by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.”
Montagu and Hitchcock got together and agreed on a few modifications: a couple of overdark scenes were reshot and the number of dialogue intertitles drastically reduced. To make the most of those that remained, Montagu suggested commissioning the American painter and poster designer Edward McKnight Kauffer to design the credits and title backgrounds. Dramatically cubist in style, the titles immediately announced something new and exciting in British films.
Despite Woolf’s stubborn misgivings, The Lodger was shown to the press in September 1926, and was acclaimed. “It is possible,” declared the Bioscope, “that this film is the finest British production ever made.” With its release, Hitchcock’s reputation as a director, at age twenty-seven, was firmly launched. It was, as Hitchcock told Truffaut, “the first time I exercised my style.” And it gave a clear indication of how his future career might—with any luck—develop.