The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog: The First True Hitchcock Movie
By Philip Kemp
10 Things I Learned: The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Criterion Collection
In the first twenty-four features he directed, between 1925 and 1939, Alfred Hitchcock —always working closely with his wife Alma Reville (variously credited for assistant direction, screenplay, and continuity)—evolved from apprenticeship to technical mastery to an exuberant flowering that made him internationally celebrated. The celebrity led him quickly to Hollywood, and a generation ago it was still a commonplace among critics to lament that his American films had lost the ebullience of his best British work, by which they generally and understandably meant The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. By now the irresistible ascendancy of American masterpieces like Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho has eclipsed the earlier work so decisively as to make the old bias in its favor seem quaint. In truth only a small portion of Hitchcock’s British output was ever in wide circulation in the U.S., and until recent restoration work it was generally encountered in choppy, washed-out, often barely audible prints. To rediscover these films has been a revelation not just of the deep continuities in all his work, but of the world in which that work took shape. Hitchcock’s England permeates his early films with tactile immediacy.
By contrast, the
America of his later work is filtered both through the glossier surfaces of
Hollywood filmmaking and through Hitchcock’s ever more pronounced bent toward
abstraction. Even when he undertakes a close study of the American scene—with
the location shooting of Shadow of a
Doubt and the quasi-documentary trappings of The Wrong Man—he sees through the eyes of an outsider. In the British films, he
works with all the elements that have formed him, larding every scene with
infinitesimal clues and associations. Even the studio sets tend to have a
grittier and distinctly unglamorous edge—a more lived-in look—whether it’s the rented
rooms of The Lodger, the Underground
car of Rich and Strange, the tobacco
shop of Blackmail, or the cramped
wings of the theater in Murder. With
his eye for satiric types, Hitchcock sketches a nation of shopkeepers and
policemen and moralizing dowagers, gossiping boarders, low-rent dentists,
eccentric religious cultists, lecherous traveling salesmen, xenophobic cricket
enthusiasts, and the occasional supercilious aristocratic landowner. The often
rowdy world of popular spectacle constantly intrudes, with visions of
chorus girls in dressing rooms, theatrical touring companies, acrobats,
pratfalling comedians, dance halls, neighborhood cinemas, and (in two of his
most memorable climactic scenes) Albert Hall and the London Palladium. London,
with its crowds pressed on each other, its beckoning neon signs and careening
traffic, evokes an urban chaos that would rarely figure in the American films.
It’s a rough and
often harshly class-bound world, regarded with much humor but without
sentimentality. The family who have taken in Ivor Novello in The Lodger begin to suspect him of
terrible crimes but are loath to accuse him because “even if he is a bit queer,
he’s a gentleman.” In Murder, when
the famous actor Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first film role) summons an
impoverished stage manager to a conference, the latter walks fearfully toward
him on a surrealistically sinking carpet. The crucial scene of Downhill shows the shop girl Mabel
entertaining two boys from a tradition-laden public school at Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe where
she works. After they pass through a beaded curtain into a darker back room,
she shimmies seductively and puts on a phonograph record (“I Want Some Money”
by the Bohemian Band) while the two boys react uncertainly. The aura of
adolescent sexual anticipation blends with glaring differences in social
privilege, as Mabel flirts with the richer boy (Novello) while finally settling
for his less affluent mate. Fleeting shifts of intent and reaction are conveyed
in multiple exchanges of glances among the three of them, along with several
interruptions from customers in the front room, all without a title card in
sight: a fascinating scene showing how far Hitchcock could go in conveying
complex interactions by visual means alone, the only real limitation being the
inadequacy of Novello’s acting.
“The variety of material Hitchcock was working with gave him a chance to try his hand at a tremendous range of moods and styles, to veer from farce to tragedy to expressionist pattern-making. ”
One of the first hit movies made by an Asian American team, They Call Me Bruce confronts everyday racism with irreverent humor emblematic of its era.
Over the course of her four-decade career, the pioneering Indian documentary filmmaker has demonstrated the important roles that joy and pleasure play in the process of political change.
Combining elements of soft-core porn and film noir, one of the most popular Hollywood genres of the 1980s and ’90s captured the fraught aspirationalism and sexual mores of the era.
The author of the novel Fiona and Jane looks back on a relationship that never quite solidified—and a future that never quite arrived—through the prism of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.