Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
When it comes to Alfred Hitchcock’s early career, there are a lot of blind spots for me. Some of these films are unavailable, or in an unwatchable poor quality. Also, I just have a hard time with films from before the 1930s. So when the Criterion Collection released The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog on Blu-ray earlier this year, I jumped at the chance to own it. I’d seen it before during a film class and, while I enjoyed it, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites. There are a lot of shades of Hitchcock’s directorial vision in this early silent film, but it does have the sloppy touch of a novice director.
The Lodger features composer and movie star Ivor Novello as a nameless lodger, who rents a room at the boarding house of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney). The lodger bears a striking resemblance to “The Avenger,” a notorious serial killer victimizing beautiful women with blonde hair around London. The Buntings’ daughter Daisy (June Tripp) falls for the lodger, much to the chagrin of Joe (Malcolm Keen), her sweetheart and an investigator of the case. Joe starts to suspect that the lodger is indeed the Avenger.
As you can see, The Lodger does feature what would become a running premise of Hitchcock’s: the innocent man wrongly accused of murder. While most of the iterations of this theme have the audience aware of the protagonist's innocence, during The Lodger, we’re not quite sure. The evidence mounts against the lodger even though Daisy is the only one who believes him. This film even has Hitchcock’s anti-police motif, with Joe chasing after the wrong man. Hitchcock liked these story threads even from the beginning, back when he was interested in more than just thrillers. It would be another seven years before Hitchcock would make his name as the Master of Suspense (The Man Who Knew Too Much), but The Lodger finds him playing with those same toys under the constraints of silent cinema.
Hitchcock wanted to make the ending more ambiguous in The Lodger. He wanted the audience not to know whether or not the lodger is the Avenger. Because Novello was a big star and a matinee idol, the studio refused to let there be any indication that the lodger could be the killer. This obviously would not be the last time Hitchcock bristled under studio demands. It’s interesting to me that big stars couldn’t be killers in murder mysteries because nowadays usually the biggest name in the cast is the killer.
To be honest, I don’t like silent films. For me, the constant music is really distracting, especially without Hitchcock’s skillful choice of composers for the scores of his films. I find it hard to ground myself within the film when the music is constantly going. Hitchcock would later use complete silence or minimalist music to heighten tension but the generic '20s cinema music took me out of The Lodger.
Even so, Hitchcock took influence from German expressionism, and explored a tamer version of dangerous sexuality. He explored claustrophobia in the film, and there’s even a hint of the supernatural that’s there just enough to tantalize the viewer. The producer of the film, Michael Balcon, hated the rough cut so he hired critic Ivor Montagu to make some severe edits. However, Montagu loved the film and recognized Hitchcock’s potential so he only made small suggestions. Hitchcock was delighted, I’m sure.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is a fascinating film, and an interesting one to look at as an early indication of what Hitchcock would become in the next 50 years of his career. My hang-ups about silent films aside, I enjoyed watching it again and using it to list themes, images, and ideas that Hitchcock would later return to in his career. The film requires some patience but ultimately is a rewarding, sometimes exciting experience.