Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie. It’s just the first “Alfred Hitchcock” movie. Not only did it announce him as a singular talent, it sounded many of the notes that he would play like a virtuoso for decades: the hounded innocent, romance blossoming amidst suspicion, the merging of sex and danger, the personal cameo, and blondes blondes blondes.

So how was I introduced to it? As a poorly transferred bonus feature on a lousy DVD of Sabotage. The launch of one of the great cinematic careers reduced to an afterthought.

The poor quality of the print was soon forgotten, though. A serial killer calling himself “The Avenger” claims his latest fair-haired victim, and word spreads like a contagion. Even the title cards in this silent film are disturbing. MURDER wet from the press, one cries as the tabloids feast on the story, followed by MURDER hot on the aerial as fearful people crowd around radios. There’s a lurid, lip-smacking glee to this coverage of the coverage that remains almost unseemly. Which, need it be stressed, is intended as a compliment.

The title character (heartthrob Ivor Novello) takes a room in the house owned by the parents of lovely blonde Daisy. Our heroine isn’t afraid of the killer lurking in the London fog, possibly because she’s seeing a policeman. Although that should be of little comfort, considering he resembles the sort of unfortunate chap described by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol as “the fish course.” Daisy and the mysterious stranger grow closer while Inspector Haddock fumes. When The Avenger strikes again, Daisy’s parents begin noticing their tenant’s unusual hours.

It would be churlish to complain about the occasional creakiness of the plot, taken from Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel. The movie holds up astonishingly well, and the true thrill lies in seeing Hitchcock’s command of the medium so early. Daisy and her parents are adjusting to the idea of their new boarder when they hear him pacing the floor upstairs. Hitchcock shows us the ceiling – which then vanishes, revealing the soles of Novello’s shoes as he stirs relentlessly. And the ending is a still-chilling depiction of mob violence.

A far better DVD than the one I watched was released as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection in 2008. At some point I’ll seek it out. The Lodger is fascinating enough to watch more than once.