When he was a teenager, Alfred Hitchcock enrolled at Goldsmiths’ College, an arts branch of London University. Already a fan of film, Hitchcock learned composition, the uses of light and shadow, and the principles of narrative construction. His imagination flared. He began writing short prose horror stories influenced by Lowndes and Barrie, and regularly attended plays. He consumed American cinema, especially the films of Griffith and Chaplin, and fully immersed himself in film culture.
In 1918, Hitchcock moved from the sales department at Henley’s Telegraph Company, an electronics manufacturer, to the advertising department where he honed his visual and communication skills. His dream of crafting art never left him. Starting in 1919, several of Hitchcock’s short thriller stories were published in magazines. By 1921, Hitchcock had left his position at Hanley’s to fully pursue his life’s ambition. He entered the film business as the head of an art department for British Famous Players-Lasky, Limited, the newly formed British offshoot of the massively successful American Paramount’s Famous Players-Lasky. Hitchcock created title illustrations for an unknown number of films before receiving his first official art director assignment on George Fitzmaurice’s 1921 comedy THREE LIVE GHOSTS. It was during this period that he met Alma Reville, a script supervisor/continuity manager. They began a relationship that would last until Reville’s death in 1982.
In 1922, British Famous Players-Lasky all but collapsed. As the studio tried to stay afloat, Hitchcock would direct his first features, the now-lost ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE and NUMBER THIRTEEN. Shooting on NUMBER THIRTEEN ceased when the studio finally went under. Without funds, only two reels of the film were completed. Hitchcock remarked decades later that he might have been able to complete NUMBER THIRTEEN if he would have planned better. Every film Hitchcock would shoot after that would be painstakingly storyboarded, every single shot planned out months in advance of filming.
Hitchcock would spend the next couple of years doing the occasional art directing and screenwriting job, earning meager paychecks from films like WOMAN TO WOMAN and THE PASSIONATE ADVENTURE. A break would come in 1924 when a British-German co-production company was set up by Michael Balcon, The UFA-Gainsborough Company would employ Hitchcock as an art director. Working in Germany, he experienced the creation of German expressionism first hand, witnessing Murnau directing his films and spending time with some of the greatest German camera operators of the time. He fell in love with the work of Lang and Lubitsch. Hitchcock didn’t just discover expressionism in 1924. He was swallowed by it.
Hitchcock’s next directorial opportunity would come from another British-German co-production deal. The first of a five picture deal produced under the Gainsborough-Emelka company, THE PLEASURE GARDEN was a mess of a production. His second feature, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE fared no better, although each picture marked a significant development of Hitchcock’s burgeoning skills as a director. In 1926, Gainsborough purchased Islington, the studio Hitchcock worked at under his earlier employ. Taking full advantage of their newly acquired studio space, Gainsborough announced a spate of nine new productions. One of the projects Gainsborough announced in 1925 was a new Hitchcock film, THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, based on the stage adaptation of the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel.
THE LODGER opens on a shot of a woman’s face locked in a silent scream. A quick dissolve later, we see that she is dead. As bystanders surround her, we see a note attached to her clothing. On the note is a drawing of a triangle and a signature, “The Avenger”. Cops come and go, reporters speak with bystanders, someone mentions the killer was a “tall man” with a “scarf across his face”, reporters call their stories into their editors, bylines are typed out and a newspaper carrier remarks that the killer only strikes on Tuesday and only kills blondes. Lapse dissolves show a range of faces, all hearing the news, all in shock over yet another murder by a serial killer stalking the streets of London.
We meet Daisy, a pretty young blonde working as a fashion model. The models hear news of the murder, prompting some of the women to don brunette wigs. Daisy returns home, greeting her parents, Mrs. And Mr. Bunting. We meet her boyfriend, a police officer named Joe. As the night goes on, a man appears at their doorway. He’s tall, thin and is wearing a scarf over his face. He inquires about the room they have for rent. Taking him inside, Mrs. Bunting shows The Lodger (he is unnamed in the film) the room. It’s modest, covered in paintings of pretty blonde women. He answers no questions, asks for something to eat and then pays Mrs. Bunting a month in advance for the room. When Mrs. Bunting returns with his meal, she finds that The Lodger has turned all the portraits around, facing the wall. He asks for them to be removed and she complies, asking Daisy for help. The Lodger and Daisy meet, their gazes barely masking a shared attraction.
Daisy and The Lodger begin to grow closer, much to the chagrin of Joe. Daisy seems to enjoy his company but her mother is suspicious. When The Lodger sneaks out one Tuesday night, she goes snooping in his room, finding nothing of interest save a locked cupboard. The next morning, another victim of The Avenger is discovered and Mrs. Bunting puts two and two together. The Lodger is the killer the police are looking for. Sharing her fears with her husband, Mr. Bunting refuses to allow Daisy to see The Lodger, even if the meeting is purely platonic. Daisy ignores her father’s wishes and agrees to see The Lodger on the following Tuesday night. They meet outside in the cover of dark. Unable to contain their mutual love, they attempt a kiss only to be interrupted by Joe. Daisy breaks off her relationship with Joe and she returns home with The Lodger. Joe, in a moment of clarity, realizes that The Lodger is The Avenger.
When Joe and his fellow officers arrive to arrest The Lodger, they search his room. Discovering a bag inside the locked cupboard, they examine the contents. Inside is a gun, a map of the attacks, some newspaper clippings and a picture of a smiling blonde woman. After being handcuffed, The Lodger attacks Joe before escaping into the night. Daisy finds him lying on a bench, shivering from the cold. He confesses but not to the murders. He’s hunting the killer himself. The picture of the woman they found was a picture of his sister, a victim of The Avenger. Daisy takes The Lodger to a bar so that he may sip some brandy and warm himself. Carefully covering his handcuffed hands, they enter the bar and leave just before Joe arrives. The police ask the patrons if they have seen a tall man wearing handcuffs. As Joe makes a call to the station, the patrons quickly form a lynch mob, running after The Lodger and eventually corning him on a bridge. Joe is informed by the station that The Avenger has been apprehended, caught red handed. Realizing that he has put The Lodger’s life in jeopardy, Joe rushes off to find him before the mob can tear him to pieces.
The Lodger tries to jump from the small bridge but catches the chain of his handcuffs on the railing. As people kick and hit him, drawing blood, Joe attempts to quiet the crowd. Just as things look grim, a newspaper carrier finds the crowd, spreading the news that The Avenger has been caught. The Lodger’s life is spared and he is cradled by Daisy. A short epilogue shows the two in the home of The Lodger, her parents finally accepting him as a suitor for their daughter.
This is the first true Hitchcock film. It contains many of the elements that would inform his later sound work. The fascination with pretty, high fashion blondes, the fetishizing of feet, shoes and weapons, the use of handcuffs as symbols of repression, the innocent man accused of horrible crimes… All find their origin here. Even the famous Hitchcock cameos start here, with Hitchcock playing both a telephone operator and an angry mob member. Hitchcock’s admiration for the films of Sergei Eisenstein (in particular, his editing and composition) and adherence to the montage theories of Kuleshov and Pudovkin are also front and center. Silent films, especially those made in Britain, were usually stoic, slow paced and had very little editing. In comparison, THE LODGER looks and feels downright European. Hitchcock uses a chiaroscuro lighting scheme, a mixture of high and low level photography, and quick edits to produce a mood that feels uniquely Hitchcockian. Even at this early stage in his career, his auteur status is evident.
The European feel of THE LODGER nearly cost Hitchcock his job. Several high level Gainsborough members disliked – even hated – the film. Concerns from Graham Cutts and C.M. Woolf led producer Michael Balcon to shelve the film and cancel all screenings. Financial concerns eventually led Balcon to contact Ivor Montagu, a noted British filmmaker and critic. The two discussed how they could save THE LODGER. Though Hitchcock resented the interference, Montagu left the majority of the film intact, only recommending a few slight changes to the ending and to a couple of unimportant dramatic scenes in the second act. Hitchcock went through with the re-shoots and Balcon, satisfied with the finished product, released THE LODGER to great critical and financial success. Hitchcock would go relatively unchallenged in the production of his next few films, only ever coming into major conflict once he reached the shores of America and filmed an adaption of REBECCA for the notoriously temperamental David O. Selznick.
Even though THE LODGER is a silent film, it is as engrossing and interesting as anything Hitchcock made in the sound era. It has a pacing unusual for silent films, a real internal tempo that pushes the film forward. The overly dramatic nature of silent film acting is tossed aside for somber, natural performances from a uniformly great cast. The photography is simply astounding with the German expressionist influence shining through every single frame (the arrival of The Lodger strongly resembles Murnau’s staging of Max Schreck’s arrival in the doorway in NOSFERATU and the interior of Mrs. Bunting’s bedroom has a definite Robert Wiene look to it). The visual ingenuity of Hitchcock is already apparent. The best example is the famous moment of the family hearing the heavy pacing of The Lodger upstairs, with Hitchcock using a camera dissolve and a glass floor to show us a man pacing from the floor below. The film is littered with these kinds of Hitchcock moments.
One of the great joys in watching THE LODGER is seeing just how little Hitchcock changed over the years. His films got slicker and more thematically rich, but all the familiar elements already existed here in 1927. The French film critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma (and later, Robin Wood) used to refer to Hitchcock’s films as “therapeutic” films, that is to say that they are concerned with a character or set of characters overcoming inner struggles and fears, achieving a kind of inner calm or order by the end. As a result, these films are also therapeutic for the audience. As film characters are made to be magnets for audience sympathies, audiences relate to the struggles and concerns. Their personal therapy comes vicariously. It’s interesting to see Hitchcock’s films as a catalog for his own fetishes, desires and ambitions. They’re also catalogs of his fears, regrets and nagging, almost obsessive, concerns. By the time Hitchcock reaches VERTIGO, a film that is as much of a condemnation of his own neuroses as it is a celebration of them, Hitchcock’s entire psyche has been laid bare. For someone watching his films, especially in order of release, Hitchcock’s oeuvre feels very much like a personal conversation between a therapist and a patient. THE LODGER is the start of that conversation and is an invaluable piece in the remarkable puzzle that is Alfred Hitchcock.