Hitchmania: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
It’s not technically his first kick at the can, but The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is often cited as being the first true Hitchcock film because it introduces the mood and mystery that would so readily arm his best pictures. This 1927 silent film comes based on a story and a play by Marie Belloc Lowndes. The tale, like so many in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, concerns itself with notions of danger, innocence and murder.
The Lodger is also notable because it features matinee idol Ivor Novello in the title role. Given that one of the key plot considerations is whether or not Novello’s character is a Jack the Ripper-style killer, some things had to be tinkered with. The ending was one of the victims and it doesn’t appear to be as ambiguous as Hitch would’ve liked.
The film opens by informing us via a screaming blonde that there is a killer on the loose named the Avenger. He leaves a calling card: a triangle and his name inside it. And he appears to be seeking out fair-haired women as his victims. We meet Daisy Bunting, played by British actress June. She is a model and she’s blonde. Dun dun dun.
Daisy’s parents (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) are renting a room. A suspicious and “queer” lodger (Novello) arrives to take the room and instantly gathers the suspicion of Daisy’s boyfriend Joe (Malcolm Keen). Joe wants to marry Daisy and doesn’t take too kindly to it when his lady and the lodger start getting cosy. Clues begin to mount up and, partially guided by his jealousy, Joe begins to suspect that the mysterious lodger is the Avenger.
Much of The Lodger appears influenced by the German cinema of the time. There are lots of shadows and claustrophobic visual choices, with Hitchcock narrowing the point of view a number of times and using various objects to obscure what could be clear visuals. A particularly clever shot involves some characters staring up at the ceiling and hearing the lodger’s pacing footsteps. Hitchcock superimposes a shot of the lodger pacing over the shot of the ceiling, creating the effect that the footsteps are thunderous without the use of sound.
The magic of The Lodger comes with discovering Hitchcock’s tenacity in filming this tale. He experiments with a number of different shot types and successfully creates tone and uncertainty through the way he uses shadows and light.
There is very little dialogue, but the actors are able to convey tremendous depth of emotion with a simple raised eyebrow or a suspicious look. Novello is particularly adept at projecting a sense of vagueness and we aren’t really ever sure what to make of his character, even if the roaring and racing mob is.
At its core, The Lodger is a film about the psychology in some very sinister circumstances. Hitchcock, for the first time in his glorious career, delves into the emotions and personal implications behind the “action.” The killer isn’t the focal point of this picture, interestingly enough, and the path that ambiguity takes is a gripping and invigorating one.