Monday, January 30, 2006

Film Review - The Lodger (1927)

There is a distinct absence of dialogue in The Lodger, a welcome change for audiences in the midst of the silent picture-era when title cards were used inordinately to convey the emotions and the mindset of the characters onscreen. Alfred Hitchcock instead freely uses the camera, unlike any English-speaking director before him, to express directly to his audience what is taking place onscreen. Hitchcock was never especially fond of dialogue. He was quite reluctant at the time they first came out and throughout the rest of his filmmaking career to delve into ‘talkies’, although in time he would accept the challenge of turning them into yet another tool for which to sculpt his vision onscreen. The resistance toward dialogue can be seen in The Lodger to great effect. The scene in which, thanks to the creation of a glass floor in the construction of this sequence, the Lodger is viewed downstairs by Joe Betts and Daisy’s parents pacing, almost neurotically, in his room above is most illustrious. And the exceptional use of the staircase, the unsettling stranger, and the innocent blonde bathing, all elements which would resurface in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller, Psycho, in 1960, are used to their full potential in creating an intimidating atmosphere for audiences and characters onscreen alike.

Furthermore, The Lodger marks the first time in which audiences encounter the mannerism which would make Alfred Hitchcock’s films famous. For example, the scene in which the Lodger responds to Daisy’s last move on the chess board by saying, “I’ll get you yet”, is the bit of dark humor future generations of movie-goers would be accustomed to seeing from Hitchcock movies.

Regardless of his actual performance, Ivor Novello remains one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most intriguing selections as the Lodger, even if the arrangement was not entirely his own. The decision to cast stage heartthrob Novello as the lead in this picture certainly goes against type, a trademark of Hitchcock in years to come, but, as the director himself soon found out, it came at a price. Studio executives at Gainsborough Pictures, the silent film production studio Hitchcock was employed at the time, thoroughly aware of the performer’s legions of adoring fans, were weary of implicating Novello’s character as the Avenger in any way, including an ambiguous outcome Hitchcock concocted which was rejected in favor of a ‘falsely accused’ conclusion. There are unmistakably moments in the film in which Novello’s stiff and undeviating performance work perfectly in sync with the atmosphere of the story, particularly audiences’ first encounter with the Lodger himself. In the doorway of the bordering house stands a tall, pale-white man with his nearly his entire obstructed by a cloth with the exception of his glaring eyes. Novello’s initial appearance in the picture is remarkably unsettling even by the horror picture standards of today. Unquestionably the scene is renascent of Max Schreck’s Graf Orlock in the 1921 silent picture, Nosferatu, a German picture from which Hitchcock certainly drew from in this film. However, this is where appreciation of Novello’s performance ends abruptly. His almost petrified performance grows increasingly exhausting as the film winds down to its conclusion and the insinuation that he is indeed the serial killer is proved wrong.

While on the subject, the outcome of The Lodger is easily the most disappointing and egregious errors Hitchcock is forced to make in this picture. The Lodger’s creepy mannerism, rather then acting as an implication of his guilt as the Avenger, prove him to be nothing more then stalker and a likely sexual predator, a revelation which makes the conclusion all the more distrusting. It feels too cobbled together to be taken for face value and comes off as anti-climatic more then anything else. This however is no fault of Hitchcock who was pressured by studio executives to develop an ending which did not implicate Novello as the serial killer. This just goes to prove, then as much as it does today, that studio executives have not the slightest clue how to properly produce motion pictures. Although enthralling to the last, the chase sequence at the end just is not nearly as scintillating as the revelation of the Lodger as the serial killer would have been for audience, then or now. Even an ambiguous ending in which no resolution to the mystery of the Lodger was given would have been better then what is in the final print.

Hitchcock himself was never happy with this ending and tried in vein through the rest of his career to remake The Lodger the way he had intended it. Sadly, this never came about.

It is a shame, a travesty actually, for director Alfred Hitchcock’s first enduring motion picture to be in the abhorrent condition audiences find itself in today. Why studios out in California have failed to pick up this picture and restore it to its former glory as it should remain is beyond anyone.The ending aside, The Lodger is truly a remarkable film, a perfect demonstration of the camera techniques, innovative storytelling, mystery, intrigue , and pure idiosyncrasies which would make Alfred Hitchcock one of the best, if not THE best, director in Hollywood history.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B+)