With his third feature film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Alfred Hitchcock took a major step toward greatness and made what he would come to consider his true directorial debut. This haunting silent thriller tells the tale of a mysterious young man (matinee idol Ivor Novello) who takes up residence at a London boardinghouse, just as a killer who preys on blonde women, known as the Avenger, descends upon the city. The film is animated by the palpable energy of a young stylist at play, decisively establishing the director’s formal and thematic obsessions. In this edition, The Lodger is accompanied by Downhill, another 1927 silent exploration of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” trope, also headlined by Novello—making for a double feature that reveals the great master of the macabre as he was just coming into his own.
Alfred Hitchcock helmed only a handful of silent movies, but The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog ranks as his greatest and most influential work of the 1920s. The previously unknown director made a name for himself with this chilling portrait of suspicion and paranoia that's loosely based on the infamous Jack the Ripper killings. Combining such future Hitchcock hallmarks as mystery, romance, titillation, humor, and - of course - suspense, and dressing them up with innovative camera angles, framing, and points of view, The Lodger stands as a blueprint for all of the classic Hitchcock films to come, and remains a thoroughly entertaining and artistic motion picture.
Considering his future fascination with fair-haired stars like Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, and Kim Novak, it's fitting Hitchcock's first major film indirectly chronicles the exploits of a serial killer whose obsession with pretty blondes leads to a vicious spree of violence that grips London like a vice. That serial killer calls himself The Avenger, and he leaves his calling card on the bodies of his young, comely victims (mostly showgirls), then disappears into the mist, leaving frightened Londoners in a state of panic. Without any leads and only a few vague descriptions, the police are powerless to stop him, and the murderous rampage rages on. One of the policemen, Joe (Malcolm Keen), romances the pert, headstrong Daisy (June Tripp), a beautiful model who scoffs at her friends' abject fear of and convulsive reactions toward The Avenger.
Daisy's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney), own a struggling boarding house, and one evening, a mysterious stranger (Ivor Novello), his face half shrouded by a scarf, knocks on their door looking for living quarters. Tall and gaunt, with dark eyes and a laser stare, the man resembles a vampire, but the impoverished Buntings eagerly rent him a room and cater to his every whim. Though reclusive, oddly nocturnal, and repulsed by portraits of pretty women, the lodger strikes up an intimate friendship with Daisy, much to the chagrin of both Joe and her mother and father. As more killings occur ever closer to the Bunting boardinghouse and the lodger's suspicious behavior intensifies, Mrs. Bunting begins to believe her brooding tenant is indeed The Avenger...and fears Daisy may well be his next victim.
Hitchcock opens The Lodger with a close-up of a woman screaming, a shot that eerily foreshadows the iconic close-up of Vera Miles at the climax of Psycho, while the interior of the Bunting boardinghouse bears a striking resemblance to the home where Norman Bates and his mother reside in the same film. There's even a suggestive bathtub scene complete with a potential intruder that calls to mind Psycho's terrifying shower sequence more than three decades later. In fact, almost every notable Hitchcock element crops up in The Lodger, and watching the Master of Suspense hone his technique by employing a mobile camera, subjective point of view, extreme close-ups, and such interesting special effects as superimposition and slow dissolves is one of the film's great joys.
The lack of sound and paucity of title cards force Hitchcock to focus on telling details and linger on reaction shots to both convey the finer points of his story and plant the seeds of suspense. Over the course of his long and legendary career, many of Hitchcock's most famous sequences feature precious little dialogue, and likely his training in silent film contributed to their effectiveness. Eclectic character actors with distinctive facial features enhance the unsettling mood and juxtapose nicely with the glamorous yet imperiled showgirls, and various tints, ranging from blue to sepia, as well as the clever use of graphics also perk up the visuals.
British matinee idol Ivor Novello crafts a compelling portrayal that keenly walks the tightrope between innocence and guilt. Though his casting forced Hitchcock to reimagine his original vision of the story (and veer away from the novel upon which the film is based), Novello's palpable presence and nuanced performance anchors the movie. As the Buntings, both Ault and Chesney - the younger brother (and virtual dead ringer) of actor Edmund Gwenn, who's best known for playing Kris Kringle in the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street - contribute strong work, and Tripp makes an appropriately plucky yet tender love interest.
Acting, however, is always a secondary element in a Hitchcock film, no matter how lofty the stars. The director and his stunning visuals always grab, hold, and merit our attention, and The Lodger is no exception. To watch this elegantly crafted thriller is to witness the birth of a supreme artist. At a mere 27 years of age, Hitchcock exuded a youthful (and infectious) brashness and enthusiasm that emanate from almost frame of this engrossing, tightly paced film. Without The Lodger, there would be no Hitchcock, and without Hitchcock, the history of film would not be nearly as rich. With apologies to James Joyce, The Lodger really does provide a portrait of the artist as a young man, and it's an exciting, mesmerizing portrait indeed.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1927 version of The Lodger arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A second Hitchcock feature also from 1927, Downhill, is also included on the disc and can be accessed through the supplements menu. A 16-page fold-out booklet featuring essays on both The Lodger and Downhill by Philip Kemp, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes (but, alas, no photos) is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 for both The Lodger and Downhill, and audio is LPCM stereo for The Lodger and Dolby Digital stereo for Downhill. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was made from the 2012 restoration using "a 35 mm duplicate negative [that] was scanned in 2K resolution...[with] the tints and tones of the original nitrate print...reproduced in the digital intermediate grade." The results are - in a word - dazzling. Looking at the The Lodger today, it's hard to believe the movie is 90 years old. Of course, not all imperfections could be doctored or erased. Some print damage remains, but the instances rarely grab attention. A lovely grain structure adds essential texture to the image and maintains the feel of celluloid, while excellent clarity and contrast allow us to drink in all the details and stylistic touches of Hitchcock's mise-en-scène. Black levels are appropriately deep, shadow detail is quite good, graphics are sharp, and the various tints are well modulated, heightening the picture's impact without detracting from the on-screen action. Close-ups - and some of them are quite extreme - exhibit a surprising amount of fine detail, and Hitchcock's special effects blend seamlessly into the film's fabric. Silent movies are an undeniable treasure, and this fantastic transfer from Criterion allows us to appreciate Hitchcock's first major work like we never have before.
The LPCM stereo track produces rich, vibrant sound that greatly enhances the mood of this silent Hitchcock classic. Neil Brand's score occasionally evokes Bernard Herrmann's Psycho themes, and a wide dynamic scale handles all of its highs and lows with ease. Superior fidelity and a marvelous depth of tone distinguish the music, and no distortion or surface noise mar its purity. Whether playful, ominous, romantic, or dramatic, Brand's score is a powerful presence, and this high-quality track properly honors it.
As usual, Criterion puts together a substantial supplemental package that explores The Lodger from almost every conceivable angle. There may not be an audio commentary, but the rest of the material is extensive and absorbing enough to keep us from missing one.
Feature Film: Downhill (1927) (HD, 110 minutes) - Produced the same year as The Lodger and released in America under the title When Boys Leave Home, Downhill is an affecting, often devastating tale that chronicles one man's downward spiral after he honorably takes the blame for an act he didn't commit. Ivor Novello returns as collegiate golden boy Roddy Berwick, whose promising future is abruptly destroyed when a promiscuous waitress (Annette Benson) claims he impregnated her. Roddy's best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) is the guilty party, but Roddy accepts expulsion so the impoverished Tim can continue to receive the scholarship he desperately needs. Upon his return home, Roddy's rich, arrogant father (Norman McKinnel) disowns him, and when the shattered Roddy strikes out on his own, more misadventures befall him. Hitchcock directs this straight dramatic film with great sensitivity and perception, beautifully highlighting various characters while sprinkling in such distinctive cinematic touches as extreme close-ups, a subjective camera, overhead shots, and superimposition. Subtitles are minimally employed to allow the pantomimed action to speak for itself, and sepia, gray, and blue tints effectively evoke various moods. Downhill runs a little long and moves rather slowly, but it's an artistic, involving movie that showcases the young Hitchcock's burgeoning talent and versatility. And how lucky we are to have this beautifully restored rarity included on this disc!
Analysis by William Rothman (HD, 33 minutes) - This fascinating and utterly absorbing seminar by film scholar William Rothman examines countless aspects of The Lodger and connects them to other Hitchcock classics like The Man Who Knew Too Much, Blackmail, Vertigo, Murder, The Wrong Man, and The 39 Steps. Rothman calls The Lodger "quintessentially Hitchcockian," and proceeds to explain how the movie's characters, symbols, and motifs became archetypes and recur in subsequent Hitchcock pictures. He points out Hitchcock staples like frames within frames, circles, lamps, jewels, bars, and purses that first appeared in The Lodger, and talks about the conflict between Hitchcock's fatalistic dark view and his hopeful spirit. In addition, Rothman identifies not one, but two Hitchcock cameos in the film and analyzes the movie's "most remarkable shot." If you only have time for one extra on this disc, make sure you check out Rothman's terrific presentation. It's both a Hitchcock primer and master class rolled into one.
Featurette: "The Bunting House: Space and Structure in The Lodger" (HD, 18 minutes) - This worthwhile piece looks at the role architecture plays in The Lodger, as well as countless other Hitchcock films, which are represented by a comprehensive array of stills. Art historian Steven Jacobs describes the filmic style (rooted in German Expressionism) that defines the movie and notes inconsistencies in both the floor plan of the boarding house and character movements. He also draws connections between paintings, reflections, and reality, and delves into the significance of bathrooms and voyeurism in Hitchcock pictures.
Featurette: "Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock's The Lodger" (HD, 23 minutes) - Composer Neil Brand breaks down the new score he wrote for The Lodger and explains how it incorporates thriller, romantic, and film noir music styles. He discusses the challenges of adapting music to fit the movie's varying dramatic tones, looks at the construction of several themes, and talks about his mission to make silent movies more accessible to contemporary audiences. Though a bit dry, this piece takes us inside the creative process and includes some interesting information.
Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview (26 minutes) - In this audio excerpt from the legendary series of interviews between Hitchcock and French filmmaker François Truffaut, the Master of Suspense calls The Lodger "the first true Hitchcock picture." He details how he shot the film's opening sequence, recalls how the executives at the studio initially didn't like the movie at all, and expresses his frustration with the "star system," noting it limits the types of characters big stars can play. (He likens this predicament to what he faced during the filming of Suspicion with Cary Grant.) Hitchcock also alludes to some religious symbolism in the film, admits there's some correlation between The Lodger and I Confess, and calls silent movies "the most pure motion picture form."
Hitchcock Interviews with Peter Bogdanovich (41 minutes) - Two interviews between Hitchcock and film director Peter Bogdanovich are included - one from 1963 and one from 1972. In the earlier chat, Hitchcock talks about his chronic fear of police and how an experience he had when he was five years old ingrained that apprehension in him. He also discusses the influence of his Jesuit upbringing, credits producer Michael Balcon with shaping his career as a director, remembers his early years in the British and German film industries, and goes over many shots, themes, and techniques employed in The Lodger. The 1972 interview focuses more on Hitchcock's formative years, the films he enjoyed while growing up, and how he got into the movie industry and worked his way up the creative ladder. The discussion does touch briefly upon Downhill, alowing Hitchcock the opportunity to evaluate this early film.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (31 minutes) - The pilot episode of what would become one of CBS' most popular radio series, Suspense, this highly entertaining radio adaptation of The Lodger was directed by Hitchcock and broadcast on July 22, 1940. Herbert Marshall stars in a dual role as both the narrator and Mr. Sleuth, the mysterious lodger who is suspected by his landlord of committing a series of brutal murders. Marshall is more cryptic and creepy than his counterpart in Hitchcock's silent film, and a few clever audio effects enhance the tense and ominous mood. In an interesting bit of casting, Edmund Gwenn takes on the part his younger brother, Arthur Chesney, played in the original movie, and the altered, ambiguous ending is creatively presented and gives Hitchcock yet another cameo. This terrific adaptation presents The Lodger the way Hitchcock originally intended it, and proves he's the master of audio suspense as well as visual suspense.
The Lodger is the film that put Alfred Hitchcock on the cinematic map, and 90 years after its initial release, it remains an elegant, creative, and visually arresting exercise in suspense. The story of a mysterious tenant who just might be a vicious serial killer has been remade several times, but Hitchcock's version stands out because of the patented touches of its esteemed director. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is distinguished by a glorious 2K restoration, brand new music score, and an array of fascinating supplements, including another full-length silent Hitchcock feature. You don't have to love silent films to love The Lodger. This is a tense, atmospheric, and totally entertaining thriller that has absolutely stood the test of time. Highly recommended.