The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

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Film review of the silent Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ivor Novello.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Gainsborough/Carlyle Blackwell.

SILENT

 

 

Cast & credits

Producers: Michael Balcon, Carlyle Blackwell.
Writers: Alfred Hitchcock, Eliot Stannard.
Camera: Gaetano di di Ventimiglia, Hal Young.
Music: Ashley Irwin (1999 reissue).
Sets:
C. Wilfred Arnold, C. Bertram Evans.

Ivor Novello, June, Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen.

SYNOPSIS

There has been a series of brutal murders, in which the victims are all blonde women. Young Daisy’s (June) parent’s take in a mysterious and creepy, but handsome, young lodger (Novello). He has a habit of being absent from the house during the time that each new victim is slain. But pretty, golden haired Daisy is drawn to him and spends more time in his rooms, even as her mother (Ault) and her ex-boyfriend, a policeman (Keen) start to gather circumstantial evidence against him.

REVIEW

Jack the Ripper has long held a grip on British criminology and the public fascination with crime ever since he committed his atrocities against women in the 1890’s.

Within less than a year, this still unknown assailant had killed five prostitutes in the east end of London. Despite a committed police effort and local uprising at their perceived inefficiencies, he was never caught. To this day, he hasn’t been conclusively identified, so his presence looms over us still somewhat.

In this film, based very loosely on the case, a young director who would cast his own, rather portly, shadow across international cinema, lets us see the flip side of the coin in the Ripper saga.

Known to most audiences by the first part of it’s title (for a ‘story of the London fog’, there is precious little of that in any part of the film), this early offering from Hitchcock offers an intriguing taster of what he would deliver to film audiences over the next half century.

On reflection, and seen as a whole piece, The Lodger is not as arresting as Hitch’s other silent films (Blackmail being an obvious example). This film can perhaps be seen as Hitchcock groping his way toward the full narrative and stylistic mise en scene that would later be so easily recognisable as ‘Hitchcockian’.

This furtive fumbling in the cinematic darkness might explain The Lodger‘s plodding pace that is a major detraction. For less than an hour and a half, the time seems to drag. The relative lack of the key ingredients that make Hitch’s films uniquely his compounds this feeling further.

Never the less, there are some intimate, sexually charged shots as Hitch and his cameraman catch Novello and June in glistening soft-focus close-ups as they kiss for the first time. His taste for expressionistic visual flourishes abounds (Daisy’s mother in her starkly designed room; the silhouette of the window frames that projects a cross on Novello’s face when he first moves in).

Daisy’s nosey and perceptive mother (Ault), who cottons on to Novello’s weirdness before the coppers, elaborates on Hitch’s obvious mistrust of the police and capture, that would be most noticeable in later products, such as The Wrong Man and North by Northwest.

Novello may have been the darling of London stage and society at this time but his histrionic, fey turn is as suspect as his character (for a man attempting to go undercover, he blows his cover with creepy Nosferatu body language stares before he’s even stepped foot inside the front door).

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Blackmail (1929)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock. British International Pictures.

SILENT

 

Producer: John Maxwell. Writer: Alfred Hitchock. Camera: Jack Cox. Sets: W.C. Arnold.

Anny Ondra, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, Cyril Ritchard, Hannah Jones, Sam Livesey.

SYNOPSIS

Young Alice (Ondra), bored with her workaholic Detective boyfriend (Longden), dumps him one night to spend a night on the tiles with an artist (Ritchard) who has taken a shine to her. Invited into his flat, he forces himself on her, forcing her to stab him in self-defence. A creepy man (Calthrop) who earwigged on their earlier conversation attempts to blackmail her.

REVIEW

Rarely seen (and more the pity) as this entirely silent film of Hitchcock’s more famous, semi-talkie version is a stand-alone piece itself, seen to be of better quality.

Blackmail is undoubtedly a visual binge for the eyes, one they will drink in heartily, happily suffering a celluloid hangover. The feats accomplished here are more surprising when one considers that at this time in cinema the silent camera was only just experiencing the dizzying liberation from its usually static confines. Directors such as Hitchcock, Eisenstein and Murnau were now fully confident in utilising all aspects of the art form from acting to camerawork and editing to result in the most thrilling motion pictures.

Here, Hitchcock almost knocks the viewer out with an audacious series of shots and techniques:

His frequent and innovative use of mobile camera as he swings his camera from one character to another, jumps into a ringing phone and also tracks his actors as they walk around the sets.

He performs an immaculately staged craning shot, swiftly following Ondra and Ritchard as they ascend four floors of a Chelsea townhouse with elevator smoothness. Camera wise, Blackmail outclasses most other films of this period, if not all of them.

Hitchcock had already started developing his very own mise en scene in his earlier films’ and would continue to develop this throughout his career, tickling film critics and theorists the world over, as they look ever deeper for psychosexual meanings behind ‘The Master’s’ images.

There are the visual motifs (the outstretched hands of various characters mimics the hand of the murder victim, as if he taunts Ondra from beyond the grave), the car wheels that whirl around, giving chase to not only a criminal at the film’s opening but then Ondra and her complicit lover thereafter.

There are the visual jokes of course. As Ondra walks home from committing her double sins, the sign on a theatre notes the play is a comedy; an advertisement billboard extols the virtues of a gin that is “white as purity”. Hitchcock’s trademark appearance before the camera is as a commuter harassed by a little boy on the underground.

There is also a juicy humour interspersed throughout; when Ondra comes to the police station, ostensibly to ‘fess up, the policeman is incredulous that this could see “women detectives in the yard”, the obvious anachronism not being lost on an appreciative audience.

The technical details of how the sound and silent versions cross-over and how the films came to be made in such a manner could fill a whole other review, but suffice to say contrary to legend, Hitchcock almost certainly planned Blackmail from the outset as finishing at least a part talkie. But the dual production style helped both films contrast and also complement each other in the end.

Ondra, despite her notoriety these days as one of the most unfortunate casualties of the sound transfer (her Polish accent, deemed impenetrable for British audiences, meant she mouthed her lines for the sound version whilst actress Joan Barry spoke hers from nearby on set) turns in a delicate, tortured performance as a flighty girl caught in an escalation of Hitchcockian coincidence. She also displays one the finest pairs of legs in the movies.

Allgood, playing her devoted mother who nags incessantly about doing the cleaning whilst her murderess daughter is being conned in the parlor, would go onto a successful career in Hollywood that ultimately saw her nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for How Green Was My Valley (1944).

 

 

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Film review of the classic 1930’s thriller by Alfred Hitchcock starring Robert Donat as a man on the run from a false charge of murder and Madeleine Carroll as the women who might help him.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. 86 mins. Gaumont. (U).

Thriller/Suspense/Film Noir

 

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Vertigo (1958)

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Film review of the thriller about sexual obsession, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount.

 

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