THE LODGER

by Max Sparber in ,


It is almost impossible to imagine Hitchcock before he became Hitchcock, back when he was the son of a Leytonstone greengrocer, just setting out to make his mark on the world. He had worked as an ad designer and written a few witty short stories. He was obsessed with German expressionistic cinema; when he began making films, this fact placed him at odds with his producer. The producer then tried to sabotage his career. It must all have been hideously frustrating, that moment when something is starting to come together and forces are conspiring to prevent it.

And we have that moment on film. It's from 1927 and is called "The Lodger," and bears the wonderful subtitle "A Story of London Fog." Everybody, once upon a time including Hitch, likes to point it out as the moment of Hitchcock's arrival, the moment he found his voice.

There have been hints of it here in Omaha throughout the past two months, thanks to Film Stream's presentation of BFI's restored versions of nine silent films by Hitchcock. His keen humor has been present, as well as his brilliance at framing a scene. He didn't really like some of these films -- "Champagne," for instance, he claimed had no story, and is, at best, a droll comedy of wild and privileged youth. But story or not, the film introduces a character with a shot that would make Wes Anderson simply fume with jealousy, as a young heiress deliberately crashes her father's plane into the ocean to figuratively crash a party on a cruise ship. The moment she steps out of the plane, dressed in vintage flying gear, her face black with soot, and then peels that off to reveal a party dress -- well, nothing in the film could live up to that moment. Nothing in life could.

And there was also "Blackmail," which Hitchcock saturated in expressionistic ambiguity. Everyone was sort of a heel in that one, but everyone also managed to be a flamboyant victim. There was a perfectly wonderful chase in the British Museum, but the most Hitchcockian element was that everyone went a little mad in the film; we all go a little mad sometimes.

But "The Lodger" was the one, it was the the moment when all Hitchcock's inchoate talent came together, and I shan't detail the many ways the films set the framework for Hitchcock's career. Others have investigated the blonde victims, the visual inventiveness, the director's cameo (his first!), the hints of impropriety and female pulchritude, and other cinematic ideas that would blossom into obsessions and then genius in Hitchcock's hands.

Instead, I want to mention one of the more hidden pleasures of the film -- the way Hitchcock pushed at the very limits of what was then possible in film. "The Lodger" was based on a rather unexceptional novel, but with a clever conceit: What if you realized you might be living with Jack the Ripper? And that might have been the basis for a perfectly satisfying thriller, which is what his studio wanted.

But Hitchcock wanted a film that spoke the language of cinema, and found the edges of the new medium. This is a silent film in which sound is of primary importance -- it opens with a scream, and most of the film's tangled narrative comes from people listening to the sorts of things other people do in secret. Hitchcock had to find a way to represent sound in a medium that could not yet reproduce it, and so he visualized it. Characters pull their hair away from their ears to hear better, toes splash silently in a bathtub as a possible murderer listens outside, and a cuckoo clock noiselessly chimes the hour when a psychopath may have crept out to slash a woman. Most famously, a chandelier rocks in its fixture as a man in a room upstairs paces obsessively, and the ceiling above suddenly become clear, revealing his feet as he marches fretfully in place.

This is also a film of great wit, and it is hidden in the mis en scene. Everything is all a little overboard -- our titular lodger may be a killer of blondes, and, when he is given his room, he discovers it is filled with portraits of blonde women. Down the street, a music hall plays a revue called "Golden Curls," whose lit marquee seems visible from every window, and whose showgirls wear enormous wigs of blonde ringlets. It's as though the entirety of London is a fair-haired buffet laid out for a monster.

The film makes relentless use of this sort of visual punning, especially delighting in triangles, which is the mark of the murderer. But a triangle also represents the relationship between murderer, police, and victim. And this may be the exact relationship between the lodger, the cop hunting him, and the cop 's girlfriend, who has a yen for the lodger. And did I mention that they live in the same rooming house? They do -- in another example of Hitch's witty exaggeration, it is a three-story rooming house with no tenants but for the lodger, the landlords, and their golden-tressed daughter, whose cop boyfriend is always present.

But there is one final way Hitch presses the boundaries of filmmaking, and it was something he did repeatedly. Hitchcock was given songwriter and matinee idol Ivor Novello as his lead, and it was an open secret that Novello was gay. He had a public rivalry with Noel Coward, he lived with his actor lover for three decades, and he is rumored to have slept with Winston Churchill once, which makes his possibly the gayest man in modern English history.

Hitchcock first brings Novello, as the lodger, into the film is a moment borrowed from Murnau -- Novello appears at the door, shrouded in shadow, swathed in elegant clothes, dapper chapeau, and a scarf over his face, looking like some sort of expressionistic vision of a high society anarchist. But from that point on, Hitchcock let Novello camp it up, although perhaps "camp" is the wrong word. The frankly gorgeous Novello lurks around, eyes rimmed in kohl, like a Charles Ludlam villain, sometimes seeming like a vampire, sometimes like an insect, and sometimes like a schoolboy who is very put out. He is deliberately eccentric, knowingly so, theatrically so, and it was the first of many times Hitchcock would cast gay actors or encourage actors to perform in a way that seems coded gay.

I won't speculate about Hitchcock's sexuality -- there's plenty of that about, if you want to investigate further -- but I would argue that he occasionally demonstrated what now feels like a queer sensibility. Although his gayest characters, such as Bruno in "Strangers on a Train," were troubled and troubling, there was a sly comic hysteria and droll intelligence to Hitchcock's storytelling that feels rooted in the gay underworld of the London theater scene. This was the same scene that produced Ivor Novello and which frequently acted as a backdrop to Hitchcock's silent films. By introducing these elements into "The Lodger," Hitchcock was straining at another boundary of early film-making, introducing another language into the world of cinema.

The film climaxes with a mob scene. Given the film's deliberate ambiguities, its misdirections and compounding emotional violence (mostly caused by gossips speculating on what happens in the private lives of men), coupled with Novello's deliberately arch performance -- well, to contemporary eyes, it feels like Hitchcock has staged a hate crime. This may not have been his intention, but it nonetheless makes the climax to "The Lodger" horrifyingly contemporary.

These Film Streams presentations have had a different musical group performing live with the film each week, and it has been one of the great added pleasures of the series. Recently "Blackmail" was scored by an avant garde collective, and it highlighted the real eccentric artistry of the film. "The Lodger" will be scored by Omaha musician Simon Joyner and a group that call themselves The Ghost Collective.

Many years ago, I infrequently performed on the same bill as Joyner when I was playing ukulele at coffee shops around town, being typically and preposterously twee, and Joyner was then, as now, an exceptional local talent. His music has frequently explored the most fragile and intimate human moments, often making use of just an acoustic guitar and his distinctive voice, and I will be curious to see what he comes up with for this film. It should be just right -- whatever wit Hitchcock brought to "The Lodger," it is nonetheless also about how fraught intimacy can be; how closeness can breed misunderstanding, and misunderstanding can lead to violence. This is precisely the sort of thing that Joyner has written songs about in the past.

"The Lodger" screens Thursday night at Film Streams.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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