1926’s “The Lodger” is Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest film surviving in a full feature form, and the fact that it’s a silent film makes it a must see for anybody who wants to fully appreciate Hitchcock – and film history in general. The movie shows early clues to many different styles including both visually and in terms of storytelling and suspense. As primitive as the film may seem, it is surprisingly enthralling and accessible.
As a masked killer named “The Avenger” takes victim after victim in a darkly lit London town, an odd man named Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello) takes up residence in a boarding house. “The Avenger” is essentially Jack the Ripper, in fact the story of the film is based on a classic story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who got the idea when she overheard a bit of conversation about a couple who had once rented rooms to a man they claimed was the famed serial killer. The tension of the film is a slow burn, and it works superbly. We are immediately thrown into a town shaken up by the murders, and the fear of “The Avenger” is already deeply rooted. The fear looms, and Hitchcock cleverly uses humor as a device to cover up that dreaded feeling that actually becomes quite uncomfortable. The theme of fear is quite successful, and it’s the most remarkable thing about “The Lodger.”
There are many exciting things about this film in terms of film history. Like many filmmakers of the time, Hitchcock was obviously inspired and stirred by the German Expressionist films such as “Der Letze Mann” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Much of “The Lodger” feels like these films, from the highly expressive acting and the strangely eerie close-ups. Hitchcock understood the art form, and his interpretation and presentation are astoundingly accessible especially since it was evident at this early stage in his career that he understood how to play out a mystery.
Again, Hitchcock shows us a lot of early clues at his superior storytelling style. He takes a lot of stake in his audience. He truly appreciates his audience and gives them the advantage of thinking about the story. We meet Jonathan Drew, and the suspense leads us to believe that he’s the killer, but since he’s essentially our hero we know that this can’t be. Hitchcock overlaps the themes of fear quite interestingly. The tension that builds due to the fear that “The Avenger” will kill our heroine but we also see this fear in multiple subplots.
This is commonplace in the mysteries of today’s movies, but “The Lodger” should definitely be given credit for such an early film using such exciting styles. Is Jonathan Drew the killer? Does he want to keep his damsel Daisy (June) safe from the looming terror of “The Avenger” or is he in fact warming her up for the kill? Is there more to the story than we already know? Hitchcock supposedly wanted a more open ending to the film – unfortunately studio demands resulted in the “happy ending.” The ending is a little too happy, and the eventual discovery of the killer is an obvious use of “deus ex machina,” but don’t let this take away from the fact that the rest of the movie is a terrific suspense story.
In terms of visuals “The Lodger” isn’t exactly a pioneer, but there are many devices that Hitchcock uses to evoke his themes. Drew is a misleading character. He is a very odd man, and one can’t help but believe that he could possibly be the killer. One particular shot (the most famous shot of the film) is a quick shot of a cross that casts a shadow across his face. It’s a controversial image, and actually foreshadows a lot about how his character is to be perceived. He is a Christ-like character, misunderstood but well-intentioned. This allegory doesn’t exactly follow through in the full sense of the story of Christ, but the allusions are absolutely undeniable.
“The Lodger” is a must see for those who want to find how Hitchcock began in the development of his famous styles. Hitchcock considered this to be his first “true” film, and while the film may seem dated it is actually a gem that shouldn’t be dismissed. The story seems simple, but it’s actually a very strong piece. It’s a trip into the uncomfortable, something that Hitchcock excelled at. “The Lodger” is a gem, something unexpected from a silent picture, but that Hitchcockian flair is abundant. I wish I could have been around during the film’s release, just to find out what the newcomer had to offer for a future of film scholars and fans.