From my memory of the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, Hitchcock was very keen on this one. In some ways it was prototypical- leading man plays wrongly accused suspect on the run, saved by the love of a beautiful blonde- but it’s not quite that simple. In Hitchcock’s later hunted man films (The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest etc) the protagonist’s innocence is explicit from the outset, but this is not the case in The Lodger. Ivor Novello enters looking sinister and his portrayal only changes as the third act reaches its climax. In fact, the film misses a trick here as for some minutes his innocence is uncertain and this ambiguity would have made for a better finale. Perhaps the studio heads wouldn’t allow Novello to perform unless his character is unequivocally innocent.
Here’s the thing, you see; I’m a film fan and not a film historian or technician. There are some things about these films- and in particular the older ones- that I just don’t know. For example, was casting a heart-throb singer against type in the dark role of protagonist hugely innovative or was it commonplace? I think the danger of considering a film without understanding its historical context is that I might miss dazzling new ideas because everyone does them now, or else I might rave about something that cinema-goers were already seeing three times a night. I guess that, as far as possible, I need to think about the film and whether it works in its own right.
This being the case, I guess that the thing I find most intriguing is how Hitchcock overcomes the limitations of silent movies. When he wants us to understand that three people are fixated upon a man pacing in the room above, he has films the man from below as he walks on a sheet of glass and slowly dissolves a shot of the ceiling into this. Perhaps his apprenticeship managing the enforced visual trickery in these early films is what makes him such an exceptional visual master in his later years?
In the absence of narration and explanatory dialogue, Hitchcock opens with an extreme close-up of a woman’s scream. A crowd is gathered around a body and sees a policeman find a note pinned to the victim, it says ‘The Avenger’. A member of the crowd makes notes and relays them by public telephone to a newsroom- here we see a Hitchcock cameo and I’m reminded that I must have missed last week’s! In the newsroom we see details being typed. We then follow the printed papers from behind and then in a delivery van as we track it through the streets. The headline tells us more detail, the vendor adds more, a Leicester Square newsboard adds still more and now we are in the lodging house where the latest murder is being discussed. It takes a couple of minutes to both inform and intrigue. The scene is set for Novello’s arrival looking every inch the description of ‘The Avenger’ that we learned just a moment ago.
Here is a great example of Hitchcock’s skill at managing the audience’s reaction. There is a danger of the moment being overdone, for this is only the first stage in the tightening of the screw, and so the scene is punctured by a slapstick moment as the Landlord falls from a chair in the next room. Tension, then relief, but the discomfited feeling remains. Later on Hitchcock reverses the order with equal success as a comic scene of infectious yawning gives way suddenly to news of another murder.
When I began watching these films chronologically I hoped to shed as many preconceptions as possible- be real for a moment, it’s Alfred Hitchcock and you know what you’re going to get- but I wanted to track his journey as far as possible. What is amazing to me when watching The Lodger is how fully-formed his talents were from the outset. Sure, there were refinements- how can we root for the innocent man on the run if we don’t know that he’s innocent until the last act?- but Hitchcock’s verve and dramatic mastery were clear to see from the very start.