Week 3: The Lodger (1927)

title.jpg“Tall he was – and his face all wrapped up.”
“Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.”
“Providence is concerned with sterner things than money, Mrs. Bunting.”
“Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.”
“You don’t think he-?”
“Tell that to the judge.”
“Lost his arms, has he, dearie?”
“Your toothbrush – you left it behind.”

The Lodger

Although he had already directed two movies by the time The Lodger was released in 1927, Hitchcock always considered it his first film. In a way it was, since his other films weren’t released until after the success of The Lodger. It is also the first distinctly Hitchcockian picture: a thriller with a blonde heroine and a wrongfully-accused hero in search of the true criminal. The screenplay was adapted (once again by Eliot Stannard, who was the writer on 8 of Hitchcock’s 9 silent films) from a novel by Belloc Lowndes about the famous Jack the Ripper murders. Alma was along as well for her third and final turn as assistant director. The Hitchcocks were married by the time the film was released.

novello.jpgThe Lodger features matinee idol Ivor Novello in the title role, single-name star June as Daisy, Malcolm Keen as Police Detective Joe, and Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney as the landlady and her husband (Mr. and Mrs. Bunting). The plot centers around a mysterious young man with some very suspicious habits who rents a room at beautiful young Daisy’s house. When the lodger seems connected with the prominent Avenger murders, Daisy’s parents and suitor (who also happens to be the detective assigned to the case) are understandably concerned. There are three straightforward ideas woven skillfully together into the story: A murder investigation led by Detective Joe, a mysterious lodger who gives everydaisy.jpg appearance of being the murderer, and a love triangle between these two men and Daisy (who just happens to fit the victim profile perfectly). This is a lean, focused tale of crime and suspense, although Hitch found his plans for the ending at odds with the way movies at the time were made.

scream.jpgThe film begins with a woman’s scream ringing out in the night. A nearby marquee flashes (rather ironically) the words “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS” and we see the woman’s lifeless body in a heap on the ground. Pinned to her clothing is a note with a triangle drawngoldencurls.jpg on it and “The Avenger” written inside the shape. A shabbily-dressed, middle-aged woman describes the murderer to the police as a crowd gatherers: A tall man with his face wrapped up. A reporter rushes off from the small concession stand where everyone has gathered to phone in the news, and we follow it as it goes out to the papers, is printed on the giant presses, distributed to the newsstands, and broadcast over the radio.

lodgercameo.jpgAs the news spreads, more facts are revealed about the case piece by piece: The murder is only the latest in a series of killings . . . The victims are always young, blonde women . . . The killer only strikes on Tuesday nights . . . and so on. Amidst the well-ordered chaos of these scenes, Hitchcock’s first cameo slips unobtrusively by, the result of an extra not showing up for work. The young director can be seen sitting at a news desk, his back to the camera as he works the phones. The entire sequence lasts about four minutes, and couples a great deal of basic information with a backstage look at how news traveled in late-1920s London. It is a striking use of montage that reveals a highly-developed sense of visual storytelling and expository economy.

fakeavenger1.jpgFinally, the news comes full circle and lands in the dressing room of the theater featuring “GOLDEN CURLS” as the girls come off the stage (a really fast turn-around, but we’ll let that go). These girls, just like the chorus line of the Pleasure Garden Theater, perform in blonde wigs, but of course, some of them actually have blonde hair. While some of the people in these scenes respond with shock or apprehension, many respond quite differently. For instance, a newsboy comments, as he breaks out the fresh stack of evening editions, “Always happens Tuesdays – that’s my lucky day.” Other characters make light of the situation with practical jokes. As the woman in the first scene describesfakeavenger2.jpg the killer, a man standing behind the witness draws his collar across his face and the frightened woman screams at the sight of his distorted reflection in a metal teapot (he is chastised by fellow bystanders). In the dressing room, one of the girls covers her face and sneaks up on a true blonde as she nervously examines her hair in the mirror, prompting her to jump and then laugh nervously.

richdaisy.jpgThe scene now shifts to introduce Daisy, who enters a room wearing a luxurious white fur coat and various expensive-looking accessories. She pauses for a moment to listen to a newsboy crying the headlines outside, then moves forward. As the shot zooms out we see that she is not a wealthy socialite, as her appearance indicated, but a sort of runway model for an expensive clothing store. In demolishing our very first assumption about the female lead, the film offers a strong but subtle hint that first impressions are not necessarily to be trusted. The day’s work done, Daisy retires to the changing room with the other girls, where her fellow blondes are taking precautions against becoming the next headline. One swears off peroxide while another clips fake brunette curls to her head and covers her real hair with a hat. Better safe than sorry.

happyfamily.jpgDaisy, unmoved, hurries home to find Joe waiting. Daisy’s father is teasing him about the failure of the police to capture their man, while Joe insists that if he were on the case it would be closed by now. He flirts shamelessly with Daisy while her mother looks on benignly. As the family talks, a shadow falls across their door outside (the address, incidentally, is #13). Inside, the lights begin to dim just as there is a knock on the door. Mrs. Bunting goes to answer it while Mr. Bunting goes to adjust the gas. The front door opens to reveal a tall, dark figure with an intense gaze standing in the fog. His face is wrapped up, and Mrs. Bunting seems to shrink involuntarily from him even as she opens the door wider for him to step in. As he enters the house and takes off his hat, the gas flares, illuminating him suddenly and dramatically. Meanwhile, Mr. Bunting has slipped and fallen with a crash, and Daisy rushes out to help him. The stranger spots her and seems immediately fascinated before being led upstairs to examine the rooms.


blondeportrait.jpgBeginning here, the next hour of the film is dedicated to convincing the audience and (a bit more slowly) the other characters that the Buntings’ new lodger is the Avenger, and that he intends to murder Daisy. Steadily mounting suspicion plays out as the primary narrative tension. When the lodger first walks into the rooms he’ll be renting, the walls are blanketed in suggestive paintings. There are several portraits of blonde women, and a copy of John Everett Millais’ “The Knight Errant” (depicting a knight rescuing a nude woman bound to a column). He seems bothered by the paintings, and when Mrs. Bunting returns from downstairs with some food she finds that he’s turned them all to the wall.

As they carry the portraits out of his room, Joe notes snidely “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.” (Perhaps a reference both to star Novello’s homosexuality, an open secret among the British film and theatrical community, as well as a suggestion that the lodger is “not quite right.”) Joe’s desire to marry Daisy becomes increasingly wrapped up in his ambition to put the Avenger behind bars. Once he has been put in charge of the investigation, he cockily proclaims, “When I’ve put a rope around the Avenger’s neck, I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.” This will add an extra layer to his suspicion of the lodger and his growing jealousy as his girl slips through his fingers and into the other man’s arms.

suggestiveshadow.jpgThere are also recurring shots of people glimpsed through bars, whether window panes, railings, bedposts, and so forth. The shots, though hardly ubiquitous, seem suggestive of imprisonment. Early on, for instance, the lodger goes to the window and looks down at a newsboy crying the latest headline. The window frame casts a striking shadow across his face which, in the context of thinking of him as a possible murder, appears to show him behind bars. However, later events and imagery indicate a very different interpretation (on which more later).

pacing.jpgThe lodger remains restless at night, moving around at all hours and going out very late. On his first night in the Bunting home, Joe and the family notice him pacing relentlessly back and forth over their heads. Without sound to indicate this, Hitch has them look up at the ceiling, which then dissolves into a glass pane, and we see the lodger walking around over their heads. Then, on the following Tuesday night, matters really come to a head.

Mrs. Bunting is awakened by the sounds of the lodger slipping quietly out, all bundled up as he was when he first appeared. The scene is one of the most tense in the film. Outside, a party is breaking up and Big Ben shows the time at 11:30. Mrs. Bunting sits up in bed as the lodger leaves, and a large, angular patch of light from the window dominates the shot (strikingly expressionistic). The camera looks straight down the center of the stairwell from above and we see the lodger’s hand on the banister as he walks all the way down. Mrs. Bunting goes to the window to see that he is walking away before sneaking in to investigate his room.


Out in the street, a woman who has left the party storms away from her male escort, and stops in an abandoned street to fiddle with her shoe. A shadow falls across her and she looks up and screams in a close-up that mimics the opening shot. Moments later, a gathering crowd has discovered another Avenger note. Back home, Mrs. Bunting has failed to turn up anything in the lodger’s room except a locked drawer (where we know from an earlier scene that he keeps his one small bag). Defeated, she returns to bed in time to hear the lodger returning as the clock strikes midnight.


quarrel.jpgThe older Buntings are now extremely suspicious and concerned, but by now Daisy and the lodger have become quite friendly. They play chess together and have long conversations when Daisy brings up his supper. Another week goes by, and Joe’s investigation continues as he notes a pattern in the locations of the killings. They appear to be forming a triangular shape (the killer’s symbol) across the London cityscape. The next killing will take place very near the Bunting house. The lodger also has a map of the killings, and he marks the same location as the police before taking Daisy out for a stroll. Joe, patrolling the streets, catches them in a lip-lock under a street light and rushes over, enraged. The two nearly come to blows before Daisy draws the lodger away. Joe, dejected, sits down under the street light, staring down at the footprints the lodger has left in the dust. Suddenly, things begin to come together for him as clues about the lodger flash before his eyes in the dust. Galvanized, he rushes off.


Shortly afterward, Joe shows up at the Buntings’ with a search warrant for the lodger’s room, and soon finds the map and a collection of newspaper clippings about the first murder. The lodger is finally constrained to offer an innocent explanation for his behavior: he claims that the first victim was his sister. Nevertheless, Joe triumphantly slaps the handcuffs on and leads him downstairs. However, an unlikely opportunity for escape opens up, and the lodger (whispering a rendezvous point to Daisy) bolts and makes a clean getaway. Daisy meets him beneath their street lamp, and we finally get the full back-story. The lodger is a member of the upper-class whose sister was murdered at her coming-out ball. His mother died of the shock, and he made a deathbed promise to her that he would see the Avenger brought to justice.


Coming this late in the game, with all of the build-up, the explanation feels just a little anti-climactic and contrived (particularly the cheesy deathbed scene) . . . Is the lodger an unreliable narrator? Can he be trusted? As it happens, he can, although this is not faithful to the ending of the original novel, or to the ending Hitchcock himself would have preferred. Constrained by the celebrated status of the actor playing his central character, Hitch was forced by the conventions of the time to make him innocent (and not just innocent, but wealthy and eligible besides). Lowndes, who based the original novel on the stories of a woman who claimed Jack the Ripper rented a room from her, left the question of the lodger’s guilt completely open at the end. Hitchcock envisioned an ending where the lodger would turn out to be guilty, only to walk away scot-free in the final scene. It was not the last time a star’s larger-than-life persona would deny him artistic control over a film’s outcome.

pub1.jpgAfter rounding this slightly unconvincing hairpin turn in the plot, however, what we get for a climax is still pretty good. Daisy leads the lodger into a pub for some brandy to take the chill off, instructing him to keep his hands hidden beneath his coat. Several of the patrons notice her lifting the glass to his lips, and one even asks if he’s lost his arms (not implausible, given the temporal proximity of World War I). The two leave as quickly as possible, but not before a few people have noticed the metallic glint of the cuffs. A few moments later, Joe arrives and phones in to headquarters, making an off-handpub2.jpg comment about the handcuffs. Upon hearing this, everyone in the building rushes out into the night, mere seconds before Joe receives the news that the real Avenger was “taken red-handed” just a few minutes prior. He dashes off to halt the impromptu lynch mob, which is now closing in and has picked up reinforcements along the way.

The lodger, blindly fleeing for his life, rather foolishly tries to climb over an iron railing and ends up dangling painfully by the cuffs as the angry crowd surges around him. The scene anticipates a very similar (but more developed) sequence in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where a mob of angry criminals, motivated by self-preservation, tracks down a notorious child murder (played poignantly by Peter Lorre) in order to bring him to justice. Additionally, the iconography in play as the lodger dangles helplessly, eyes darting wildly, is very suggestive of martyrdom, even crucifixion. Recall the shot from much earlier in the movie where the window frame casts a shadow across his face. It turns out to be the shape of a cross, an early foreshadowing of both the lodger’s innocence and his suffering.


cameo2.jpgJust when things are looking bleak for our hero, Joe and the evening papers arrive more or less simultaneously to save the day. The story of the real killer’s capture is blared from the headlines, probably still soaking wet from the press (that’s mighty quick work by London’s journalists once again), as Joe pushes through the crowd. The lodger is lifted down, only semi-conscious, and Daisy covers his face in kisses. Various unconfirmed claims report that Hitchcock has a second cameo during this crowd scene. When the lodger is being pulled down, the man in the center of the shot standing above the railing bears the most striking resemblance to the director, and I do not doubt he might have appeared again. Hitchcock’s earliest cameos were prompted by on-the-spot needs to fill the screen with extra bodies.

goldencurls2.jpgNever one to draw things out, Hitchcock concludes the film within four minutes. The lodger recovers nicely and he and Daisy are reunited with the Bunting parents, who are now the guests in his lavish home rather than the other way around. As the older couple survey their surroundings with great approval, Daisy and her lover slip into another room and end the story with a passionate embrace next to a window. Far in the background of the cityscape behind them, we can just make out the flashing marquee proclaiming, once again with great irony, “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS.”

The Lodger undoubtedly launched Alfred Hitchcock’s career in earnest. It was widely seen and acclaimed at the time of its release, and without that success, it is possible his previous films might never have seen the light of day, his career fading quickly and quietly into anonymity. The movie is very well realized, an excellent blend of entertaining, frightening, humorous (far more muted, or at least sparser, than the broad slapstick of The Pleasure Garden) and artistic elements. Hitchcock was now cranking out British films at a tremendous rate, and would continue for the next decade and change before even greater opportunities came knocking from across the pond.

Next Week: Hitchcock turns to the theatre


~ by Jared on January 16, 2008.

2 Responses to “Week 3: The Lodger (1927)”

  1. Just out of curiosity: was the lodger ever given a name in the film, or was he simply “the lodger”? If he was indeed never named, this idea reminds me of the heroine in Rebecca, who also never received a name. I would attempt to analyze what that might mean, but I am not awake enough yet, haha.


  2. In the film, the lodger was never named . . . not in any of the intertitles or in the opening credits (where he is simply “the lodger”). However, presumably from the original novel, it is no secret that his name was Jonathan Drew (unlike in “Rebecca” the novel). In fact, one of the alternate titles for the film was “The Case of Jonathan Drew.” I got the feeling that he simply wasn’t named because they couldn’t figure out a way to work it into an intertitle without looking clumsy. However, leaving him nameless certainly does have an effect . . . it makes him all the more sinister during the lion’s share of the movie when he seems to be the Avenger. It’s a very different effect from the namelessness of the second Mrs. DeWinter, but certainly a similar idea (whether intentional or not).


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