Suspenseful Silence

There was a time when I was surprised that many Americans—even fans of Turner Classic Movies—seemed to think that Alfred Hitchcock was a roly-poly Englishman who somehow ended up in Hollywood and got his start making movies there. The way the story goes, Hitchcock crossed the pond and made Rebecca in 1940 for David O. Selznick, then directed a bevy of thrillers like Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt over the course of that decade, followed by the golden fifties and a stunning succession of classics: Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest. Psycho and The Birds would cap the glory run in the early 1960s.

But before Hitchcock’s arrival in the United States, he spent a decade and a half making movies in England. Films like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are as engrossingly dramatic as anything in cinema and full of the sly charm that would later be familiar to audiences as he promoted his movies and hosted Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Now, fortunately, the Criterion Collection has released a restored version of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, the 1927 film that was Hitch’s first hit, so today’s admirers can enjoy discovering his early development as a director.

Start with the fact that The Lodger is a silent movie. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s films is aware of the notion of “pure cinema” in his work, emphasizing motion and visual composition. Consider how Jimmy Stewart’s situation is made plain at the start of Rear Window, as we move into his apartment, see his wheelchair and the cast on his leg, then see that his character owns the kind of camera equipment used by a newspaper photographer, then see photographs he took in various dangerous locales, then see some magazines for which he shot covers. It is a soundless sequence, executed so well—just like far longer stretches of Vertigo, at the museum and down by the Golden Gate Bridge—that you’d rightly assume a master of silent filmmaking was behind it.

The source material for The Lodger is a 1913 novel of the same name, in which a family takes in a boarder who has strange ways, comes and goes at unusual times, seems to be a medical student, and sometimes has blood on his person—and the family members get to wondering if they’re housing England’s most notorious killer, a Jack-the-Ripper-type figure. In the movie, the daughter of the house, Daisy (June Tripp), is fair-haired, just like the killer’s victims. We watch as she begins to warm toward the peculiar lodger (Ivor Novello), their growing intimacy a source of consternation for her parents and envy for her erstwhile beau Joe (Malcolm Keen)—who happens to be a policeman assigned to find the killer.

Terror, suspicion, and a love triangle: To the 26-year-old Hitchcock, it was an irresistible combination. He had worked in various capacities on movies directed by others and had himself directed two movies that had not yet been released in his own country, but he had not yet had the chance to give voice to his more poetic and philosophical filmmaking side. The Lodger was the perfect vehicle, even though the studio forced him to make a less morally complicated picture than he wanted, demanding he change his desired ending so that the lodger is clearly shown to be innocent. Postproduction was not easy for the budding auteur either: The studio foisted an outside consultant on Hitchcock, and he had to reshoot scenes and cut back drastically on the number of title cards he had hoped to use. But the end result was worth it. When The Lodger was first screened at a trade show in September 1926 it received rave reviews, and the studio agreed to release it (in February 1927) as well as the two previous unreleased films Hitchcock had directed.

If the very notion of silent films gives you pause, The Lodger might explode your expectations. In the arts, so many of the best things don’t really feel like what they are. The best books, for instance, can make us completely unaware that we are reading; they simply carry us along. A highly voluble Howard Hawks film, with much dialogue, never feels chatty; instead, it feels immersive, like we are sitting with the characters, hanging out, waiting for our chance to talk. So it is, too, with The Lodger. Modern-day viewers may at first find the cast to be overacting—especially handsome matinee star Novello, whose physical presence as the lodger will call to mind any number of movie vampires—but soon you are swept up in the story.

The Criterion release does not look like a 1927 relic; it is a restoration made a few years ago by the British Film Institute’s National Archive. Compared to versions of The Lodger that were previously available for purchase, the Criterion release is much more clean and stable. It is black and white, of course, but it is alive with color thanks to clever tinting, orange in some scenes, blue in others. (A new score commissioned by Criterion also helps.) The crispness allows Hitchcock’s handiwork to be seen more clearly. A favorite innovation: Hitchcock used a glass floor to show the lodger pacing up in his room, as seen from below, like there is not so much as a two-by-four that separates fear from reality. And isn’t that when fear makes the most inroads—when our worries and dark fantasies seem to converge with the world around us?

Colin Fleming is the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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