Favorites List --- The Lodger
There was no Jack ripping in 1944 when Fox’s "A" thriller got bookings at theatres normally off-limits to horror films. Younger viewers won’t regard The Lodger so highly as Greenbriar veterans who were creeped by it in theatres and syndication TV. Slashing kids expect of J the R was withheld for obvious censorial reasons in firm place then, but more than merely that imposed restraint. 40's audiences weren’t missing explicit mayhem they’d have otherwise enjoyed. Wartime crowds for The Lodger’s first-run were accustomed to filling in blanks for things heard though not seen (and the film uses sound very effectively). To show Ripper murders was to invade imagination’s personal space among these patrons, a breach of protocol we don’t appreciate for not having experienced suspense and horror programming on radio as all of them did. Late 30’s/early 40’s broadcasts I’ve played are harrowing for shock effects we can visualize to oft-disturbing effect. Listeners then honed senses far more acute than our own for envisioning horror served now to us raw. Applying imagination to things unseen really is a lost capacity. My generation missed it and certainly younger ones have. Those who’d knock The Lodger for pulling back really don’t know what they’re missing, or rather, denying themselves. For myself, there’s hesitation to watch Time After Time, a 1979 Ripper reboot with good things, though its gorier killings are ones I now scan past. Do we grow out of appetites for explicit bloodshed? I think I did years ago, and for that The Lodger serves me still, being a chiller with atmosphere to live in and a lead performer whose on and off screen complexity gets way beyond mere recital of Jack The Ripper’s fiendish way with a knife.
To delve deep into Laird Cregar’s mystery would be not unlike study of history’s real-life Ripper. Both are fascinating and impenetrable. Cregar’s life is narcotic to fans who prefer idols tormented and fated to bad ends. With talent enormous as his bulk (I don’t mean to copy you dozen other writers who have undoubtedly said that), Cregar was richly flamboyant and commanded scenes with a silken, yet forceful, voice. Losing him so early inspires reflection on missed opportunities and imaginary recasting of films he’d have made better. His agonized homosexuality was an open secret during Cregar’s lifetime, even if unpublished then, and histories since have spotted it as motivation for ill-advised (massive) weight loss and early demise. He died at thirty-one and within months of The Lodger’s release. Portly teens with orientation issues had early arrival of their own James Dean in Cregar, though misery on his sleeve would surely have made Laird's life a less likely one to emulate. I’ve long been alert to colleague observations about him. Quotes abound in reference to garrulous/withdrawn/moody/resplendent Cregar. I’m hackneyed for saying the actor himself was more interesting than parts he was given, but there it is. The Lodger might have worked with someone else --- but who? The Cregar mystique translates well to psychosis, and for Fox to have followed The Lodger so quickly with Hangover Square’s further serial slaughter must have given the actor considerable anxiety. The Ripper part was sensitively written and Cregar lends considerable empathy, but it’s no romantic lead and that apparently was his goal. Physical size and isolation thus imposed was limiting then, but it’s since conferred immortality, for nearly no one forgets Cregar once they’ve sampled him, and to The Lodger he brings tragic grandeur beyond skilled writing and direction already in place.
Particulars of knife killing figure into much of The Lodger’s dialogue. Cregar’s application of the weapon is limited, but others discuss and demonstrate its effect upon victims dispatched offscreen. Such clinical, even casual recapping of what the Ripper does to women must surely have raised gooseflesh among those for whom the idea of being stabbed, let alone mutilated, was as frightening as witnessing the act itself. Here again was a device effectively transplanted from radio. You had only to talk about effects of a madman’s assault to scare watchers silly. Characters simulate the Ripper’s moves in lieu of our watching him make them. We’re at all times removed but one step from the crime, a convention taken for granted then but almost never observed now. The Lodger was a horror movie not to be sold as such, sneaking into (most) theatres under a cloak of respectability its studio and star cast implied. All the more surprising then was the fact that this would emerge most unsettling of all thrillers released during that decade. Poster and ad mats underplayed carve-ups explored in the film, but enterprising showmen often vetoed suggested art and designed lurid come-ons of their own (as in above's display). The Lodger could have been sold like the Blood Feast of its day or as period drama for the carriage trade, so flexible were choices in an exhibition universe catering to varied audiences and communities.
Lives set to movies (like my own) intersect over and again with a favorite. Each encounter brings something new to the relationship. Mine with The Lodger began on a lumpy couch at my grandmother’s in 1965 watching a television turned low as not to wake the house. Its horrors seemed not so restrained, for hadn’t Hollywood continued operating under Code restriction, albeit a weakened one? The Lodger remained of a piece with features we were seeing in theatres (sort of a Hammer horror minus color). It was introduction of MPAA ratings and resulting explicitness that dated The Lodger and its kin. As with anything of similar vintage, I chased it around late nights and UHF backroads. A station near my college town bought The Lodger and several hundred Fox titles from NTA, retaining two dozen or so after their license period expired. Dead air was thus filled with The Lodger, Great Guns, Son Of Fury, and others ad nauseum, playing them like radio used Top 40. Film collectors would seek The Lodger and often find it, thanks again to NTA’s relaxed vigilance vis a vis 16mm prints. Some of these were spectacular. My memory suggests they looked better than the DVD. Certainly they were sharper. The blacks seemed deeper too. Could mine be selective recall of a time when mere access to such was thrill enough? 16mm rewarded on one hand and snatched away with the other. The Lodger may have been pictorially stunning, but variable density soundtracks were sometimes (often it seemed) printed too dark or light with a resulting motorboat effect that all but obliterated dialogue, especially in quieter scenes. You might pick up multiple prints or odd reels with peculiarities of their own toward constructing a perfect whole, an ideal seldom attainable. I do wonder what The Lodger would look like in 35mm. Alan Rode saw it and Hangover Square at an Egyptian Theatre revival several years ago and wrote an excellent piece about them. Anyone know if Fox still has original negative elements on these two?