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Monday, February 10, 2014

Early Hitchcock All Week at Greenbriar

First Hitchcock of Seven: The Lodger (1926-27)

The Hitchcock leap to thrill subjects, but like John Ford and sporadic 20's westerns, it would take awhile for the mold to set. The Lodger had Jack-be-ripping in modern-set London, only here he's called "The Avenger," and it's red herringed Ivor Novello whom we suspect for most of a running time. The source novel had its lodger revealed as the killer, but Hitchcock couldn't do a same for studio interference and protection of Novello's lead man image. Dénouement thus strangles on contrivance necessary to clear the title character and permit offscreen capture of a killer never seen, a too-pat finish with boy-girl clinch we'd sooner do without. So, I suspect, would have Hitchcock, the not-yet Master having to submit to masters at Gainsborough Pictures. The story actually worked better when Fox redid it in 1944 with Laird Cregar, that treatment making up in period mood what it lacked in Hitchcock panache. But 1944's Lodger seemed more remote for being gaslit, the 1926 treatment scarier, especially to those watching at press previews and in 1927 general release. Had a Brit industry spawned anything tense as this up to then? Hitchcock made it the more effective by having Ripper/Avenger movement reported "Hot Over The Aerial" and by a modern press, The Lodger portraying events that could/might happen tomorrow rather than years before. Even a rug pull at the end would not ease stress of what patronage saw, The Lodger's tepid solution an easy one for audiences to overlook, then forget.

AH was already at dead run toward devices to become his signature: the macabre humor, cuts to suggest one thing when something else is the case, and fetishized objects like time-honored handcuffs Hitchcock would revisit to flamboyant effect in The 39 Steps. The director was eager consumer of styles from about the continent, he and film society membership learning from progressive work especially out of Germany, where Hitchcock had done apprenticeship. So answer this: Was AH among first to study at cinema clubs and apply technique observed to films he'd direct? I'd assume that Hitchcock and fellow intelligentsia were charter members of whatever film culture emerged in London vicinity. Bios indicate they were showing old and recent feature/shorts, so Hitchcock had plenty to draw upon for inspiration. He did, in a sense, attend a 20's equivalent of film schooling as arose in the US by the 60/70's. Thanks to that exposure and appreciation for what he saw, Hitchcock would creep-up The Lodger with effects borrowed from UFA, plus weirdness of his own invention. Those not undone by the result, most of them AH detractors within studio walls (some were for shelving The Lodger altogether), called his a freshest wind to blow through UK filmmaking so far.

But what of US release? I found charts indicating Artlee Pictures as distributor for The Lodger, along with five other features for 1927-28, but no ads or playdates. Did stateside art houses use The Lodger courtesy Artlee's spring '27 release? The company was New York based, had a long operating life (into the 50's), and handled not only foreign product but oversea circulation of American product (including Felix The Cat cartoons), so they were at least diversified. Owner/operator Arthur Lee later became vice-president for the American arm of Gaumont-British, so would continue handling Hitchcock films for US play-off. He was almost certainly the first American distributor acquainted in business with the soon-to-be-famed director. As Hitchcock in 1927 was well along re matters of self-publicity and distribution of his films, I'd suspect he at least had correspondence with Arthur Lee, or knew him personally, and yet no AH bio I've seen mentions Lee or Artlee. Interesting footnote to Arthur Lee's Hitchcock connection was fact that his last business act prior to a 1943 plane crash death was licensing of The 39 Steps to PRC for a reissue.

Lodger effects would be noted by 1926-27 critics and excerpted later among highlight reels for celebrating Hitchcock, these invariably begun with footfalls across a glass ceiling observed by The Lodger cast on lower floor as the suspected killer paced above them. Here was a gag no one circa the 20's had seen likes of before (for that matter, was serial killing topic of any Brit film up to then?). Here was what satisfied latter-day viewers that AH had genius in place from silent beginnings. Continuity was served too by The Lodger as bookend to 1972's Frenzy, these combined an ideal counterpart to film society programs young Hitchcock might have attended. What we've had lately (in fact, just last week) of The Lodger is long-awaited HD broadcast via the MGM Channel, an event scheduled several years ago but bumped at the last minute. Maybe this run should have been scotched as well, as The Lodger played sans-score and dead silent on MGM, a snafu to likely chill any repeat, at least until they graft some music on it. Source material came from the BFI, so quality is a best we're likely to get. The Lodger is multiple available on DVD, and Region Two offers a Blu-Ray.


Blogger Ken Zimmerman Jr. said...

Even though it pales in comparison to his later films, I found The Lodger to be one of his best early films. He does a yeoman's job of creating an eerie atmosphere within the limitations that he had to work.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Score this one with cuts from Bernard Herrmann for maximum effect. That music really brings out the chill factor.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

TCM recently ran a great print of The Lodger with a new score. Hypnotic movie -- until that disappointing finale. But it's always interesting to see a master like Hitchcock in his early days; even in 1927, you can't mistake his work for anyone else's.

4:01 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I think you can expect a box set of BFI's restorations of silent Hitchcock in the near future, in the UK if not here.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

It is certainly likely that Hitchcock attended the London Film Society, since it was started by, among others, Ivor Montagu, who designed The Lodger's titles (and was-- here's a weird film connection-- the brother of the real-life figure played by Clifton Webb in The Man Who Never Was). Also heavily involved in the film society movement was Anthony Asquith, whose directing career started around the same time.

10:44 PM  

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