In its fifth year, the TCM Classic Film Festival went out in high style with a screening of the recent restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927), complete with a live premiere performance of an atmospheric new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz also bid a fond farewell for this year to the packed house at the Egyptian Theatre, promising plans were already in motion for next year’s fest and offering a few facts about the evening’s film, such as the varied and impressive career of star Ivor Novello (who briefly became a Hollywood screenwriter and originated the line, “Me Tarzan, you Jane”).
The Welsh-born Novello (born with the far less exotic name of David Ivor Davies) was a spectacular entertainer, starting off as a songwriter and working as an accomplished musician, stage and screen actor, music hall performer, and writer. It’s a shame much of his work is unknown to American audiences as he still remains a commanding screen presence combining a striking puppy-eyed screen presence (no wonder Jeremy Northam was hired to play him in Gosford Park) with refined physical acting skills which necessitated almost no intertitles. He also appeared in another Hitchcock film later the same year, Downhill, which is well worth seeking out, too.
THE LODGER remains Novello’s best-known role, and with good reason as this is the first real Hitchcock film. The director had worked on previous projects, of course, but this was his initial foray into thrillers and turned out to be a truly spectacular calling card. The script was adapted from a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (and elements of a subsequent stage version) in which a serial killer with a thing for blondes and triangles is leaving bodies across the city each Tuesday night. Calling himself the Avenger, the predator has only been seen with his face mostly obscured by a scarf. Meanwhile a woman named Mrs. Bunting takes in a new nameless tenant (Novello), called Mr. Sleuth in the book, who shows an aversion to paintings of blondes and seems more than a tad haunted. He also strikes up a potential romance with his landlord’s model daughter, Daisy, a pretty blonde whose cop boyfriend starts to think something may be amiss.
The cinematic techniques in THE LODGER still feel quite fresh and exciting, with Hitchcock incorporating elements of avant garde and German expressionist filmmaking that would later reappear most obviously in Spellbound and Vertigo. There’s even a relatively daring scene of bathtub menace decades before Psycho, while nifty visual tricks abound like a ceiling becoming transparent to show the lodger pacing upstairs or vital clues suddenly manifesting in a foggy footprint. If that weren’t enough, this marked the very first of Hitchcock’s cameo appearances , which would become a tradition ever since.
However, the most Hitchcockian element was introduced against the director’s will when the powers that be dictated that any suggestion of the main character’s guilt had to be eliminated, as Novello was far too valuable a heartthrob to be perceived as a villain. The ambiguous finale of the novel was eliminated, and what emerged instead was the “wrong man” scenario that would come to reappear many times in Hitchcock films from The 39 Steps onward. Interestingly, the exact same issue would crop up again for Hitchcock with Suspicion once he arrived in Hollywood and tried to cast Cary Grant as a bad guy, with the exact same final outcome. In this case the enforced rewrite turned out to be a benefit all around as it’s far more dramatically and cinematically satisfying; many future versions of The Lodger (including a solid 1944 version with John Brahm explicitly calling out the murderer as Jack the Ripper) have gone with more tragic or enigmatic endings, none of which work quite as well as this one. From here the Master of Suspense was officially born, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And with that another marvelous festival closes far too soon, leaving a new treasure trove of movie memories and eager anticipation for many more to come.