Sunday, May 15, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Lodger

This is the fifth in my 2016 series No Audio Audient, in which I'm catching up with classic silents I haven't seen.

If you watched Charlie Chaplin's The Kid expecting to come here and compare your thoughts with my thoughts on it -- because that's totally something you're doing -- you have been the victim of a programming change.

As part of one of my recent weekly trips to the library, I picked up Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger, recognizing it only as a Hitchcock movie I hadn't seen. A little closer look at the cover revealed that indeed, it was one of his silents -- none of which I had seen yet. Seemed like a great choice for May, especially given that two of my four choices thus far have already been comedies from silent greats (Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton).

I was a tad wary, though. The oldest Hitchcock film I'd seen previously was the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which I found decidedly disappointing -- even without having yet seen Hitchcock's 1956 remake. I found Hitchcock's trademark faculties severely diminished in this earlier work, and part of me worried the same about a film made seven years earlier -- without even the benefit of sound.

How little did I realize how little Hitchcock needs sound.

The Lodger -- or as it sometimes goes by, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog -- had me in the palm of its hand from its first shot. Which is this:

That's the Hitchcock I know and love.

And what an arresting way to start a movie about a serial killer murdering a new blonde woman every Tuesday night. Hitchcock spends about the first five minutes of the film just establishing a sense of paranoia through images alone, with barely any title cards. Detectives encircling the latest body. Panicked bystanders descending deeper into fear. The flashing lights of a theater marquee, as the victim was one of the girls in a revue. Hitchcock does communicate some exposition during these five minutes, but it's largely through newspaper headlines and stories being dictated via teletype, the circumstances of the crime marching out ominously one letter at a time. Score is also instrumental in establishing this mood, though that would have been something Hitchcock had less (if any) control over, and may not have even been the score that was used at the time. I try to set aside score in my analysis of silent films, even though it can undeniably contribute to my experience, as it did here.

The story comes to be about a mysterious lodger staying in an extra room in the home of his kindly old landlords and their daughter -- who just so happens to fit the profile of the women this serial killer has been killing. Upon his first arrival on screen, the lodger (the creepy Ivor Lovello) fits the description witnesses have reported of the murderer -- the lower half of his face is shrouded by a scarf. He's also got a queer way about him and seems to recoil at the images of young blonde women on the walls of his room. Thinking him just eccentric, they don't make the connection with the story filling all the newspapers ... until a few strange occurrences makes it impossible to overlook.

If The Man Who Knew Too Much seemed flat by Hitchcock standards, The Lodger seems to embody what we think of as a Hitchcock movie almost perfectly. I wouldn't have guessed that he was already devising unconventional filming techniques and props by 1927, but clearly, he was. One of these is a see-through plexiglass floor, which takes the place of the natural floor for a couple shots. This allows the lodger's male landlord to "visualize" him pacing back and forth a floor above, a seeming indicator of his guilt (or at least an unsteady mind). What he's actually seeing is the chandelier shaking, but the plexiglass floor shows us what he's imagining. This type of trick with sets and props would come to be a Hitchcock trademark.

Another was just a shot that floored me. As the lodger is going out secretly late at night, we see him descend the spiral staircase from above. But we don't see his whole body. We only see his gloved hand gliding along the bannister, making all the turns in the stairs as it gets lower and lower toward the first floor. The effect was profound.

I was also surprised by how little this seemed to feature what I will call "silent film acting." By 1927 I suppose directors knew that actions didn't have to be broad and over-the-top to communicate meaning, but Hitchcock shows an even greater sense of subtlety than would come from the natural refining of filmmaking techniques over time. He's already a master of this craft, even in the film that would come later to be thought of as "the first Hitchcock film." (It was his eighth overall, though that also includes shorts and lost films.)

One thing I did find strange as I was watching it, that probably contributed to a slightly diminished appreciation of the film, is that it barreled past its projected running time. The movie was supposed to last 71 minutes, according to the DVD case, but as it ticked up into that range I could tell it was nowhere near resolution. I found a different running time of 80 minutes on the web, but that minute mark came and went as well without a resolution. It finally wrapped up around 94 minutes -- which was not a running time I could find listed anywhere on the web. (And in yet a fourth different running time, IMDB lists it as 68 minutes.) I didn't get the sense of there being any filler footage, and I couldn't imagine what might be missing from shorter versions of the film. The only reason this bothered me was because I was trying to watch the movie during a set window of time, and the more it ran over the budgeted time, the more it threatened other things I had to do that day. Which made me wish I just hadn't known the running time at all, so I wouldn't have spent the last 20 minutes feeling impatient.

So The Lodger didn't only jump easily into the upper half of the Hitchcock films I've seen, but it also had clear influences on some of the other greats from this time period. The movie it reminded me of most was Fritz Lang's M, which wouldn't come along until 1931 and was clearly inspired by The Lodger. That's not to say The Lodger is better than M, because I don't think it is. But M might not exist, or exist exactly as we know it, without it.

Okay! Barring another unforeseen library rental, The Kid will indeed make its way onto the docket for June.

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