Art house: Hitchcock's The Lodger heralds his great career
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Alfred Hitchcock was destined to become cinema's "master of suspense" from his very first foray into the genre. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was lauded upon its 1927 premiere for the director's deftness at relating its Jack the Ripper-inspired tale of a serial killer who preys upon golden-curled ladies.
Despite the subject matter's inherent horror, Hitchcock, who would go on to direct diverse works such as Suspicion (1941), North by No rthwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), did not go for obvious scenes of gore.
Instead, he painted his canvas with more subtle shades, relying on strictly controlled mise-en-scène, deft camera placement and precise editing to convey the narrative's escalating tension. Little could contemporary critics and audiences have known that this would be his modus operandi for the following half-century.
The Lodger's script - co-written by the director and Eliot Stannard, who collaborated on nine early Hitchcock features - offers few surprises, and there are some disappointments, particularly a tacked-on denouement insisted upon by the studio. But these minor impediments do nothing to obscure the revelation of the young director's artistic maturity.
As a silent picture, The Lodger relied entirely on its visuals to get its message across - a challenge the director conveyed in novel and creative ways. One expressive example can be found in the protagonist's anxious pacing back and forth in his rented flat. The perspective is not "real" but emanating instead from the imaginations of the nervous occupants of the room below. They look towards the ceiling's swaying chandelier, but what is seen by them (and us) are the soles of the upstairs occupant's shoes traversing what has become a glass floor.
The pantomimed renditions of landlady Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault), her husband (Arthur Chesney) and their daughter Daisy (the actress who just went by the single name of June) are naturally expressive. None were portrayed by major stars, although fans of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) will note the uncanny resemblance between Bunting and the later film's Kris Kringle, the latter played by Chesney's Oscar-winning elder brother, Edmund Gwenn.
Ironically, the production's chief box office attraction 85 years ago comes across today as the movie's weakest link. Ivor Novello (1893-1951) was a phenomenally popular composer, playwright and matinee idol, but his titular performance as the mysterious suspect is overwrought and out of date, two qualities which the work as a whole fortunately avoids.
Not the least of The Lodger's surprises is the auteur's first on-screen cameo. Just minutes into the yarn, the filmmaker's portly back is prominently displayed in a newspaper office where bulletins on the slayer's latest murder are transmitted via the cutting edge 1920s technological wonder, the teletype machine.
His face away from the camera, Hitchcock is barely identifiable. But not so the talent and craftsmanship that would soon pave his way from foggy London to sunny Hollywood, where he would cement his status as the film world's most recognised director.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, August 4, also August 25, 2pm, Hong Kong Film Archive. Part of the Restored Treasures programme