DVD Review: The Lodger

Having done about all I can with Old Dark Houses, I’m moving on to Gaslight Thrillers–that is, crime and suspense dramas set in the late Victorian era.

The Lodger is a 1944 film, a remake of the silent version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927; both are based on a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes in which a married couple suspects that the gentleman renting their room upstairs in is fact Jack the Ripper. (You can read the original story on the Gaslight Web site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/lodger.htm)

Hitchcock’s earlier film took greater liberties with the story–the principle change being that the suspected man was innocent. I’ve heard different accounts of how this came about: either the star himself, Ivor Novello, or the film’s producers didn’t want him to play a villain. The star of this later version, Laird Cregar, had no such objections and his performance is the highlight of the film.

There are, however, a few noteworthy differences in the 1944 film. The first is a matter of social class. In Lowndes’ short story, the couple are retired servants long used to putting up with the eccentricities of gentlemen; in the film, they are middle class, a former businessman and his wife forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet. They can’t afford to turn down five pounds a week even when their lodger’s odd behavior begins to trouble them. Another alteration has to do with the film production codes of the day. The murder victims are not prostitutes, but women who have at some time appeared on the stage–down on their luck actresses, music-hall performers. Even so, their names recall those of Jack the Ripper’s real-life victims: Katie, Annie, Lizzie, Jane.

Which brings us to the most important change from short story to film: a young daughter who doesn’t live with the couple has been transformed into a grown-up niece named Kitty, played by Merle Oberon, who does live in the house. A talented singer and dancer, Kitty has just returned to London from a triumphant tour in France. Her act consists of saucy little can-can style dances with a dozen or so young women in a chorus line behind her. We’ll be seeing two of these numbers in full during the course of the film.

Kitty's big dance number

To begin at the beginning: Our story opens atmospherically in the foggy streets of Whitechapel. Bobbies walk in pairs and mounted police and citizen patrols roam the streets as well. A drunken music-hall singer leaves a local pub and, after giving us one last jaunty Cockney song, heads for her home–“just around the corner.” The moment she’s out of sight, we hear her speaking to someone she’s surprised to encounter. Then she screams. A cloaked figure scurries away. Police and citizens rush to the spot, but it’s too late. The Ripper has claimed another victim.

A short time later, a cloaked man carrying a small, black medical bag shows up at the front door of a modest London townhouse and introduces himself to the landlady as Mr. Slade. She notes that there’s a street nearby with this same name, but fails to realize that this is precisely where he got the name from. He views the rooms for rent, taking special notice of the sink and gas burner up in the attic, and decides to take up residence immediately. The first thing he does is turn all the pictures in his sitting room to face the wall. The pictures are all of actresses; their eyes were following him, he explains to the bewildered landlady.

This incident is merely a little creepy, and the lodger’s middle-of-the-night comings-and-goings are likewise strange, but the landlady’s suspicions are fully roused after the next murder. Mr. Slade destroys his black bag when he hears that the Ripper was seen carrying one like it. Her husband at first dismisses her fears, then as their lodger’s strange behavior increases, agrees that they shouldn’t leave Kitty alone in the house with Mr. Slade.

Since Kitty was acquainted with the latest victim, the family interacts with the police inspector in charge of the investigation–who is played by George Sanders with uncharacteristic seriousness; he only shows flashes of his usual wry and sardonic wit when he’s flirting with Kitty. What chanteuse wouldn’t be flattered by her suitor bringing along a police escort of about 40 men on horseback to accompany her to the Picadilly Palace for her big opening night performance?

Surrounded by mirror images

The police inspector isn’t the only one who’s developing feelings for the beautiful and charming Kitty. At least, closer acquaintance with her leads Slade to consider her as more than one of those painted Jezebels who appear on stage to entice men with their feminine wiles and need to have their throats cut immediately. He has at least two opportunities to kill her when they find themselves alone together in spite of her aunt and uncle’s efforts, but he refrains. Instead, he engages her in discussions about the nature of beauty, good, and evil, as if he’s trying to explain why he does what done, and is about to do again, or is trying to warn her. Then he attends her opening night performance. The sight of Kitty flashing her frilly undergarments at a cheering audience is just too much for him… and the next thing you know, he’s hiding behind the screen in her dressing room, waiting to have one last philosophical conversation before the end.

I’ve complained before about very short films from this era, the ones barely more than an hour long that seem to end abruptly just after they’ve established interesting plot points that never get a chance to develop. This doesn’t happen with The Lodger; the film runs about an hour and twenty minutes, and feels over-long. There’s a lot of padding. We get six musical numbers altogether from Kitty’s stage performances to street buskers. While the latter help to create a sense of Victorian London along with the gas streetlamps and the thick fog, that’s just too much. And a subplot about obtaining Slade’s fingerprints goes on much longer than it ought to.

One step up

What’s worth seeing here is a great performance by Laird Cregar. Sanders and Oberon were bigger stars at the time and are better remembered today, but this is Cregar’s picture. His voice is soft, with that same tone of polite menace that Vincent Price would later employ in his own villainous roles.

I also observe a strong facial similarity between the two actors, as if Cregar were Price’s heftier brother. I’m not alone in noticing the resemblance; it’s probably no coincidence that in the radio plays included on the DVDs for this film and Hangover Square, Price takes Cregar’s roles in both.

Director John Brahm also makes good use of him in some impressive shots. Cregar was a large man, but Brahms makes him even more physically imposing, often placing him a step up from the other actors or shooting from a low angle so that he looms over everyone else.

Tiger-stripe lighting During one of those scenes where Slade is conversing with Kitty, she is seated before a three-sided mirror; he takes a step toward her and his reflection appears in all three, surrounding her with multiple images of the danger she is still unaware of.

Near the end, at the theatre when he is climbing around in the rigging above the stage and is crawling toward the camera, the shadows cast by the rungs of the ladder beneath him fall over his face like the stripes of a tiger.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.