A showcase for director Alfred Hitchcock’s intense study of the German Expressionist movement, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog boasts artfully animated intertitles, plunging shadows, and oppressive camera angles. The 1927 silent film’s opening images, of a blond woman screaming in terror before we see her dead on a London street, is as succinct a self-summary of Hitchcock’s cinema as you’re likely to encounter, an immediate dive into the filmmaker’s brand of fetishistic suspense. The woman is but the latest victim in a string of murders of young women, and a nearby revue of blond entertainers look like chum in the water for the unknown killer, especially in the repeated shots of a neon sign advertising “golden curls.”
The remainder of the film charts the mounting public uproar wrought by the slayings against the possible danger awaiting one showgirl, Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), when a mysterious man, Jonathan (Ivor Novello), comes to her family’s apartment seeking to lease a spare room. With his face half covered by a scarf and his behavior polite but distant, the lodger immediately arouses suspicion. Yet as more and more people begin to cast sideways glances at Jonathan and keep tabs on him when he goes out, the more Daisy finds herself attracted to him. There’s also the complicating factor of Daisy’s gentleman caller, Joe (Malcolm Keen), who seethes with jealousy and whose initially ingratiating body language curls inward with resentment. Joe actively stokes feelings against Jonathan, eventually setting off a vindictive mob.
The film’s fixation of mob mentality delineates it from Hitchcock’s later films, which tend to piece together their psychological portraits within settings featuring smaller casts. The Lodger bears the clear influence of Fritz Lang, whose own thrillers often hinged on the relationship between crime and the embrace of “the hive mind.” Hitchcock even cribs some of Lang’s techniques, at one point rapidly dissolving through a series of close-ups of panicked individuals in such a way to impart how individual fear and outrage leads to the sort of collective anxiety that seeks any scapegoat for a release.
Hitchcock draws out suspense by framing actors as abstracted parts of a whole. It’s in the feet of pedestrians who can be seen walking by the Bunting home through a window in the building’s ground floor, and in a chilling shot of Jonathan descending the home’s staircase, in which only his hand can be seen, ghost-white, as it slides along a dark handrail. The film’s London, seen only at night with hordes of vigilantes and terrified denizens amid pockets of darkness, is eerie, but it’s the Bunting home, captured in claustrophobic compositions throughout, that ultimately conveys more paranoid discomfort. There’s danger everywhere in The Lodger, evident in the paranoia that grips nearly everyone in the film, whose artfully prolonged sense of unease marks the breakthrough of one of the great film artists.
Sourced from a 2012 2K restoration, The Lodger looks incredibly crisp for it age; some specks and lines are inevitable, but they're so infrequent as to be scarcely noticeable. Throughout, the image looks sharp and detailed, with great facial textures and background depth that keeps the oppressive qualities of the central apartment building in full focus. The audio track cleanly presents the score without any noticeable issues.
Downhill, another Hitchcock silent feature released in 1927, is included, having also received a 2K restoration, and its bizarre melding of moral-panic melodrama with the filmmaker’s signature wrong-man theme is fascinating. Audio excerpts of Hitchcock’s interviews with François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich are included, as well as a radio play version of The Lodger that the director conducted in 1940. Two newly commissioned videos, one an interview with film scholar William Rothman and the other an essay from historian Steven Jacobs, cover how the film developed many of Hitchcock’s signatures, with the latter taking a narrow focus on the interior of the film’s apartment setting to illustrate how much the aesthetic style of the direction and design informed Hitchcock’s later works. There’s also an interview with Neil Brand, who created new scores for both The Lodger and Downhill. Finally, a booklet features essays from Philip Kemp about both films.
Alfred Hitchcock’s first great film looks stellar on Criterion’s Blu-ray, lacking nearly all of the usual decay endemic to silent movies.