Sunday, 15 February 2015

Orlok in London, or Ivor Novello is a Vampire

(written as a podcast for MovieMail in 2008)

The Lodger is regarded as the first recognisably ‘Hitchcockian’ thriller. As is well known, Alfred Hitchcock spent a formative period of time in Germany where in 1925 he directed his first film, The Pleasure Garden, and The Lodger, made the following year, shows this German influence in its stylisation.

Before looking at this, some pertinent background for Hitchcock. He entered the film industry in 1920 first as a designer and creator of title cards for the Famous Players-Lassky studio, and then as a screenplay writer and art director at Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough studios. It seems that here he was already showing some of those qualities that led the director Michael Powell (who worked as a stills photographer on Hitchcock’s films Champagne and The Manxman) to describe him as a ‘mischievous, inspiring hobgoblin’ and a know-it-all Cockney barrowboy. When Hitchcock was asked by Mike Scott in an interview from 1966 that is included on the new box set if during this time he broke into the director’s territory, he freely admits that he ‘not only broke into his territory [but] gave him the shots, where they should be taken, and built the sets in such a way that they couldn't be taken from any other angle.’ Small wonder then that the director Graham Cutts, who Hitchcock was working with at this time, refused to work with him any longer. The producer Michael Balcon, who referred to his ‘plump young technician’ that he had been promoting through the ranks, went to him and asked if he would like to have a go at directing. Hitchcock said that such a thing hadn’t crossed his mind but he would certainly have a go, and so off he went with his wife Alma Reville, script in hand, to Munich, where he made The Pleasure Garden. While there, he also spent time at the Ufa studios in Berlin, where he was much influenced by the approach and innovative style of FW Murnau, who was at the time making Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh. This film’s story, except for one important intertitle, is told almost entirely visually. Hitchcock referred to it as  ‘almost the perfect film’. Other influences from that time, not least the technical bravura which made the incredible artificiality of the sets of Der Letzte Mann so thoroughly convincing, and an exaggerated, ‘expressionist’  style of acting, were to play a large part in Hitchcock’s first ‘English picture’, The Lodger, which he made the following year.

Based on the novel by Mrs Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger is billed as ‘a story of the London fog’, in which a Jack the Ripper style murderer who calls himself ‘The Avenger’ is preying on fair haired girls. In the heart of the murderer’s district, the Buntings run a lodging house. Their daughter Daisy is a model fair of hair; her beau Frank is a policeman assigned to the case. Just after the most recent outrage, the seventh killing, a sinister man arrives at their house, looking for a room. Singer and matinee idol Ivor Novello stars as this eponymous lodger who, through his highly suspicious behaviour and possession of certain items connected to ‘The Avenger’ murders, leads the police to believe that he in fact the man that they are seeking.

Ivor Novello, with his deranged shark grin and his melodramatic overacting, is generally held to be the weak link in the film which otherwise maintains an effectively sinister atmosphere. However, it only requires a small shift in appreciation of what Hitchcock is trying to communicate with his character to make his actions – or most of them anyway – seem all the more understandable. Essentially, think of him as Orlok, the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Do that, and his gestures fall into an understandable compass. After all, it’s not so far away from his character as that of the supposed ripper, a deadly, loathsome parasite who preys on other’s bodies. Details bear this comparison out. The very first we know of his approach to The Buntings’ household is that the lights dim in their house, as if his approach has sucked the energy from their lives. The situation is easily rectified – it only takes another coin in the meter – but the point has been established.

Then we come to his extraordinary entrance as he rings the bell. He stands tall in the doorway, the long fingers of his right hand unnaturally splayed across his chest. Mrs Bunting answers and recoils with a look of utter revulsion on her face at his aspect and his coldly glinting eyes. His walk is stiff and his gestures measured. As he discusses with Mrs Bunting the rental of a room, he hears Daisy call out; with his eyes slightly raised and his head slightly cocked he recalls Orlok  hearing Lucy call out for Hutter after he has visited him in his room after midnight. A little later, while in his room, the lodger’s weird, otherworldly walk across his room as he is transfixed by a painting of a golden-haired woman recalls Orlok’s stiff-legged gait. When his hand grips Daisy’s shoulder, his clutch recalls that of Orlok’s around Lucy’s heart; the lodger follows up his action with a predatory embrace. As well as these mannerisms, his general behaviour veers towards the macabre, such as when he takes Daisy for a romantic tryst at the very scene of the most recent murder.

As well technological innovation to compensate for the lack of sound, such as using a glass ceiling to watch the lodger pacing back and forwards in his room, and a more generic use of shadows and angles, as when the lodger creeps out of the house just before midnight one night, there are also touches in the film that recall the films of Fritz Lang. When the news of the murder is being transmitted ‘wet from the press’ and ‘hot over the aerial’, we see a concentration on the modes of communication in use that would not be out of place in Dr Mabuse: The Gambler, with wirelesses, telephones and telegraph machines, printing presses and illuminated lightboards carrying the news. Evening Standard paper vans then deliver the product to newspaper vendors who cry it out.

Then there are the little touches that show Hitchcock’s mischievous mind at work in a way that became so familiar. Two examples. The first is the way he shows Daisy threatened by nothing more than glints of light when she is taking a bath one evening. Her body is just covered by the rising steam; Hitchcock accentuates the light in her golden hair, and the light reflected from the copper boiler by the bath, and as we see a hand reaching for the doorknob, the light sparkles in the water between Daisy’s toes. There is also Hitchcock’s use of Christian imagery too – notably the lodger’s face shadowed by a cross from a window at one point and later, after he has been attacked, when he is taken down from the railings in the attitude of a pietà.

The Lodger almost wasn’t to be. After an industry screening, it was declared to be awful, ‘a dreadful picture’ and it was decided that the big boss would have to come down to the Islington studios and see it for himself before pronouncing on its fate. Come down he did, whereupon he agreed with his subordinates that it was no good and it would have to go on the shelf – even though picturehouses had already been booking it on the strength of Ivor Novello’s participation. However, investments in the picture meant that with it sitting on the shelf it had no possibility of making any money. It was taken down again, and thanks to the participation of Ivor Montagu, who smoothed the film’s flow by significantly reducing the number of its title cards, and also the brilliant graphic artist and designer E. McKnight Kauffer, who added new title cards which add greatly to the film’s impact, it was hailed when it was screened to the press, with the trade journal Bioscope acclaiming it as ‘the greatest British picture made to that date’.

To Hitchcock’s disappointment, there was never going to be the possibility of Ivor Novello playing a guilty character, even though his occasionally demented countenance and odd actions, such as flicking at the buttons on Daisy’s dress with a knife after she has brought him his breakfast for the first time, seem to suggest that he is literally deranged with grief. In the film he is reprieved – though right at the end the sign flashing To-Night Golden Curls over his shoulder as he hugs Daisy adds a sinister note, and suggests both the awaited fulfillment of a predatory desire and also that there is unfinished business abroad in the fogbound streets on London. It’s also interesting that in the print used here (on Network’s Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box set) the scene is left untinted. The only other untinted scene in the print comes when the lodger silently creeps out of the house at the time of a girl’s murder close by. Again, this prevents a full endorsement of the film’s nominally happy ending.

However, it is with the cinematic family that Hitchcock places Novello into – with relations that include such characters as Murnau’s Orlok the vampire – that he most strongly suggests that the lodger lives in a world of darker shadows than he lets on.

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