The Lodger: The First 'Hitchcock' Film
Though not technically his first film, The Lodger is considered “the first Hitchcock film” because it is the first of his films to contain many of what would become his stylistic and thematic trademarks. This silent film from 1927 was based on the popular 1913 mystery novel by Marie Adelaide Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc. It was later adapted to the play Who Is He?, which Hitchcock saw in London, and influenced his decision to film it as a picture.
Hitchcock has said that his start in silent pictures forced him to learn to convey narrative information completely visually. He later remarked that for many movies, the inclusion of dialogue or voice-over to tell a story constituted a failure on the filmmaker’s part, as movies, a visual medium, should rely primarily on visual means. The Lodger represents Hitchcock’s first achievement in this vein: “I took a pure narrative,” he says, “and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.”
The Lodger also marks the beginning of the traditional Hitchcock canon for being the first of his movies to focus on an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. “That’s because,” Hitchcock said, “the theme of the innocent man being accused, I feel, provides the audience with the greatest sense of danger.” The Lodger also introduced several other elements that would become trademarks of his style, including suspense sequences that show something happening before showing who is doing it, the inclusion of a visual symbol [in this case, the triangle] that echoes the structure of the film’s relationships as a whole, and a “double” figure, in this case two characters that do not have proper names; The Lodger and The Avenger, who may in fact turn out to be the same person. Which is, of course, not to mention blondes.
Before we begin talking about the film, let’s set up a little history. In 1920, Hitchcock received one of his first jobs as assistant director to Graham Cutts on the films Woman To Woman and The White Shadow. Hitchcock, eager to learn everything he could and advance quickly, volunteered to take on additional jobs from script and art direction to writing title cards and supervising costumes and props. Cutts complained to Michael Balcon, co-founder of the studio, Victory Films, that his assistant director was spreading himself too thin, and the production was suffering. Balcon quelled his complaints, for the moment, by pointing out how capable and cheerful Hitchcock was—and how much money he was saving them.
But Cutts was beginning to have his own problems. Married and with children on the way, he was also a handsome, sociable man who accepted the flirtations of actresses and fans. Soon he was having friends and colleagues mediate between his various girlfriends and his wife, with double dinner parties, secret meetings and deceptive telephone calls about late shootings. This came to a head during the filming of The Prude’s Fall, which was to be filmed on the Continent. “We all went off looking for the right locations—Paris, Saint Moritz, Venice,” Hitchcock said, “but Cutt’s girlfriend, an Estonian he’d picked up along the route, was unhappy wherever we went. So we all came back to London without a foot of film.” Add to this the fact that Cutts had long been considered an “uneven and unreliable filmmaker” who lacked in discipline and control. After an accumulation of infractions, a drop-off in film quality, and continuing friction with Hitchcock, by 1927 Cutts found himself looking for day work at any studio—and ending up as a subordinate to the man he once employed: Hitchcock, on The Lodger.
Before filming even began, the ending had to be changed. The Lodger tells the story of a man who may or may not be a Jack the Ripper-type serial killer. With the casting of matinee idol Ivor Novello in the role of the Lodger, all question about Novello being the killer had to be removed. In the original ending, the Lodger goes off into night, his innocence or guilt never resolved. But with Novello in place, as Hitchcock says: “You have to spell it out in big letters: He Is Innocent.”
The movie opens with a close-up on the screaming face of a blonde woman. Hitchcock wanted to emphasize her hair as the Avenger, this film’s stand-in for Jack the Ripper, only kills blonde women. In order to do this, he had the woman lean forward over a plate of glass and spread her hair in a halo all around her face, then lit it from behind. This is, we are soon to understand, the seventh victim. The next thing we see is a sign gradually lighting up: “To-Night Golden Curls.” This is apparently advertising a show, but it is surprising that the words simply appear on screen without any context: one doesn’t see the theater at which this is playing or even the background of the sign. This makes the words appear not very different from the periodic titles, bringing out its double meaning: the Avenger likes golden curls, and tonight he got them.
We see the calling card the Avenger leaves on his victims, his name inside a triangle. Then we enter an interesting sequence that shows the process the story takes from being called into the newspaper office until it appears in print on the street. We watch a reporter who was at the scene call in his story. We see it be taken down, sent over a teletype, go down to a typesetting room, watch the newspapers be printed and sent out to the streets. Then follows a sequence in which the public [and we] find out different aspects of the murders, for example that the killings always happen on a Tuesday. It is an interesting choice to divert away from the beginning of a story to detail the mechanism with which a story multiplies and is spread out to the public.
In the editorial office, Hitchcock makes the first of his two appearances in the film, and the first of his traditional appearances that would continue throughout all of his films. These eventually came to annoy him. He says his appearance in The Lodger “was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But by now  it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.”
At the end of the news sequence is a particular shot of the back of a news truck. Hitchcock discusses this is the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book, where a small sketch is included. He says they attempted to do this shot with the back of a police van, the windows in the rear of the van looking like eyes, the swaying silhouettes of the policemen inside making it appear that the eyes were scanning back and forth. “Unfortunately,” he says, “it didn’t work out.” This is interesting because he doesn’t mention that the shot IS in the movie [he makes it sound as though they tried to include it and failed], but also for the question of: WHAT would the shot accomplish? Convey that the police’s eyes are open as they scan London for the killer? As it is now, are we to understand that the eyes of the press are scanning London for the killer? Or was Hitchcock interested in effects such as that one simply for the effect? It also points to Hitchcock’s sensibility being more abstract and symbolic from early on in his career. Continuing in this vein would be an animated title that expressionistically flashes “MURDER!” to the viewer.
We see crowds reading news of the murder on a billboard news ticker and in the papers. We see several faces in the crowd morph into each other, while periodically the “To-Night Golden Curls” title appears again. We then move to the backstage of a burlesque review, with the women entering the dressing room and removing their [invariably blonde] wigs. Perusing the paper, they see that another woman has been murdered. The brunette women tease the blondes, and one blonde woman is seen clipping on brown locks of hair to hang from beneath her hat.
A title card introduces one of our main characters, Daisy. Her name appears with three triangles, each inset inside the others. She is a lovely blonde who walks out toward the camera and opens her white fur to expose a swimsuit beneath. There is a moment of disorientation, but we soon discover that she is performing in a fashion show. After her show she goes home to the rooming house in which she lives, where her mother and father await.
Let’s step back and look at this fairly stunning introduction [stunning for 1927, that is]. We begin with a murder, and see the news be processed and disseminated to the public, widening the social world of the movie and setting the public mood. We shift to the reaction of some showgirls to see their reaction, then shift scenes to Daisy, who is also a showgirl, but of a different sort, the implication being that the environment of the anonymous showgirls can stand in for Daisy and her milieu. This functions as a very effective way to open with the murder, widen the scope of the film to take a larger look at the entire social atmosphere of London at the time, then close back in and concentrate on Daisy and her family.
We meet Daisy and her mother and father. Shortly after she arrives home, Joe, a policeman and suitor to Daisy, shows up, informing the family that the Avenger has claimed another victim. Daisy is rather unexcited by Joe. Attempting to be endearing to her, he cuts a heart out of the cookie dough that is on the table, and hands it to her. She looks at it for a second, then tosses it aside. He picks it up and expressively tears it in two. She doesn’t seem very impressed, though a moment later they are kissing in the other room.
While they are away, the gas lights inside the house dim. The wife requests a coin to put in the meter to raise the lights again. While it is dark we see a shadow fall across the front door. This technique of announcing an evil presence entering a house first showing a dark shadow falling across its door has been countlessly imitated. The landlady opens the door, and we see her initial reaction of fear and mistrust. It is the Lodger, played by Ivor Novello, arriving with the lower half of his face covered, and carrying a bag, both said to be trademarks of the Avenger. The landlady’s face only resumes a normal expression once he points of a sign that says “Rooms to let.” It is unfortunate that the film stock used at the time prevents the room from getting really dark when the gas peters out, as it definitely dampens the effect of the light in the house being drained away as the lodger arrives.
The Lodger is shown to his room, which is hung with many pictures of beautiful blonde women. The Lodger stares at them fixedly for a long moment, then turns all of them to the wall, and soon asks the landlady to take them out of the room. He also sees Daisy, and it’s apparent that they both appreciate each other’s looks. They go back downstairs, and soon stop their conversation as they hear the Lodger pacing upstairs. In order to convey this silently, Hitchcock built a glass floor, and had Novello pace back and forth on it, then superimposed the footage over the ceiling. This means we are in a sense seeing the family’s thoughts, as they understand that the Lodger is pacing—they ‘see’ it in their mind—as they hear the footsteps. “Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead,” said Hitchcock, and later, in a separate interview: “Today I would simply use the swaying chandelier.”
Over course of the week, we see that the Lodger and Daisy are growing closer, while still portents of menace emerge. For instance, as Daisy brings in his dinner tray and sets it on the table, the Lodger picks up a knife and raises it to her belly—and flicks off a crumb. This sequence conveys the menace the Lodger conveys, but also the sexual danger he represents, tied to the rising sexual tension between he and Daisy. In real life, Novello was considered effeminate and was openly [but not publicly] homosexual. Perhaps because of this, as a little joke, Hitchcock placed a flowerpot on a shelf precisely behind him, so that it would appear to sit atop Novello’s head. “It was just too tempting, I couldn’t resist it,” Hitchcock told the film’s writer. “Anyway, with that profile, why should Ivor mind having a flowerpot on his head?”
Soon after this Joe arrives, announcing with pride that he has been on the Avenger case. He brandishes a pair of handcuffs, saying “Once I put these bracelets on the Avenger, I will put a ring on Daisy’s finger.” Soon after this he gets a head-start by putting the cuffs on Daisy. “Psychologically, of course, the idea of handcuffs has deeper implications,” Hitchcock said, “Being tied to something… it’s somewhere in the area of fetishism, isn’t it? … When I visited the Vice Museum in Paris, I noticed there was considerable evidence of sexual aberrations through restraint.”
But Daisy’s heart is more and more being claimed by the Lodger, who is becoming more and more suspicious to her parents and Joe. Their suspicions are reinforced by his being out on a night where there is another murder. Soon after we see that the police have plotted the location of the Avenger’s murders to taking place within a large triangle. Not long after this we see the Lodger looking at a similar map, complete with triangle, in his room. The triangle motif, seen here and also in the calling cards that the Avenger leaves with his victims, reflects the love triangle between the Lodger, Daisy and Joe, as well as the triangle between the Lodger, the Avenger, and the Lodger’s sister, which we will find out about shortly.
The Lodger and Daisy have gone out together, much to the regret of her mother, who wails “I let her go out with him—and it’s a Tuesday!” The couple sit under the lamp post that the most recent victim was found under. We also see that Joe is out walking separately. He comes upon the two of them about to kiss, and pulls Daisy’s away. She tells Joe she never wants to see him again, and they walk off, leaving him alone. Joe sits dejected, head in hands. As he stares at a footprint on the ground in front of him, we see images projected within the footprint that represent his thoughts as he puts together that the Lodger is the Avenger. This purely visual representation of Joe’s thought process [as well as the chandelier sequence] is one of the filmmaking highlights of the movie and a prime example of the visual storytelling Hitchcock came to be known for.
Joe arrives at Daisy’s home with the police and a warrant to search the Lodger’s room. He and her parents find them kissing. Searching his room, Joe finds his bag, which contains a gun, the map with the triangle, and a picture of a blonde woman. “Your first victim?” Joe asks. “My murdered sister,” the Lodger replies. Joe puts handcuffs on him and tells him he’s under arrest. Daisy still believes in the Lodger, and he tells her to meet him under the lamppost in a few minutes. Once outside, he escapes, and soon meets with Daisy in the arranged place.
There he tells her his story, leading into a flashback. We see an image of the Lodger and who we are told is his sister dancing at a ball, then pull back until they are framed by a door and an iron grate, implying that the scene is being watched by another person. We see a hand pass across a series of switches, and the lights in the ballroom go out. When they come back on the Lodger’s sister has been murdered. We return to the present for a moment, then go back into a flashback, wherein we see the Lodger at the deathbed of his mother. “Swear to me, my son, you will not rest until the Avenger is brought to justice.” The gun, the map of the killings with the triangle, and the Lodger’s disappearance on Tuesdays, were all part of his quest to apprehend the Avenger.
The Lodger and Daisy go to a pub, where the other patrons see that he is handcuffed. After they leave, the pubgoers hear the news that the Avenger is on the loose in the area, and is wearing handcuffs. They take off as a mob after him. It is just after they depart that Joe hears news that the Avenger has been caught: The Lodger is innocent. Joe takes off after the mob to try to save him.
The Lodger is pursued by the mob through the streets and down an alleyway. He attempts to climb a wrought-iron fence, but slips down, his handcuffs catching on a prong in the fence, effectively hanging him helplessly by his arms as the angry crowd approaches.
Joe is attacked by the crowd. Hitchcock makes his second appearance in the film at the forefront of the crowd. Although I do not have any evidence that Hitchcock wasn’t there “just to fill space,” it is hard to imagine that his appearance at this point in the film is not somehow symbolic. Here the man who effectively set the persecution of the Lodger in place by making this film, appears at the forefront of a mob persecuting the character in the film. Which is not to mention the typical Hitchcock dark humor of having the film’s director be at the forefront of a crowd persecuting a man we know to be innocent.
Just in time, a newsboy arrives on the scene, announcing the news that the Avenger has been caught. The Lodger is helped down from the fence, and has fainted. “Thank God I was in time,” Joe says to himself, although it was obviously the newsboy who delivered the news in time to save the Lodger. We later find out that the Lodger has suffered a “nervous strain,” but will be okay. At the end we see the Lodger and Daisy embracing as the “To-Night Golden Curls” sign again flashes in the window.
While Hitchcock felt awkward working with former superior and star director Graham Cutts, for Cutts the animosity went deeper. Resentful of the ease with which Hitchcock worked and the cooperation he got from his crew, jealous of Hitchcock’s swift rise in the industry, as well as matters of personal history between them that we can only imagine, Cutts, in Balcon’s words, “began to tell anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands.” The former director, who still retained a large degree of professional influence at the studio, said the picture was “incomprehensible,” and was able to convince the head of distribution, C.M. Woolf, that it was unreleasable. Woolf told Hitchcock: “Your picture is so dreadful that we’re just going to put it on the shelf and forget about it.” Woolf also held up the release of two of Hitchcock’s already filmed but not yet released films, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. Unless someone thought of a way to salvage the situation, it is quite likely that Hitchcock’s career might have ended before it properly began.
Victory Films co-founder Michael Balcon came to the rescue. He rescheduled the trade show [like a press junket] for the film, and contacted a founding member of the London Film Society named Ivor Montagu. Montagu worked at the Film Society translating titles and reading foreign films. He was the society’s “token intellectual,” who had traveled to Germany in 1925 to cover the growth of its film industry, becoming immersed in the German Expressionist style Hitchcock had made gestures toward in The Lodger. Balcon lunched with Montagu, talking up the film, and arranged a screening. Impressed, Montagu suggested paring down the number of title cards and reshooting a few unclear scenes. He also suggested adding the triangle art motif behind some of the title cards to mirror the love triangle structure of the story.
Balcon then arranged a meeting with Hitchcock, who was initially reluctant, but was eventually brought around by the spin that Montagu’s ideas were just suggested improvements to already exceptional film, not a wholesale change to the film itself. But more than this, the canny Hitchcock must have realized this fellow could not only save this film, but the other two films he had already shot, and the future of his career as a whole. Hitchcock made the reshoots, reduced the number of title cards from 300 to 80, and finally, privately admitted that the film had in fact been improved.
The film was released to immediate critical and popular success. The Bioscope of September 16, 1926 said: “It is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.”
Known as wanting his success to be perceived as entirely the product of his own genius, Hitchcock never publicly mentioned or credited Montagu. In the 1982 Hitchcock/Truffaut book of interviews, this is how he described the situation: “A few months later they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two.” No mention that anyone had any criticism of the film itself, only the suggestion that the passage of time had made his critics reconsider, and also a gross reduction in the amount of changes made. A similar gloss is put on another of his comments about the issue, but you will notice that this time the notion of there being anything at all wrong with the film has been excised: “The Lodger was shelved for several months, and then they decided to show it after all. They had an investment, and wanted their money back. It was shown, and acclaimed as the greatest British picture ever made.”
The success of The Lodger led to multipicture deal for Hitchcock at British International Pictures. So, despite Balcon and Montagu’s work to rescue Hitchcock’s career, his success led to his opportunity to jump to another studio, leaving them behind.
What we’re left with is an early silent suspense film that contains a great many of the hallmarks that would become Hitchcock’s signature style. From technical trademarks such as his astonishing and purely visual means of telling a story and method of showing an action before showing who is perpetrating it, to thematic motifs such as the man accused of a crime he did not commit, a thematically doubled character, and the inclusion of visual symbols that mirror the structure of the film and its characters, this is properly considered the first Hitchcock film. “The Lodger is my first picture possibly influenced by my period in Germany,” the director later said. “It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture.”
Chandler, Charlotte. It’s Only A Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005
Rothman, William. Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982
Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Touchstone, 1983