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Imagine you live in London in the time of Jack the Ripper. Mindless fear blankets the city as thick as fog. New victims are claimed by the killer as the police continue to display helplessness and failure. One night, just after the latest brutal killing, a stranger appears on your doorstep. A jittery man whose name suspiciously is the same as the street across the way, he wants to rent a room. He doesn't much care about the amenities, he just wants the room, and fast. He's ready to pay handsomely for it, and upfront. His first order of business is to turn to the wall all of the pictures-he hates the sight of beautiful women, you see. He slinks out late at night for reasons unknown, and returns only to burn his blood-stained clothing, interrupted periodically with rants about how the evil needs to be cut out of people.
Such a lodger naturally draws suspicion on himself-anyone would be creeped out by such a guest. But in these dark times, as paranoia replaces logic, you have to remind yourself that there are logical explanations for all of this, that you have no proof that the man in the attic is Jack the Ripper.
The essential trick of The Lodger (1944) is its masterful inversion of the traditional mystery story. Instead of following a detective hero on a journey of ratiocination to determine whodunnit, we are exiled frustratingly to the sidelines-just like in real life. We are bystanders, waiting helplessly outside the action in a limbo where fear swirls without context, like children frightened by shadows and sounds in the night. Each new murder enhances the paranoia without bringing us any closer to understanding, because we are not collecting any valid evidence, only circumstantial clues that may or may not mean anything. In all likelihood, the city is full of such "lodgers," targets of suspicion for the people around them but genuinely innocent.
There is a fundamental glitch in this setup, however. While it is true that the real-life Jack the Ripper was never caught, that is one of those pesky inconveniences that separate reality from a good story, and movie audiences are apt to feel disappointed by any movie that concludes with the Ripper still at large. However, revealing that the lodger actually is the killer has the effect of undermining some of the point of staging the story among bystanders-if you really have Jack the Ripper living upstairs, then how ordinary are you?
Over the years, different adaptations have approached this hiccup in their own ways. The original 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes samples bits of the legendary case of Jack the Ripper into a (then) modern-day London terrorized by "the Avenger." The first film version, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927), keeps the contemporary setting, the "Avenger" name, and works as a case study in paranoia. Hitchcock's lodger is no killer, and the audience's belief otherwise is used to demonstrate how easily we are led astray by fear.
When Fox producer Robert Bassler set out to make a B-level thriller from the book in 1944, it was decided to bring the highly exploitable Jack the Ripper connection front and center and set the story in 1880s Whitechapel. Screenwriter Barr Lyndon found certain story details forbidden by skittery censors. Although 1944 audiences were tough stuff-this was the Greatest Generation, facing down international fascism and gearing up to drop nuclear bombs on Japan-the Motion Picture Code believed such people would be scandalized by the sight of blood or the explicit mention of sex, so a story about a serial killer who disembowels prostitutes had to use some sly narrative dodges to get its point across. But where the censors could omit from the printed screenplay the most direct mentions of taboo subjects, they had no such reign on the fevered imaginations of the filmmakers, who managed to sneak depravity into every corner of the film through suggestion and bold artistry.
Director John Brahm was a German immigrant with a background in Expressionist theater, whose career is dotted with examples of Gothic horror and film noir. Together with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm frames every shot with deliberate care, using shadows, canted angles, silhouettes, mirror reflections, distorted points of view, and fog to give every image maximum effect. He also has a keen ear for the power of sound, and daringly pulls the soundtrack back to near silence during the tense finale.
The casting of Laird Cregar as the titular lodger was the masterstroke. Cregar was a Fox contract star with a flair for the sinister and his own private demons. His crazed performance brings The Lodger to a new level. The screen fairly oozes sticky sweat every time he's on. Cregar's anxiety-laden portrayal of psychosexual torment was years ahead of its time, and pushed past censors one of the screen's first and most influential depictions of psychological horror. Combined with the Gothic atmosphere of the period English setting, it was Psycho as imagined by Hammer Films, fifteen years early. This was the future of horror.
In one of the film's most impressive moments, Cregar corners Merle Oberon (who, it so happened, was married to cinematographer Ballard at the time). Her beauty and ostentatious sexuality is driving him insane, and since he was not the portrait of mental stability to start with, this is quite a problem. Patiently, lovingly, he explains how he has no choice but to dismember her and worship her lifeless corpse, how ridding the world of tempting women is his civic duty, how she should understand this is necessary. Cregar seems for all the world like a raging torrent of crazy held in place by the most fragile bindings of self-control, as if a single sneeze would be enough to unleash a violence only barely hinted at by his quavering voice and unsteady body language. It is Oberon's response to this performance that sets the scene apart. Here, and throughout the film, she shows no fear-only tenderness, even forgiveness. The film asks us to find sympathy for the devil; she shows us how.
Add an uncharacteristically restrained George Sanders and the always-compelling Cedric Hardwicke to the mix, and you've got yourself a movie. Audiences agreed, and turned this modest production into a sizeable hit for Fox, both commercially and critically. The delighted production team rushed ahead with a follow-up, Hangover Square (1945), so rushed they didn't really have time to write a new story. That 1945 film would be The Lodger redux, with only very slight modifications. A decade later, screenwriter Lyndon wrote yet another adaptation, which was filmed as Man in the Attic (1953) with Jack Palance in the Laird Cregar role.
Cregar, however, despaired of how his success in such roles had typecast him. Seeking a new romantic hero image, he went on a drug-fueled crash diet that wrecked his health and contributed to his premature death in 1944, before Hangover Square was released. The Lodger had claimed his final victim.
Producer: Robert Bassler
Director: John Brahm
Screenplay: Barr Lyndon, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: James Basevi, John Ewing
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: J. Watson Webb, Jr.
Cast: Merle Oberon (Kitty Langley), George Sanders (Inspector John Warwick), Laird Cregar (Mr. Slade), Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), Sara Allgood (Ellen Bonting), Aubrey Mather (Supt. Sutherland), Queenie Leonard (Daisy).
by David Kalat