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The Independent (06/Aug/1999) - The silent eloquence of the master of suspense



The silent eloquence of the master of suspense

In 1966, looking back 40 years, Alfred Hitchcock designated The Lodger "my first picture" — not the first one he ever made, but the first one in which he found his own style; and its reputation, as a prototype of his style, stands high.

For a long time, though, its reputation is all that most film buffs have known about it. That's partly because it is a silent film, and has inevitably been drowned out by Blackmail and the other talkies that followed; but it's also because for years it has been virtually impossible to see the film properly. No negative survives, and the nitrate print held by the British Film Institute had deteriorated badly.

So for most of those at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday to see the premiere of the BFI's newly prepared print, this was the first chance to see the master's turning point, the end of his apprenticeship. And for most, the primary interest lay in seeing hints of what was to come.

The plot is taken from Marie Belloc Lowndes's Jack the Ripper-inspired novel: a dark stranger — played by Ivor Novello — comes to stay at the London lodging-house kept by Mr and Mrs Bunting. He has a number of odd habits, including nocturnal outings which seem to coincide with the activities of The Avenger, a killer who butchers a fair-haired woman every Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Bunting's daughter, Daisy — blonde, naturally — finds herself irresistibly attracted to the new arrival; he in turn starts giving her meaningful looks. Her dull policeman boyfriend, Jim, finds jealousy mixed up with swelling suspicion; and eventually the lodger must flee from the law.

The anticipations of later Hitchcock are hard to overlook. Most blatantly, Daisy (played by June — no surname) is the first in a long line of blondes whose looks get them in trouble. But Novello's languid, martyred glamour, too, foreshadows two apparently contrasting categories of Hitchcock male — the man on the run (Robert Donat in The 39 Steps; Robert Cummings in Saboteur; Cary Grant in North By Northwest); and the morally and/or sexually ambiguous men dotted throughout Hitchcock's oeuvre — Cary Grant in Suspicion; Farley Granger and John Dahl's murderous boys in Rope.

Throughout, the atmosphere shifts queasily between the erotic, the violent and the broadly comic, in a thoroughly characteristic manner. And there are more specific motifs — handcuffs are employed as a metaphor for a sexual relationship, a la 39 Steps.

Spotting this sort of thing is fun; but the revelation of Sunday's screening was that The Lodger can stand on its own as a considerable work of art. Anyone who saw BBC2's Reputations on Hitchcock earlier this year will remember that he made the film after a period in Germany, observing expressionists such as Fritz Lang at work. Their influence is clear in some crazy, forceful touches — a ceiling dissolving to show Novello's feet pacing frantically on the floor above, the way Novello looms out of the fog, a neon sign in the night becoming a disembodied threat: "To-night/Golden Girls".

Indeed, when you compare it with the better known Blackmail (1929), in which Hitchcock had to cope with the distractions of primitive sound technology and a leading lady, Anny Ondra, cursed with a strong foreign accent, The Lodger looks the more assured and gripping.

It helps that the BFI's new print is of astoundingly sharp quality; and Joby Talbot's score, played on Sunday evening by the Matrix Ensemble under Robert Ziegler, responds superbly to the see-sawing tone, the slow ratcheting of tension. As you might expect from a member of Neil Hannon's Divine Comedy, Talbot is a virtuoso of lush, even schmaltzy textures but he also knows when to break the flow of sound, creating moments of silence, hammer-taps of percussion that push the suspense right to the edge.

The one moment that rings false is the finale: Hitchcock provided a fairy-tale resolution — stuck on, so it is said, to satisfy Novello's female fans, though Novello himself went for a darker version when he remade the film a few years later. At this point, Talbot offers a menacing crescendo, seeming to suggest that the happy ending is only make-believe and the real point of the story lies in the murders and the sexual threat. This isn't, I think, what Hitchcock had in mind; but Talbot's conceit doesn't rankle: it's easy to swallow the myth that silent films were primitive, unfulfilled ancestors of the talkies. Talbot's score helps us to take The Lodger seriously.