(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed spends the night with early Hitchcock thriller The Lodger.)
In this Criterion collection, we get two movies for the price of one: famed director Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed third feature The Lodger and its lesser-known cousin of later that same year of 1927, Downhill (released in the U.S. as When Boys Leave Home. British matinee idol Ivor Novello stars in both. Though neither has aged particularly well (especially because of Novello’s mannered performances), they are each solid examples of the director’s rapidly blossoming visual talent. And in Criterion’s beautiful Blu-ray package, they also look great, thanks to their 2K digital restorations. Let’s first discuss The Lodger, followed by Downhill.
The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) (90:25min)
If one knows anything about the history of cinema and the development of its artistic language, it will come as no surprise that a film made in 1927 shows the influences of either German Expressionism or Soviet Montage, or both, as they were prominent movements of that decade. After reading and watching all the accompanying materials on this disc, one learns that Alfred Hitchcock, just getting started in the film industry (he was born in 1899), spent time in Germany at the renowned UFA studios not long before making The Lodger, and so the film bears the direct imprint of that experience on his memory. Filled with expressive chiaroscuro lighting set-ups that mimic those of his German contemporaries, the movie is more than just imitation, since Hitchcock adds some unique flourishes of his own, such as a shot through a glass ceiling of a man pacing on the floor above, or a hand grasping a banister as its owner sneaks out of the house. As person after person says in the special features – even Hitchcock, himself – this was the first truly “Hitchcockian” film, as it was the first time the director had free reign to explore themes dear to him in a manner of his own devising.
One of those themes, which will repeat again and again throughout Hitchcock’s œuvre, is that of the “wrong man.” The Lodger, based on a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, tells the story of how a young man who takes up rooms in a London boarding house quickly becomes the prime suspect in a series of grisly local murders. In the original source text, the lodger turns out to be guilty (the book was based on the case of Jack the Ripper). Since Novello was such a big star, such an ending was not possible, but the film still goes into some unexpectedly twisted places, presaging a lifetime of demented fiction from the man who would soon become known as the “master of suspense.” It’s unfortunate that I find the actual narrative and acting of the movie less interesting, but I appreciate the brilliance of the mise-en-scène and editing (the legacy of Soviet Montage, which taught that violent juxtapositions brought out new meanings in the film text). The transfer, itself, is gorgeous, with scenes tinted different colors according to the original print. And modern-day composer Neil Brand has written an evocative score, which he discusses in one of the disc’s extras. So there are many riches to be mined, even if the film is not entirely to one’s liking.
Downhill (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) (101min)
This is a much weirder film. The more time that has passed since I watched it, the more it has grown on me. Its oddity leaves a pleasantly disturbing aftertaste, even if it is not considered a major work. It is filled with some vivid visual touches, as well, including a great sequence where our hero, fallen from grace, is seen stealing a wallet as a waiter at a café, only for that scene to transform, with a simple camera reveal, into a dance number on stage (the essay on this film in the accompanying booklet describes it nicely): the protagonist has indeed gone downhill, but by becoming an actor, not a thief.
Novello is back again, this time as a schoolboy (not really believable, as he was born in 1893) who is thrown out of his boarding school for alleged sexual misconduct with a local waitress. He’s from a wealthy family, and it’s actually his poorer friend who has been involved with the woman, but he does the noble thing and accepts the blame to allow his friend to keep a scholarship. But then his own father throws him out of the house in disgrace, and he quickly goes from prep-school kid to actor to gigolo to down-and-out on the docks of Marseille. Watching this perverse chute has its pleasures, and though I believed none of it, I enjoyed the utter ridiculousness of it. Hardly “Hitchcockian,” it’s terrific fun, if you let it be. And, like the main feature, it is beautifully restored, with the occasional expressive tinting. As an added bonus, Novello delivers a subtler performance than in The Lodger.
What follows is a brief review of each special feature, including the booklet essays.
“The First True Hitchcock Movie,” Essay on The Lodger and “Playing for the Old Boys,” Essay on Downhill, both by film critic Philip Kemp: Kemp does a great job with these pieces, providing proper historical context of both the 1920s film scene in Britain and continental Europe, as well of Hitchcock’s career. The Lodger, interestingly, stands out as only one of 3 out of 17 films made before The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) that can be considered a thriller, the genre with which Hitchcock would be most closely associated. I especially like Kemp’s discussion of how Hitchcock claimed to despise the simple murder mystery, quoting him thus: “Murder mysteries are cerebral exercises … whereas suspense stories are emotional experiences.” In his essay on Downhill, Kemp offers solid analysis on the director’s innovative cinematic techniques, including the montage of hallucinations that the main character suffers on his way home to England from Marseilles. Overall, these are great companions to the movies and the video extras.
There are seven special features:
- Film Scholar William Rothman on The Lodger (14:23): Rothman is a wonder. His analysis of the film’s visual motifs and underlying themes is more than just rock solid: it illuminates this foundational film of the Hitchcock œuvre in a manner wholly understandable to cinephiles and casual filmgoers, alike. He provides excellent context of the time period and of how the film was received when it was released. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the “two competing sides of Hitchcock”: the “fatalistic” – Oscar Wilde’s “each man kills the thing he loves” (à la Vertigo); and the “hopeful” – à la Rear Window, North by Northwest and Marnie.
- “Bunting House” – Art Historian Steven Jacobs on Architecture in The Lodger (17:42): As does everyone else on this disc, Jacobs emphasizes that The Lodger is the “first truly Hitchcockian film” with its themes of the “wrong man,” blondes, handcuffs, Christian iconography, staircases, and haunting/haunted portraits. I think he then goes on to over-read Hitchcock’s symbolism, but before he gets to that point he does a solid job in his discussion of the lighting design and production design of the house, which represents in visual terms the different social strata of the on-screen characters. Jacobs is from Holland and speaks with an accent that may difficult from some viewers to understand, at times.
- “Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – Composer Neil Brand on Composing Silent Film Scores (22:37): Brand, whose evocative score for The Lodger accompanies the version of the film on this disc, walks us through his artistic process. Of particular interest is how he shows the ways in which modern technology allows for perfect timing cues. Fascinating.
- Audio Interview: Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut – Excerpts from 1962 Interview (Helen G. Scott, Translator) (26:23): There are four audio-only extras on the disc, three of them interviews. Here, we hear Hitchcock, Truffaut and their interpreter discuss, yes, how The Lodger was the first true Hitchcock film. Don’t worry, there is more of substance in the rest of the piece, although I wish that the young Truffaut was a little less sycophantic with his idol.
- Audio Interview: Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich – Excerpts from 1963 Interview (19:42): Bogdanovich has two separate interviews on the disc, and this is the earlier one. He leads Hitchcock through a discussion of his methods on The Lodger and thereafter. The most revealing moment comes when Bogdanovich asks Hitchcock about how he created a very naïve female character, at least in comparison to the women to come in his works. In response, the director hems and haws, and then asks for more tea and avoids answering.
- Audio Interview: Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich – Excerpts from 1972 Interview (20:58): There’s a lot of repetition here with the content in all the other extras, and by now we know the anecdotes. Still, it’s interesting to hear the change in Hitchcock’s voice, over the years, and we do learn a little more about his early, pre-Lodger years here.
- The Lodger Radio Play, Pilot Episode of CBS Radio Series Suspense, Broadcast July 22, 1940 (30:48): Speaking of Hitchcock’s voice, when he appears, at the end of this broadcast, as himself, it’s almost shocking to hear how highly pitched he sounds, compared to what we know of him from his late-1950s TV show and beyond. Otherwise, this is not that interesting except as a document of the kinds of radio shows made at the time.
That’s all, folks. These are, for the most part, very useful special features that add a lot to our understanding of both films. Beyond them, though, the quality of the transfers, alone, would make this disc worth buying.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)