Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Three Tales of 'The Lodger'

We film fans love to complain about about all the remakes plaguing us these days. I'm no different. The simple fact is that filmmakers covering the same ground more than once is nothing new--the film industry had barely been around for two decades before the first remakes started appearing.

One oft-retold tale is the Jack the Ripper-inspired thriller "The Lodger." Based on a popular British novel published at the beginning of the 20th century, the first film version was a silent movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927, followed by a talkie remake in 1932, an American remake in 1944, another American remake in 1953... and so on, with another remake appearing as recently as 2009.

The most famous of these is the 1944 version from 20th Century-Fox. I'm not going to cover that here, but will instead focus on the three slightly lesser known version that fall within the parameters of this blog.

The Lodger (aka "The Case of Jonathan Drew") (1927)
Starring: Ivor Novello, June Tripp, Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney and Malcolm Keen
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When fashion model Daisy (Tripp) strikes up a relationship with the quirky lodger on the top floor of her home (Novello), her jealous former suitor (Keen), a police detective becomes convinced that he is the killer who has been murdering blonde women in the area on consequetive Tuesdays. Is he accusing a strange but innocent man out of pure jealousy, or is Daisy putting herself in the arms of serial killer?

"The Lodger" was Alfred Hitchcock's first full-length film, and the great talent that he would evolve into is plainly evident here. However, despite some spectacular moments, this is not a great movie; it's better than other silent-era thrillers or dramas I've seen, but for truly great early Hitchcock, you want to check out "Blackmail".

The biggest problem with "The Lodger" is that Hitchcock either can't make up his mind what the main theme of his movie is, or he spends too much running time futzing around with irrelevant trivialities. The film starts with an extensive sequence showing how mass-media (radio and newspapers in those days) is stoking the flames of panic throughout London, but this angle is quickly dropped once the actual movie really gets going--which it does with a great introduction of Ivor Novello arriving to rent rooms at Daisy's place and matching the eyewitness descriptions of the serial killer.

While characters are shown reading newspapers throughout the movie, it's not until the film's final minutes that Hitchcock returns to the theme of media-stirred mass-hysteria when the jealous cop stalking the Lodger accidentially stirs an entire neighborhood into a lynch mob. In between these sequences, we have a story of an elderly couple that come to fear their lodger may be a serial killer because of his odd behavoir and their (implied) promiscuous daughter who sets up a rivalry between the lodger and her other suitor, a boorish, dimwitted cop with a tendency to abuse his authority. (Like other Hitchcock movies, circumstance is the main villain in the film, but the idiot cop comes in a close second.)

"The Lodger" is still worth seeing for those who are huge Hitchcock fans, those who are interested in film as an art form as opposed to mere entertainment, or those who love silent movies. Scenes bound to impress include the "glass celing" shot where Ault, Keen, and Chesney look up in response to the sound of the Lodger pacing in the sitting room overhead; the chessmatch between the Lodger and Daisy, where the audience first gets a full sense of how weird this man is (in addition to a litle bit of well-staged false suspense); the Lodger attending one of Daisy's fashion shows; the scene where the lazy cop searches the Lodger's room and finds damning evidence; and the mob scene by the iron-rod fence.

(By the way, there are several different versions of this film out there, but if watch the one distributed by St. Clair Vision, I recommend you mute the sound and put on Mike Oldfield's "Ommadawn." That music works far better than the jaunty orchestral soundtrack that runs under the film.)

The Phantom Fiend (aka "The Lodger") (1932)
Starring: Ivor Novello, Elizabeth Allan, Jack Hawkin, A.W. Baskcomb and Barbara Everest
Director: Maurice Elvey
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Young switchboard operator Daisy (Allan) strikes up a relationship with Michel (Novello), the retiring young foreigner who rents rooms on the upper floor of her parents' house. When evidence starts to mount that Michel is the murderer that's been stalking and killing young women, Daisy refuses to believe it. Will listening to her heart instead of reason lead to her heart being cut out?

"The Phantom Fiend" is the second film version of turn-of-the-century novel "The Lodger," and Ivor Novello returns to play the same role he had in the Hitchcock version. The name has changed, as have some of the details surrounding the character, but it's essentially the same part.

"The Phantom Fiend" is an excellent thriller with an attractive cast that all give performances that are better than was average for these early talkies where actors and directors were still getting use to the idea of sound in movies. Some of the performances--like that of the very attractive Elizabeth Allan--are far more naturalistic than was typical in films of this day, and there isn't a single actor who seems stiff, with the exception of high-ranking Scotland Yard officials who are supposed to come across that way.

The film runs barely over an hour, but during that brief running time, the viewer comes to like just about every character in the film, except possibly for Daisy's inattentive yet jealous reporter boyfriend (Hawkin) who fingers Michel as the possible killer as much out of jealousy than genuine suspicion that he's the murderer. Novello was so charming as Michel that I found myself hoping the film would offer up an unexpected twist to clear him as the killer.

"The Phantom Fiend" is one of those overlooked classics that has been saved from oblivion by the advent of the DVD. The only surviving copies available to be digitized were in a ragged, decayed state. It's clear from the way certain scenes jump about that there are seconds, if not entire minutes, missing from the version included in this set, and there are points where the sound is so muddled that even cranking up the volume makes it hard to hear what is being said. Still, it's good that at least some version of this nicely staged and surprisingly well-acted early talkie will survive into the future.

The 1932 version of "The Lodger" is one of several classic movies inclued in the "Dark Crimes" boxed set, and its presense lends heavily to making the set a fantastic buy.

Man in the Attic (1953)
Starring: Jack Palance, Frances Bavier, Constance Smith, Byron Palmer, and Rhys Williams
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A soft-spoken, socially akward patheologist (Palance) rents some upper-floor rooms from the Harleys (Bavier and Williams). His comings and goings coincide with the murders committed by Jack the Ripper, and Mrs. Harley starts to suspect Slade might be the notorious killer.

"Man in the Attic" is a well-acted, well-filmed drama that suffers only from its story being a little too simplistic and straight-foward; it's basically a mystery with only one real suspect, as far as the viewer is concerned.)

Jack Palance in particular in excellent as the suspicious patheologist Mr. Slade, giving a performance wher he is both sympathetic and sinister at the same time. In fact, he is so good at presenting this character that although there really isn't any other option within the story for him to be Jack the Ripper, you'll find yourself hoping until the Big Revelation occurs that you're wrong.

(If you're like me, you'll find yourself wishing that he knocks off the Harleys before the movie's over, because they get really annoying.)