Monday 6 August 2012

Out of the mist: "The Lodger"

One suspects that, post-The Artist, this week's release of a restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's first surviving feature The Lodger: A Story of The London Fog will provide many viewers with their first experience of seeing silent cinema up on the big screen. It's not at all a bad choice, given the film's evident artistry, though newcomers should approach with a certain degree of caution: Hitch was less interested in tickling or charming an audience here - there's no Uggie equivalent, for one - than with instilling a ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines story with a rich sense of the macabre. First released in 1927, The Lodger could be considered a bookend to the director's penultimate work Frenzy (1972): again set in the East End, it's a film that uses the slayings of a Ripper-like psycho known as The Avenger to set out Hitchcock's core belief that nothing gets the juices flowing better than a good murder.

The trickledown effects of the Avenger's handiwork are evident in the film's early scenes: in the course of one gleefully brisk montage, Hitch shows us how the death of yet another fair-haired woman sets the printing presses running, the chattering classes to chatter, and the West End's blonder starlets to stop peroxiding their hair, lest they attract the killer's attention on their way home from the theatre to their digs. Finally, we see how all this fear and suspicion comes to invade one household, like a thick peasouper always will, if you leave the front door open long enough. If you think there's something lubricious in the way Hitchcock films all this, just wait until you read the title cards. This, apparently, is "MURDER: wet from the press". And "MURDER: hot over the aerial". You sense it isn't just the Avenger who's getting his rocks off here: the killer's predilection for nubile blondes allows the director to shoot daring (for 1927) peephole scenes in dressing and bathrooms.

The tendency, of course, is to back-project, and use the film as conclusive proof that Hitchcock was a master all along, when audiences of the time couldn't possibly have known that; they might, however, have been struck by the inventive camera placing and Expressionist lighting, which serves to remind us this filmmaker served some part of his apprenticeship in the same German studios whence Nosferatu emerged. Now, of course, we can see the beginnings of a career-long directorial fascination with wrongful accusation and arrest, and Hitchcock's already-sound suspense stratagems - is the stranger taken in by the Bunting family (and played by brillantined matinee idol Ivor Novello, capably dashing and dissolute-seeming, and worthy of an Ivor Novello prize for handsomeness) the killer, and will their smitten daughter figure this out before he shows his hand again? - have been lent a renewed urgency by Nitin Sawhney's broadly traditional score, with its percussive nods and brassy winks in the direction of Psycho and North by North-West. A pair of love songs overwrite the images and stray into Giorgio Moroder territory, but they fit better if we understand that the film is being revived as a living, breathing, yearning experience, rather than as a dusty artefact from the vaults - and this restoration does as much as anything since the extended cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis to turn silent cinema into a discussion point, a night out, an event.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

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