Alfred Hitchcock filmed his first movie in 1922. Number 13 (or Mrs. Peabody, since it isn’t clear which was the real title) was a comedy that was never finished due to insufficient funds. His next feature was 1925’s The Pleasure Garden, a romantic drama that, from what I’ve heard, has few of the elements that would make Hitchcock so revered in later years. He filmed The Pleasure Garden back-to-back with 1926’s The Mountain Eagle. Hitchcock supposedly disliked the now-lost film. But in 1927, Hitch released what many, including himself, consider the first real Hitchcock film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
A serial killer known only as The Avenger kills a blond woman every Tuesday evening in 1920s London. So far, he’s up to seven murders. People who catch glimpses of him on the street after a killing describe the murderer as a man with a scarf covering his face. On a Tuesday night, as the London fog lays thick across the city, Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello) arrives at the house of the Buntings with a scarf adorning his face. The Buntings are taking in lodgers, but Jonathan is an odd duck. He’s a nervous wreck. He practically breaks down at the sight of countless pictures of blondes that adorn some of the Buntings’ walls. Later, when he becomes friendly with the landlords’ fashion model daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), he anxiously waits outside the bathroom door while she takes a bath, almost opening the door multiple times.
Mrs. and Mr. Bunting (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) notice the young man’s oddities right away, but June takes to the handsome Jonathan. The two spend time together talking, playing chess, and doing a multitude of other things as they fall in love. But Jonathan has a secret, a locked cabinet in his room, and he makes quiet nightly trips out into the city. Daisy’s cop boyfriend Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen) suspects Jonathan of being the killer, but can he catch the mysterious man in the act before Daisy becomes the next victim?
Watching The Lodger, it’s hard to imagine why Hitchcock would’ve directed any other genres first. It’s his premiere thriller, and he’s already perfectly suited for it. Throughout the movie, Hitch uses a simple but effective motif of a flashing sign advertising a late-night fashion show: “To … Night … ‘Golden … Curls.'” It’s a neutral sign, but Hitchcock cleverly uses this mundane object as a portent of death. It serves almost like the beating heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It unnerves you each time until you’re ready to crack under the pressure of the mounting suspense.
The suspense is fueled by the tight tension gripping the city, as its residents and the viewer wait in uneasy anticipation for the murderer to be caught, always worrying that, at any moment, someone else will be gruesomely killed. Hitchcock elicits anxiety and terror through subtle touches. The best and cleverest takes advantage of silent-movie storytelling when it shows Mrs. Bunting sitting up in bed worried and frightened as she hears her strange lodger leave his room and slowly descend the stairs to do God knows what. You feel the lump in her throat. You hear everything she hears, both the unnatural silence and the slightest, unsettling sound of feet hitting wooden floors. It’s a masterful job, and it amazes me that someone with so little directorial experience could construct a scene so perfectly.
But this movie would be nothing without its cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia. He collaborates with Hitchcock for the third and sadly final time. Di Ventimiglia previously served as Hitch’s cinematographer on the director’s first two completed features. A year or two ago, when I was scrolling through social media and landed on a gif of The Lodger, I was instantly captivated. It was an image of Jonathan standing right outside the Buntings’ doorway, draped in thick London fog that’s practically invading the entryway as it rolls in. The fog is the city’s fear penetrating the house as this strange man enters this innocent, happy family’s home and makes most of them uneasy and suspicious. The red tinting covers everything in the color of blood, almost like it’s signifying that anyone you see could be the killer’s next victim.
The Lodger contains some melodramatic, contrived (why do the Buntings have so many darn pictures of blond women hanging around their house?), and nonsensical elements (why don’t these terrified landlords throw this weirdo out?), but these are minor quibbles that represent some of the storytelling styles of the time more than actual problems. You forgive any overdone or illogical moments as The Lodger keeps you guessing with the mystery at its heart. And when you finally exhale after 90 minutes of pure tension, you’ll relish the experience and will say to yourself, “This is where the Master of Suspense was born.”