Thursday 27 August 2009

The Lodger (1944)

Director: John Brahm
Stars: Merle Oberon, George Sanders and Laird Cregar

Back in 1926, Alfred Hitchcock's first foray into the thriller genre that he would make his own was a film called The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, an adaptation of a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the sister of poet Hilaire Belloc. It's an intriguing story and it resonated with filmmakers, having now reached its fifth version, this being the third and the last made during the author's lifetime. The previous was a return to the role for Ivor Novello, who had been Hitchcock's star too, the next was Man in the Attic with Jack Palance in 1953 and the latest was made this year with Alfred Molina. All but Man in the Attic took the title of the novel, The Lodger.

We're in Whitechapel in London in the late 19th century and there's a serial killer on the loose, one of the most famous of them all but also one that predated the term that came to define his profession. In case you hadn't guessed, he's Jack the Ripper. The police are apparently inadequate, or so say the posters, but there are plenty of them out on the streets. They even check up on the latest victim as she walks home from the Weavers Arms but she only lives around the corner so they let her on her way, a bad call as thirty seconds later she's dead, the latest victim of the Ripper.

That night a man calling himself Slade books rooms with the Bontings and he appears to be rather suspicious from moment one. He takes the attic space because it's large and he needs plentiful supplies of heat, being a pathologist, and he pays a hefty sum in advance to secure it. He's a big man whose suit is too tight but he's well spoken, with a soft voice that often sounds suspiciously like Vincent Price's but before Price ever played in a horror movie, and he has strange attitudes that can't help but raise suspicion. He walks around at night because the empty streets are peaceful to him, just like holding his head to the waters of the river. He prefers the back door and never uses the front.

He also turns all the pictures on the walls around to face the wall as he says that the eyes of the women seem to follow him about. All the pictures are of actresses or former actresses, the Ripper's taste in victims and a profession that Slade seems to abhor. Of course the reason that the pictures are of actresses is that he's taken lodging in a theatrical household. Also in residence is Mrs Bonting's niece Kitty Langley, who is appearing at the Piccadilly Theatre to do her saucy French dance, brought direct to London from the Alcazar in Paris. Needless to say, Slade is both fascinated by her and leary of actually going to see her perform, even at her specific request.

As with any story that's been filmed five times, let alone one based on the story of Jack the Ripper story, this has little to surprise us. The biggest surprise is the performance of Laird Cregar, surely the most unknown face to audiences in 1944, given that his co-stars here include Sir Cedric Hardwicke, George Sanders and Merle Oberon, who at this time was Lady Korda through her marriage to film mogul Alexander Korda. It's a subtle performance, not just obviously suspicious and sinister but also full of nuance and even sympathy, this being the only version I've seen that really carries that amount of depth. Most of that depth is in Cregar's performance.

Cregar was unfortunately unable to live up to the massive promise he exhibited here as he died a year later of a heart attack after only one more film, Hangover Square, a film with many similarities to this one, not least the theme, the director (John Brahm), the writer (Barré Lyndon) and the co-star (George Sanders). Merle Oberon's part as the object of Cregar's obsession was taken by Linda Darnell. I'll have to track that one down soon, because the suggestion this outing gives is that he could have become to the horror genre what Vincent Price became with a hint of Dwight Frye, hardly a bad combination. Sadly we'll never know.

What brought him down was a dangerously rapid crash diet which knocked a full hundred pounds off his weight in less than a year. He died of complications at the young age of 31, leaving a career of only 16 films to posterity. They include Hudson's Bay, one of the few Paul Muni films I haven't managed to see yet, the Tyrone Power swashbuckler The Black Swan and the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Heaven Can Wait. For now, I believe the only other film I've seen him in was 1940's Granny Get Your Gun in an uncredited role.

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