Coming before the droll British chase films of the 1930s, the glamorous Hollywood psychodramas of the 1940s and 50s and the controlled cruelty of his later work, the silent films of Alfred Hitchcock can get overlooked. Despite lacking the budget, resources and superstars of the later work, there is still much to enjoy as well as some pointers as to where the career of Mr Hitchcock was going to go, most particularly in The Lodger.
The plot sees a sinister Jack the Ripper style killer called The Avenger on the loose on the foggy streets of London, a killer who only targets blonde women. A mysterious man (Ivor Novello) arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting, looking for a room to rent. The Buntings have a daughter, Daisy, who is a fashion model, and has a police detective boyfriend, Joe - and blonde hair. As Joe investigates the murders, he begins to suspect the Bunting's new lodger - just as Daisy starts to find herself attracted to him. Does Joe have the right man? Moreover, is he about to lose his woman to him?
The Lodger was Hitchcock's third completed film but already we can see many of the themes and tropes that would crop up time and time again in his work over the next 50 years. The plot revolves not just around murder, but the murder of women, and blonde women at that. There is also a man wrongly accused of a crime, a slightly buffoonish police officer, a streak of black humour, and a twist ending. We also see in Ivor Novello, a leading man cast in a different light to how the public were used to seeing him – think of James Stewart as a neurotic weirdo in Vertigo.
In addition, Hitchcock is already starting to not just hint at sex and violence in his films, but draw a link between the two. This is most explicitly shown here, not just by the killer, but by Joe the detective, who gleefully talks of putting a ring on Daisy's finger after he has put a rope around the neck of the Avenger, implying that the perfect climax to a violent death is consummating his marriage.
However, the Lodger is more than just a dry run for Hitchcock's career, and is a great thriller in its own right. The cinematic style is at wonderfully audacious, with some brilliantly designed shots and scenes that show Hitchcock had grasped the unique power of the medium, and was also paying attention to and learning from some of his contemporaries, particularly the German Expressionists, such as Robert Wiene and his silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
As always with a silent film, the soundtrack that accompanies your screening will be a definite factor. While previous viewings have been on DVD with a soundtrack played by the London Symphony Orchestra, a recent watch on the big screen for me had music by drums/bass/guitar trio Minima. This was in itself an eclectic affair, moving seamlessly between jazzy noire, eerie atmosphere psychedelic noodling and loud, dramatic rhythm and may initially feel somewhat anachronistic, compared to the large ensemble or organ score of the time of the films release, However, it actually gives the film a completely different feel, one that is to my mind somewhat closer to the Giallo genre, and given that one of the progenitors of Giallo, Dario Argento, made his name with visually stunning films about sexually charged murder (with great soundtracks) this actually makes sense.