Sunday, October 18, 2015

Film Review: The Lodger

"The Lodger"  *** (out of ****)

"The Lodger" (1944) released by 20th Century Fox is a remake of a earlier silent film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s based on a novel written by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes about the Jack the Ripper murders.

We are in the Whitechapel district of 1880s London. The streets are empty. A heavy fog is in the air. Policeman stand at every corner. The camera pans from right to left as we see empty street after empty street. Suddenly we hear a group of people exit a saloon. They are in good cheer singing. One elderly lady, a bit tipsy, proceeds to leave the group and begins to walk home. A policemen stops her and asks her if she has far to go. She informs the officer she lives around the corner. She makes it to her front door as the camera pans away and we hear a loud female voice screaming. The elderly woman we had been following has been killed. The police and busybody spectators chatter among themselves, it must have been Jack the Ripper. This marks his fourth victim as the police remain clueless to the killer's indentity.

Next we see Mr. Slade (Laird Cregar), whose real name is not Slade. He has taken the name of a street sign he has passed, as he approaches the home of Robert and Ellen Bonting (Sir. Cedrix Hardwicke and Sara Allgood) a wealthy married couple whom have embarrassingly fallen on difficult financial times and have placed a Ad looking for a lodger. Mr. Slade has come in reply to the Ad and would like to move in immediately. Ellen Bonting believes he looks like a gentleman and agrees.

Mr. Slade is a peculiar man with a stranger habit of taking late night walks by himself until the early morning. He walks by the river and stares into it. Mr. Slade is a man of science as says he needs to spend plenty of time by himself so he may run his experiments.

More murders are committed by Jack the Ripper and slowly Ellen and her niece, stage actress Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who lives with her aunt and uncle, suspect Mr. Slade may be the serial killer in question. Where does he go every night? Soon it is discovered Kack the Ripper carries a small black doctor's bag. So does Mr. Slade. One night Mr. Slade is caught burning his clothes. He says it was because chemicals spilled on them and may have contaminated them. Or could it be because the stains were blood and he was destroying the evidence? Or have Ellen and Kitty allowed their imagination to get the best of them?

The movie was directed by John Brahm, who had previously directed "The Undying Monster" (1942) at 20th Century Fox. According to 20th Century, if you listen to the special features in a box collection they have put together featuring three movies Mr. Brahm directed, they would have you believe Mr. Brahm was an extremely talented filmmaker. In fact Mr. Brahm was so talented Fox wouldn't let him direct quality movies! It is a bit of revisionist history if you ask me. For example Mr. Brahm also directed the Sonja Henie vehicle "Wintertime" (1943), for which film historians still proclaim Mr. Brahm was snubbed of a best director Academy Award nomination (I'm kidding!).

"The Lodger" is however an entertaining movie and is perhaps one of the best movies Mr. Brahm directed. When I reviewed Mr. Hitchcock's "The Lodger" (1927) I wrote the movie didn't create an eerie mood and play around with lighting, keeping its characters in the shadows. This remake of the material does however. I wouldn't say this remake is better than Mr. Hitchcock's version, only because Mr. Hitchcock is a better storyteller than Mr. Brahm and he can create better visuals. But it is not possible to deny the technical craft which Mr. Brahm tells this story.

Besides the opening sequence, one of the best visual moments in the movie occurs as Jack the Ripper is about to kill another innocent elderly woman. The woman is inside her dark apartment as she hears a door creek. She stands up and looks towards her front door. There is a look of shock and horror on her face. Soon the camera jerks side to side creating an uneasy, hectic feeling. These type of sequences would suggest Mr. Brahm knew where to place his camera. In the order of fairness the cinematography should also be given credit; Lucien Ballard, who had a very long career in Hollywood. He even worked with Sam Peckinpah on "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "The Getaway" (1972).

For all the good visual moments there is still an issue with the story itself. It lacks true suspense. We only have one suspect in "The Lodger" concerning who Jack the Ripper could be. The movie practically spells it out for us in the first few minutes after introducing the character. You keep hoping for a twist. But it never comes. The movie is rather straightforward in that respect. The viewer knows who the killer is and must wait nearly an hour for all the other characters to figure it out as well.

In a similar Hitchcockian (?) fashion "The Lodger" also takes a bleak subject - a serial killer murdering woman, and subtly injects dark humor into its story. George Sanders plays Scotland Yard Inspector Warwick, who would like to solve the mystery of who Jack the Ripper is but also wouldn't mind flirting with Kitty Langley and asking her out on a date. One funny scene shows them looking at artifacts of prior murder cases, while the Inspector keeps asking Kitty if she would like to meet his mother for tea. Nearly every police officer wouldn't mind asking Kitty out on a date and every time Kitty goes to the music hall where she performs, she has several police officers escort her.

Mr. Brahm really gets the most out of his actors. You will enjoy the banter between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Oberon. Mr. Sanders isn't given enough to work with but, I've always believed he was such a good actor that even when not given great material he is still memorable. Ms. Oberon I assume was casted in the movie because of her beauty, which becomes a significant aspect of the plot. There is not much of an emotional range for her to demonstrate.

If anyone comes out looking the best it would be Laird Cregar, who passed away the same year this movie was released. He was a character actor that appeared in both comedic and villainous roles. He co-starred with Jack Benny in the comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941), played a pirate opposite Tyrone Power in "The Black Swan" (1942) and was the Devil in the Ernst Lubitsch romantic-comedy "Heaven Can Wait" (1943). He made one more movie with Mr. Brahm, "Hangover Square" (1945), which was released after Mr. Cregar's death.

Cregar plays Mr. Slade as a mild-manner, timid, polite, soft-spoken, lonely man. Although he exhibits suspicious behavior and Ellen and Kitty suspect him of being a serial killer, he doesn't quite fit the description. He almost seems to "normal". This is suppose to be what is so frightening about this scenario. Anyone could be a murderer. Even nice, unsuspecting people who live among you.

"The Lodger" soon becomes a story about sex. Aren't all horror movies? A motive for the killings is given explaining only beautiful women are being killed because women are dangerous. Women are too casual about using their sex appeal to their advantage. They tease men. They purposely lure men into a false sense of hope. Yes, women are beautiful but they are also evil. A man should reject them. This can also be interpreted as dealing with sexual repression. It is that repression which causes a man to kill. Unfortunately this seems all too real, especially in the wake of mass shootings where the killers are said to have been virgins and never had girlfriends.

While I have trouble viewing "The Lodger" as a horror movie, mostly because of the lack of suspense, I am even more shocked to read upon its initial theatrical release the New York Times wrote a movie review claiming audiences were laughing at the movie and at Mr. Cregar's performance as Mr. Slade. I cannot imagine anyone laughing at this movie.

"The Lodger" is a good movie with some good performances and nice visuals. You will appreciate the mood the movie creates and the production values. The musical score by Hugo W. Friedhofer compliments the material and elicits the proper emotions from the viewer. Mr. Cregar turns in an effective performance which explores his versatility as an actor. Will the movie scare you? I doubt it. But, you will be interested in watching it from beginning to end.