Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Lodger (1944)

“The Lodger” (1944) is reckoned by many to be the best Jack the Ripper movie ever made, and with good reason. Expertly cast, and beautifully directed by John Brahm, this 20th Century Fox production drips with atmosphere, menace and a wow of a sexual subtext which somehow managed to escape the censor’s eye.

As I’ve said before in previous postings, I’ve always enjoyed Fox’s evocations of fog-drenched Victorian England, and “The Lodger” is no exception.

The film is based on a very successful novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. In England, Alfred Hitchcock directed a silent version in 1927 with stage star Ivor Novello. It was the film that started Hitchcock on his road to critical and commercial success. Novello remade it in 1932 as a sound version, and Fox re-made it yet again in 1952 as “The Man in the Attic” with Jack Palance in the title role.

As good as the Hitchcock version is, however, it’s the 1944 version that continues to resonate with viewers.

The scene is London in 1888, and the city is paralyzed by the Jack the Ripper murders. The victims are all actresses or have ties to the theater. (Actresses make a handy substitute for prostitutes, the real victims of the Ripper, and a profession that would not have made it past the censors).

One night a mysterious stranger, Mr. Slade (the brilliant Laird Cregar) comes to a house seeking lodging. The house is owned by the Bontons, a kindly older couple (Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood) who agree to rent him an upstairs bedroom. He tells them he is a doctor, and also requests to use the attic as a place for experiments. He tells them he works odd hours, and will use the back staircase as he will be coming going at all hours of the night.

Soft spoken and gentle, Mr. Slade seems an ideal tenant, save for a few peccadilloes, such as turning to the walls paintings of old time actresses. He doesn’t think much of actresses which could be a problem since the Bontons’ niece Kitty (Merle Oberon) is a celebrated musical comedy star and is living with them.

And in the film’s most disturbing scene, Slade shows Mrs. Bonton a picture of his brother, who he obviously harbors disturbing feelings for. This scene is beautifully played by Cregar, and while it might have gotten past the censors, I’m sure 1944 audiences knew that Slade’s feeling toward his sibling were more than normal brotherly love. An actress caused his brother’s ruin, which explains Slade’s deep loathing of the acting profession.

But is Slade the Ripper? He does come and go at all hours of the night, and is seen with a mysterious black bag, and comes home one night with a blood-stained coat. A Scotland Yard Inspector (George Sanders) harbors suspicions about Slade, but isn’t sure. Certainly a fingerprint clue seems to rule Slade out.

The climax is very exciting, and one of the most memorable of 1940s horror cinema. More I will not say.

This is one beautiful looking film. Anyone that thinks black and white is boring should look at five minutes of “The Lodger.” Atmosphere drips from every scene, with each shadow and alleyway a potential Ripper murder scene. One scene of the Ripper approaching a cowering victim has the camera take the point of view of the Ripper, the camera shifting from side to side as he gets closer to her, the victim quaking with fear. Similar scenes were found throughout countless 1980s slasher movies, but “The Lodger” was first (albeit, less graphically).

“The Lodger” was a smash hit with 1944 audiences, not least for the cast, strong script and atmosphere. So successful was it that Fox ordered a follow up film the following year with another Victorian horror melodrama, the superb “Hangover Square”, re-uniting Cregar, Sanders, director Brahm and screenwriter Barre Lyndon. It was another big hit but there were to be no more reunions.

Cregar was one of the most striking actors of the 1940s and would have gone on to bigger and better things, but he had a tortured private life. Standing over six foot three and weighing more than 300 pounds, he went on a crash diet to lose over 100 pounds in hopes of becoming a leading man. He was also homosexual, and thought if he could be made attractive to women he would be cured of his gayness. The crash diet proved too much for his system, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 28 following shooting of “Hangover Square.”

What a career he could have had. As it is, in his short, brilliant career, Laird Cregar still stands as one of the great actors of the 1940s. Unfortunately, he probably understood his characters all too well.

Rating for “The Lodger”: Three and a half stars.

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