Sunday, 7 May 2017

Silent Sheffield… The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand, Orchestra of St Pauls, Ben Palmer, Abbeydale Picture House, Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

This is only the second year of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and already you can sense it gathering momentum and a personality all its own driven by organiser-in-chief Jonathan Best. This year’s edition is a month-long celebration of silent film played out across that big county to the right of Lancashire, featuring a roster of key silent films all played by some of the most vibrant musical minds in the country, on their own or in ensembles.

Tonight was a major-league kick-off with a World premiere of Neil Brand’s sparkling new score for Hitchcock’s ground-breaking The Lodger as played by the Orchestra of St Pauls conducted by Ben Palmer. It was part of a weekend of silent spectacles in Sheffield’s amazing Abbeydale Picture House – one of the city’s oldest cinemas and one saved for film projection by a kindly benefactor who realised its communal significance far outweighed initial plans to re-work it as a climbing space.

The Abbeydale opened in 1920 but rarely can it have played host to such an intoxicating blend of on screen atmospherics and such refined accompaniment, emphatically performed by a truly World-class ensemble.  For me at least, this score far out-ranks the previous orchestration provided for the Hitchcock Nine restorations by Nitin Sawhney: that was musically interesting and inventive but doesn’t synchronise emotionally or narratively as well as Neil’s work. It’s the difference between Rita Hayworth trying to match Fred Astaire’s movement for their first feature, You'll Never Get Rich (1941), versus Ginger Rogers on their ninth: you’d still enjoy watching Rita dance but...

Here there’s a coherence that speaks of an obsession with replicating the emotional nuance of the source material and gifting supremely able players with a chance to fully immerse their sonic output with the sights on screen: from the grand moments of fear and dread murder to the sexual splash as Ivor Novello stands outside the bathroom listening as June Tripp taking a dip to a rising cluster of notes as she raises a laugh: it’s an emotional ballet written in response to Hitchcock’s 90-year old choreography.

Sat in the second row, feet away from the violins in the Abbeydale’s plush green seats, you’re swept up under the combination of giant Ivor face and mesmerising musicality… all weekly woes dissipate and the cinema takes you on a strange journey just as it would have done your grandparents… just as the director intended when, as Mr Brand said in his introduction, he decided to make voyeurs of us all…

It starts with as scream and as newspapers report all on the Avenger’s murderous spree and the people on and off screen lap it up – we can’t help ourselves. This man who only murders blondes – already with this Alfred? – has a dressing room full of show girls fascinated and so are we; both with the story and with the girls… By the by, am I correct in noticing the ultra-short trim of scouser Peggy Carlisle lapping up the gossip?

The film looms large on the Abbeydale’s huge screen imposing itself on the audience from the opening dramatics as Germanic shadows are cast over a suffocating, studio-bound London: “a story of the fog…”

Inside the cosy home of The Bunting Family all is clear with mother (Marie Ault – who is just magnificent), father (Arthur Chesney) and their daughter Daisy (June Tripp here referred to as Miss June). They are in the basement of a townhouse not far from the Houses of Parliament and are entertaining Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), a policeman who is romancing Daisy although as her treatment of his pastry heart reveals – a very Lubitsch touch – isn’t as keen as the cop.

Here's Ivor!
They are disturbed by a knock on the door and Mrs Bunting goes upstairs to find the strangest fellow standing on their threshold: Jonathan Drew (an unearthly Ivor Novello), a tall stranger, with scarf wrapped over his face, has come looking to rent their spare rooms. Why is this so clearly-moneyed man looking for accommodation and, why is he so strange…?

Hitchcock piles on the clues that begin to implicate Drew in the Avenger killings… his scarf is worn in the same manner as the murderer, he nervously hides a mysterious briefcase in his room and then asks for the surprisingly plentiful portraits of blonde woman to be removed after turning them one-by-one against the wall.

Miss June
He is indeed a “queer fellow” as one of the characters observes, intense and detached and not conforming to social norms. He is hiding something but we don’t know what.

None of this distracts Daisy who takes an immediate shine to the new arrival. Daisy’s a “mannequin” and with broader horizons than her family and boyfriend… whilst Drew is something new and interesting. They start to relax in each other’s company and play chess in his room. She glances at this strangely handsome man whilst he gazes intently at her blonde locks… Hitchcock contuse his playful tone as Drew, looking intent, reaches for the poker only to cut away and casually return after the fire has been stoked.

Marie Aultgives a great performance
But we have doubts about Drew and when he leaves the house late in the evening, Mrs Bunting wakes and peers out of her window as he enters the night. There’s great light and shade in this sequence with Drew descending the darkened staircase and the dim light of the street lights illuminating Mrs B as she begins to wonder if this man may be even stranger than he appears.

And, as every Tuesday, there is another murder that night…

Staircase mystery...
Drew attends one of Daisy’s fashion shows and buys her one of the dresses she parades. This is too far for the Buntings and father returns it with some straight talking. Drew creeps out towards the bathroom where Daisy is bathing and we’re treated to a proto-Psycho moment as Daisy’s supreme vulnerability is set against the presence of a potential killer.

By now Joe has also had enough and distraught, the policeman begins to put two and two together as it looks increasingly likely that the lodger is the killer… or is that just what he and we want?

Your move...
It’s masterful story-telling and almost all in the mind of the viewer who is a clueless as Joe in terms of interpreting the evidence Hitchcock supplies. As with the story so with the score and Brand’s music keeps us guessing right until the end as the tension becomes almost unbearable…

A thrilling ride all round and an excellent start to the festival!

Flying the flag: the Abbeydale
The films continue in silent Yorkshire throughout the month and full details can be found on the festival site. You can also find out what's happening at the Abbeydale Cinema on their Facebook page here.

Neil’s score will be available on the up-coming Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release, played by the Orchestra of St Pauls with Ben Palmer conducting. It’s released on 27th June and you can pre-order here.

Oh, silent film obssessive... is that Peggy from Hindle Wakes (right) in The Lodger (left)?

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