Monday, 23 July 2012

The Lodger (1927), Nitin Sawhney, LSO, Barbican, London


The latest in the BFI’s Hitchcock restoration project, this screening of The Lodger took place at London’s Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra performing a new score from Nitin Sawhney.

Robin Baker, Head Curator at the BFI explained that none of the original scores remain and so this presents the opportunity to commission new music which can redefine and reconnect these films for modern audiences.

Sawhney has impressive credentials and has scored a number of films - he's even been nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for Film and TV Composition. Here his music featured a large formation from the LSO as well as his own band who provided piano, percussion, cello and vocals. Playing in front of the mighty LSO must take some courage and I had particular admiration for drummer Martyn Kaine who had to make everything swing but musicianship was excellent from all parties.

The soundscape was lush and closely tracked the emotional flow of Hitch’s first thriller. The only issues I had were with the songs interspersed in the score which jumped the narrative gun on one at least one occasion and threatened to prick the bubble… Other than that though, the music was pretty sensational including the lovely vocals - ambitious and as powerfully emotional as the film.

The Lodger seems heavily in debt to German expressionism and yet with that earthy music hall comedic touch that lightens even the most sinister Hitchcock. I overheard one audience member saying that she wasn’t sure whether some of the acting was deliberately funny but my silent film rule of thumb  would be that if something is funny,  it’s generally meant to be: we haven’t changed that much.

The acting matches the expressionist agenda but there’s a whole range in this film from the Golden Curls girls naturalistic post-show chatting to the more tortured emoting of victims, suspects and the unlucky in love. It’s “arch” and there’s a very knowing – very British – mix of horror and humour.

The film kicks off with a scream as the latest victim of the serial blonde assassin, The Avenger, is cut down by the killer. Hitchcock then shows us the excited reaction to the killing across London, fuelled, as ever, by the press – “Murder – wet from the press!” screams one of the inter-titles (strikingly rendered in expressionistic style by E. McKnight Kauffer).

Only a few decades after Jack the Ripper, Londoners responded to fear of serial killer in their midst through a mixture of outrage and humour… people pull faces and imitate the killer’s appearance (scarf pulled over face)… even Joe the Policeman  jokes that the killer likes the golden hair, just like him.

After the “Story of the London Fog” is established the film shifts to the interior world as we encounter the Buntings with mother (Marie Ault), 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.

This relaxed domesticity offers a stark contrast to the frenetic goings on of the outside world. Joe offers Daisy pastry hearts and flirts with her… yet we get the feeling she’s not entirely convinced. But Mum looks on pleased with her daughter’s reliable beau…

Their cosy routines are disturbed by a knock on the door and Mrs Bunting goes upstairs to find the strangest fellow standing on their threshold. A tall stranger, with scarf wrapped over his face, has come looking to rent their spare rooms. This lodger is revealed to be Jonathan Drew (an unearthly Ivor Novello) who is mysteriously withdrawn and looking for short term accommodation in spite of his dress and treatment of money marking him out as a man of wealth.

Hitchcock piles on the clues that begin to implicate Drew in the Avenger killings… his scarf is worn in the same manner, he nervously hides a mysterious briefcase in his room and then asks for the portraits of blonde woman to all be removed… (quite why there were so many is not revealed…).

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

He disturbs the household but begins to respond to Daisy’s warmth and willingness to take him at face value. Daisy’s a “mannequin” and with broader horizons than her family and boyfriend… Drew is something new and interesting. They start to relax in each others’ company and play chess in his room. She glances at this strangely handsome man whilst he gazes intently at her blonde locks… It’s like an off-beat version of the Thomas Crown chess game.

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…

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 confronts Drew only for Daisy to side with the new man. Distraught, the policeman begins to put two and two together as it looks increasingly likely that the lodger is the killer…
I won’t give any further details of the plot… you really have to experience this one to be “thrilled”.

This English expressionist film feels more “influenced” than Hitchcock’s next film, The Ring and is more mannered in acting terms with Novello, cast firmly against type. He’s not as naturalistic as Lillian Hall-Davis in the latter film but his haunting and strangely conflicted, performance serves this story well.

The other performers contribute to an overall feeling of the mildly grotesque, especially the gurning Keen.  Marie Ault has more nuance and arguably plays the character we most identify with…safe in our domestic routines but having to take a chance on a stranger to make ends meet. June Tripp is also good as the heroin who puts her love on the line for a long shot…

The Lodger is currently available on a dirty old DVD but I’d hold off for the restored version to become available. The BFI have again done a fantastic job, especially given the source material – there was no negative and this was the most damaged of the “Hitchcock Nine”.

The screen shots here pre-date the restoration – it is quite something. Roll on the next one…

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