Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
Hitchcock teases the viewer with Novello’s sinister behaviour: turning paintings of women in his rooms to the wall; creeping out at night, his hand gliding down the stair rail as if disembodied; fingering a poker during a chess game and lingering at a bathroom door; brooding and swooning like a lost soul. Climactic revelations are supposed to set the record straight and provide the lodger with plausible motives for his actions, but I’ve never quite believed them. We never see the “real” Avenger and the only character with something to avenge is Novello. The mantra “Tonight – Golden Curls”, which appears in the intertitles like a threat, pops up in the background of the closing shot, apparently a flashing sign on a theatre marquee – but what else is it doing there? A warning to the heroine, perhaps, that the killing spree is unfinished?
On one level the film is a love story and Brand’s rapturously romantic score underlines it. There are eerie and nerve-jangling moments in the music too, evoking the vampiric qualities of Novello’s screen presence, with its peculiar blend of feyness and intensity (some of the huge close-ups are startlingly beautiful). Above all this is a score which works in synchrony with the film, enhancing it rather than distracting from it – something that could not always be said of previous commissioned scores for the Hitchcock silents. In this public debut it was beautifully performed by the Orchestra of St. Paul’s under the direction of Ben Palmer. A relatively small ensemble, its sounds nevertheless filled the space of the cavernous Abbeydale.
There will be other opportunities to see The Lodger in cinemas and it will also be presented in high-definition home video: the score was commissioned by the Criterion Collection and recorded by Palmer for a forthcoming Blu-ray edition due for release in June, with the restored Downhill (1927) – another Hitchcock/Novello/Brand collaboration – as an extra.
Silent London (Sheldon Hall), 13 May 2017