Considering Alfred Hitchcock’s early movie The Lodger in light of his complete oeuvre—a task that can happen only anachronistically—gives us the old master minus two elements that furnished his films with the trappings of modernity amid an otherworldliness: color and sound. Where scores and palettes might have made reliable signposts, into this silent black-and-white film step in cinematography, action, tone, and shadow, drawing up a London that has more affinities with the cramped darkness of the theater than any brick-and-mortar city. Forced to eschew [musical?] crescendos—then a fact of the format, but an active exclusion in later films like The Birds—Hitchcock, in his self-declared stylistic debut, stakes out the obsessions that would define his career. They appear regularly and with an absurd reliability; almost everything about the director’s later films that snags viewers, critics, and scholars—sexuality, formality, urbanity, banality, perversion, off-kilter sensibilities, those vertiginous qualities Roland Barthes spoke of as the un-locatable “third meaning” of films—makes an appearance. Each is as interesting for what it says about the man as it does about the libraries of reels he left us, and more so for the way in which each tic is quietly rehearsed and unveiled. Nothing in The Lodger reeks of a checklist; nothing has the comfort of a formula. If, to enlist a dead metaphor, the beginning of a career is the opening of a door, then behind that door stands the film’s title, that ominous figure: his eyes as sharp as his demeanor, his knife-like shadow slicing through the frame, wrapped not just in scarves but in the fog that peels voices from bodies.
Hitchcock didn’t dynamite through a mountain to make the first film he would characterize as his own (“you might almost say,” he told François Truffaut, “that The Lodger was my first picture”—though it was the third film he had directed); he stepped through a tunnel someone else had bored. The Lodger, like so many of his works, is an adaptation of a novel, in this case Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 psychological thriller. For its focus, Belloc Lowndes would look back ten years before she started writing, to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that left a chain of butchered women across London. Even in Hitchcock’s version of her story—and is it really her story, after all?—the sense of repetition is strong, even dizzying, despite his decision to reverse the fate of the titular character. The film opens with the mechanical heartbeat of industrialization, the programmatic flashing of a sign that reads TO-NIGHT: GOLDEN CURLS, enticing the murderous as much as the lecherous to the vaudeville theater where the naïve Daisy Bunting, the film’s sweetheart, makes a living off her locks. Against a suitably black background, the credits hover, led by an animation of a detective’s silhouetted against a swath of creamy light. What happens next is predictable enough, and after the scream, the objectifying shot of terror on the woman’s face as her life ends, we see the murderer’s cloth-wrapped face as he departs. A ring of citizens and police beleaguers her, none too startled to pass up the opportunity to ogle a corpse. Hitchcock gives us no sense of where these Samaritans were when during the murder; the harsh lamplight slathers everything with a morgue-like quality.