John Brahm, 1944
Starring: Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Laird Cregar
A beautiful, up and coming singer and actress, Kitty Langley, lives with her aunt and uncle, who have recently fallen on hard times. To supplement their income, they take in a lodger, an odd scientist known as Mr. Slade, who comes and goes at odd hours. Meanwhile, Jack the Ripper is butchering women on the streets of London and the police are at a loss. It soon becomes clear that Slade is the killer, though Kitty and her family try to ignore the signs. Inspector Warwick, in charge of the case, falls for Kitty, but can he protect her from Mr. Slade’s murderous advances?
While this is a remake of Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film The Lodger, in turn adapted from Marie Belloc-Lowndes’ novel of the same name, director John Brahm takes the film in enough of a new direction that it is a work wholly his own. Hitchcock’s film essentially followed his beloved “wrong man” plot and was set in the mid to late ‘20s. As with Fritz Lang’s M (1931), it is a film concerned with social hysteria, paranoia, and mob mentality. Brahm set this in Jack the Ripper’s time, the late 1880s, and focuses more on the psychological, sexual aspects of serial murder. While the finale of Hitchcock’s film was about discovering the identity of the real murderer, Brahm leaves little up to the imagination with Slade. Though he and screenwriter Barré Lyndon present the character sympathetically, Slade’s actions and dialogue leave little doubt that he is Saucy Jack.
Surprisingly the moral codes of the day allowed a subtext to slide by: Slade’s obvious sexual obsession with his dead brother. His brother’s death, after having his life ruined by a beautiful actress, is Slade’s supposed reason for killing women with a connection to the stage. Apparently the Hays Code prevented the women from being prostitutes, as Jack’s victims were in real life, but it did not prevent a number of disturbing scenes where Slade discusses cutting the beauty out of women.
The film absolutely belongs to Laird Cregar, a large man, both in terms of height and girth, who struggled with his weight his entire life. He is perfect as Slade: menacing, psychopathic, pathetic, sympathetic, and he seems to wander much of the film in a crazed, hypnotic state with violence always brewing beneath the surface. The use of low angled shots make him overwhelm nearly every frame and the use of key lights give his eyes an insane, almost mystical glow. Cregar teamed up with Brahm and Sanders again for the similarly plotted Hangover Square, and the crash diet he used for that film led to his early death at just 31. If you enjoyed him here, he put in some good performances in noirish murder mystery I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943), among others. It is tragic his career was cut so short.
There are a number of other good performances in the film, including Sara Allgood and the always lovable Universal horror regular Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Kitty’s aunt and uncle. The lovely Merle Oberon looks wonderful here as Kitty, though she is best known for her role in Wuthering Heights alongside Laurence Olivier.
I absolutely love George Sanders (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent) and it was a delight, as always, to see him in The Lodger. His role is fairly restrained as Inspector Warwick, though he still roguishly woos Kitty. They have a nice comic scene in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, where he shows her memorabilia from some horrific historic crimes, all while asking her on a date to meet his mother. The development of their relationship mostly takes place off screen and it seems like Sanders was purposefully downplaying his role in order not to steal the film out from under Cregar.
Director John Brahm made a number of films for Fox in a variety of genres, though The Locket, The Brasher Doubloon, and The Lodger remain his most famous films. He also did a lot of work in television for such genre shows as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and more. He does an excellent job here and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, this is the perfect place to start.
Brahm’s regular partner Lucien Ballard shot the film and, as with The Undying Monster, is responsible for much of it’s shadowy, fog drenched, and almost gothic imagery. He turns what looks like an indoor set into an expressionistic nightmarish version of Jack the Ripper’s London and the cinematography alone makes the film worth checking out. Ballard worked on a number of classic films and shot for directors like Sam Peckinpah, his mentor in Germany, Joseph von Sternberg, and Stanley Kubrick, among many more.
The Lodger comes highly recommended and is available in the excellent Fox Horror Classics Collection with two of Brahm’s other horror films, The Undying Monster (1942) and Hangover Square (1945).