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Murder! Wet Off the Press – The Making of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

To many, including the director himself, 1927′s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was Alfred Hitchcock’s first true movie.

He had directed two pictures prior to this, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, as a filmmaker-for-hire in Germany, but The Lodger would provide the blueprint for what would become the standard for many of his subsequent classics; the red herring, in which the audience is left doubting the innocence of the hero, the wrong man accused who joins forces with a headstrong young women and a serial killer preying on beautiful young ladies.

He would further cement his reputation in Britain over the following decade with The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes, before relocating to the United States where he would work with some of the most celebrated actors of Hollywood’s ‘golden era,’ such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Grace Kelly. But even as he began to work with larger budgets and gain the admiration of his peers, Hitchcock would continue to reference The Lodger in almost every feature that he directed.

Despite being a work of fiction, The Lodger would take its inspiration from a series of brutal murders committed on young women in London during the 1880s by an unidentified assailant known in the history books as Jack the Ripper. On 31 August 1888, the body of forty-three-year-old Mary Ann Nichols was found in the district of Whitechapel. Her throat had been slit and there were cuts to her lower abdomen, a butchering which recalled the recent murder of Martha Tabram, who had been killed in a similar fashion just two weeks earlier.

On 25 September, the Central News Agency received a letter signed by an individual who referred to himself as Jack the Ripper, in which he taunted, ‘I am down on whores, and I shan’t quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now? I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me, with my funny little games.’

A total of five victims would be officially credited to the Ripper, each one believing to have supported themselves financially by moonlighting as prostitutes, but the individual or group responsible were never identified or apprehended by the police. While murders would continue to be committed in the Whitechapel area, many historians believe that the fifth and final victim of the Ripper was Mary Jane Kelly, who was brutally mudered in a similar fashion to Nichols with the abdomen being the focal point of the injuries.

With the culprit having never been identified and the letter considered by some to be a hoax, historians have often disagreed on what kind of man could have committed such heinous deeds, with one theory being that the Ripper may have possessed some knowledge of surgical procedures and the human anatomy, although this has never been scientifically proven. But his legacy has cemented his reputation as the most iconic and mysterious of all serial killers, while also having a profound effect on popular culture and the portrayal of murderers.

As authors Gary Coville and Patrick Lucanio stated in their study Jack the Ripper: His Life and Crimes in Popular Entertainment, ‘Jack the Ripper provides the model which all modern serial killers have sought to emulate, and whether consciously or unconsciously western culture has judged the deeds of the many imitators against the Ripper’s own bloody legacy.’

While short stories adapted from the crimes would be published around the time of the murders, the first significant attempt to capture the fear of a city under the spell of a serial killer would come in 1911 with the publication of The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, a story that had been inspired from conversations at a dinner party in which it was suggested that a man who had lodged at the home of the butler may have been Jack the Ripper. While there was no evidence to support such a claim, Lowndes became fascinated with the notion that such a devious killer could walk the streets and no one would know his identity. From here, the concept began to grow beyond the restraints of a short story and soon Lowndes was adapting it into a novel, which would be published in 1913.

While The Lodger was not an immediate success Lowndes would be praised by many of her contemporaries, and two years after its release, the novel served as he basis for a stage production from acclaimed playwright Horace Annesley Vachell called Who is He?. Murder would become a key theme in the work of Hitchcock, commencing in 1926 with the production of The Lodger. Just two years earlier, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy teenagers from Chicago, Illinois, had conceived what they believed to be the perfect murder, abducting fourteen-year-old Robert Franks and masterminding their alibis in order to divert suspicion from them, but the discovery of Leopold’s glasses near the body led to their arrest and publicised trial.

While this incident would have no bearing on The Lodger, Hitchcock would use the story of Leopold and Loeb as the basis for his 1948 thriller Rope, itself an adaptation of a play by Patrick Hamilton. The task of transforming Lowndes’ novel into a screenplay fell to Eliot Stannard, who had written Hitchcock’s two previous films and would later work with the director on his remaining silent pictures, with the exception of 1927′s The Ring.

The story of the London fog opens with the close-up of a young women, her mouth wide open as she screams in fear, before the picture cuts abruptly to a flashing neon sign that reads, ‘To-night, Golden Curls.’ A crowd gathers around the body of the girl, which has been left in the street for all to see as a constable takes notes from a key witness, a hysterical middle-aged woman, while a reporter also scribbles in his own notebook.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Crouching down next to the body as the growing crowd looks on in interest, the policeman opens the victim’s coat to find a small piece of paper in which the words ‘The Avenger’ have been written inside a triangle, the calling card of a serial killer who has been targeting pretty young women. As the constable attempts to calm the witness down, the reporter wastes no time in rushing to a phone box to deliver the exclusive to his editor, with the headline claiming, ‘Murder – Wet off the press.’ The witness claims to have seen the perpetrator, whom she describes as tall, although she was unable to see his face due to it being covered with some kind of scarf.

By the early morning, copies of the newspaper are being delivered around the streets of London, alerting the public to another attack from the mysterious killer known only as the Avenger. As the fear surrounding the latest death spreads across the city, a group of models gathered together in their dressing room to read the details in the new addition of the local paper. One of the girls, Daisy Bunting, is shocked to discover that the victims have all had golden curls, much like herself, but the mood is soon lifted when one of her friends covers her face and pretends to be the Avenger, causing all them to laugh.

But as a precaution, Daisy covers up her blonde hair before leaving, in the hope of fooling the killer. Meanwhile, at the home of the Buntings, her parents are reading through the paper with Joe Chandler, a detective who is a close friend of the family, mostly due to his attraction to Daisy. When Daisy returns home he tries to flirt with her, even pointing to the news story and joking, ‘I’m keen on golden hair myself, same as the Avenger is,’ although his humour seems poorly-timed.

A figure slowly approaches the house and bangs loudly on the front door. Mrs Bunting arrives to greet the visitor but is immediately horrified to find a tall men dressed all in black, his face covered with a scarf and his piercing eyes staring back at her. He makes his way inside and removes his hat and scarf, before indicating that he has come regarding a room to-let. Despite her reservations, she leads him up to the spare room and shows him around but he seems somewhat unhinged, eventually asking him for supper before he retires for the evening.

Ivor Novello had spent much of his early career portraying a wholesome image, from his 1914 First World War classic Keep the Home Fires Burning to numerous stage roles which earned him a reputation as a heartthrob, but it would be his performance as the eponymous criminal in Graham Cutts’ 1925 thriller The Rat that would pave the way for his casting as the mysterious lodger in Hitchcock’s picture.

Having spent some time in Germany directing his first two pictures, Hitchcock had become influenced by the Expressionist films produced in the country at that time, particularly Robert Wiene’s influential 1920 fantasy Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Throughout the following decade, Germany would produce some of the most inportant motion pictures in thier cinematic history, particularly those from F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis).

The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first attempt these influences into action, would introduce British and American audiences to a new style of filmmaking, which would become a driving force behind the film noir thrillers of the 1940s. The lighting and use of shadows in The Lodger would come into play throughout Hitchcock’s career, with Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder and even Psycho owing a debt to his 1927 masterpiece. Principal photography on the movie took place at Gainsborough Studios in Hoxton, in the East End of London, which would also serve as the location for Hitchcock’s later films Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.

An early example of Hitchcock’s ingenious approach to directing came during a scene in which the stranger paces back and forth in his room, causing the chandelier to shake, all of which is shown through the floor. This was achieved with the use of a glass ceiling, a simple technique that proved effective, adding a unique visual style uncommon with British filmmakers at that time. As the suspicions of Mrs Bunting continues to grow towards her new lodger, Joe reveals that he has been placed in charge of the Avengers case, even as he begins to fight with the stranger for the affection of Daisy.

After the lodger sneaks out in the middle of the night, Mrs Bunting tells her husband that she fears he could be the Avenger and that he must not be allowed to spend time alone with their daughter. The viewer is then given reason to suspect the stranger of sinister deeds when a scene in which Joe and his detectives are studying the scenes of each murder on a map, only for the shot to cut to the lodger doing the same, therefore showing his obsession with the case.

When the stranger takes Daisy out for a late-night walk they are confronted by a jealous Joe, who orders him to let go of his girl’s hand, but his constant interference with her personal life causes her to scream at him to leave her alone. He takes her back home and the two finally kiss, much to the distress of her parents, but Joe arrives at the house soon afterwards with two other detectives and arrest the lodger, believing that there is sufficient evidence to belive he is the killer. But as he is being led out he manages to escape from custody and arranges to meet Daisy, where he explains that his sister was one of the victims of the Avenger and that he had promised his mother he would bring the man responsible to justice.

She then takes him to a pub to warm him up with a glass of brandy, where the other patrons notice the handcuffs around his wrist, but moments after they leave Joe arrives to make a phone call and is told that they have just left. As the lodger attempts to climb over a wall his cuffs get caught on the railings, and moments later he is surrounded by an angry crowd, convinced that he is the Avenger. Joe and Daisy arrive at the last moment and rescue him from the mob, during which a headline from the Evening Standard reveals that the real Avenger has been arrested. The lodger is taken to hospital, where he is finally allowed to rest, before returning to the Buntings home and being greeted with open arms.

June Tripp and Ivor Novello

June Tripp and Ivor Novello

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog set a precedent for Hitchcock that he would continue to adhere to throughout a career that would span half a century. An innocent man accused of murder would be a central theme of pictures as diverse as Stage Fright, North by Northwest and Frenzy, while the latter would also explore the nature of a psychopath, as would Psycho. Two abandoned Hitchcock projects, No Bail for the Judge and Kaleidoscope, would also focus on ruthless killer who targets young and defenceless women.

The wrongly accused hero joining forces with a headstrong girl, eventually resulting in romance, were also features in The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent. The Lodger would remain Hitchcock’s most famous movie until the release of The Lady Vanishes eleven years later, and even now after almost ninety years, it still stands as one of his most celebrated an a pinnacle of British silent cinema.

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