Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Lodger (1944)

It probably has to do with his name but Jack the Ripper has always intrigued me. Yes, the name is catchy. The killer actually signed one of his letters to the police as Jack the Ripper. The Ripper was obviously proud of his handiwork which made a bloody mess of his victims. Jack the Ripper was never caught nor was a suspect ever identified which makes his mystique all the more long lasting. My first encounter with Jack the Ripper was through a scary fictional short story by Robert Bloch (the author of PSYCHO) called Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.

Although he may not be as popular as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the annals of film, Jack the Ripper has appeared in many movies.  In TIME AFTER TIME (1979), novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) chases Jack the Ripper (David Warner) via Wells' time machine from Victorian England to modern day San Francisco. More recently, FROM HELL (2001), based on the popular graphic novel written by Alan Moore starred Johnny Depp as an opium addicted detective tracking Jack the Ripper in 1888, a trail that leads him to the royal family.

THE LODGER (1944) based on Marie Belloc Lowndes novel has Jack the Ripper as a character. It is not the first film version of her novel. Alfred Hitchcock first filmed THE LODGER in 1927, one of his first films and his only silent film. In Hitchcock's THE LODGER, the killer is known as the Avenger.  In the 1944 version, directed by John Brahm and written by Barre Lyndon (who would write another version of THE LODGER titled THE MAN IN THE ATTIC starring Jack Palance in 1953), the killer is referred to mostly as the Ripper. In my vision of Jack the Ripper, he walks the fog shrouded streets of London in a black cloak and top hat, his knife held tightly against his side. THE LODGER upholds that image somewhat, sometimes for better, sometimes not.

THE LODGER is about a lodger, a person who rents out a room in another person's house. Only in this case, the lodger may or may not be Jack the Ripper. The film opens on a foggy night in 1888 in Whitechapel, a district in the poorer part of London. Another Ripper murder occurs (offscreen). A local actress has been savagely murdered. The police quickly converge on the murder scene by foot and horseback but the killer has vanished. Later that night, in an upper class part of London, a tall heavy set man named Slade (Laird Cregar) carrying a doctor's bag, rents a spare room from Robert Bonting (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his wife Ellen (Sara Allgood).  Slade is a bit odd, soft spoken for such a big man with a piercing stare. He says he's a pathologist. He works odd hours, often at night. He comes and goes through the back door. He loathes the portraits of Victorian actresses in his room and flips the frames over. Could Slade be ...? But, he pays his rent in advance, winning over Mrs. Bonting.

Also living with the Bonting's is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), a famous singer/dancer who performs to big crowds at the Piccadilly Square Theater. Kitty is introduced to the eccentric lodger Mr. Slade. Slade seems to have a disdain for actresses and singers. Kitty invites him to come to one of her performances. When another actress Annie Rowley (Helena Pickard) is murdered, witnesses tell the police the killer carried a small black bag.  Mrs. Bonting catches Slade burning his medical bag the following morning and becomes suspicious.  Leading the Ripper investigation is Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders). Warwick pays a visit to Kitty who knew the victim Annie. Warwick sees a pattern in the Ripper's murders and warns Kitty to be careful. Mrs. Bonting begins to suspect Slade may be the Ripper but Mr. Bonting scoffs at the notion.

Kitty follows Slade one day to see where the eccentric lodger goes. She discovers Slade does work at a university medical office.  A few days later, after yet another Ripper murder, Kitty catches Slade burning some clothes that seem to be stained with blood. He says the blood was from an experiment at his laboratory. Kitty has her suspicions now. When Inspector Warwick pays Kitty another visit and meets Slade, Warwick tells Slade his theories on the Jack the Ripper killings. Slade nervously listens before excusing himself. Now Warwick suspects Slade but he needs proof.

Warwick and Bonting attempt to match Slade's fingerprints from a water glass with fingerprints found at the crime scenes but the prints are inconclusive. It's the night of Kitty's big show.  Slade sneaks out of the house and arrives at the theater to watch Kitty perform, his murderous impulses building in him as Kitty sings and dances to a packed house. Warwick has the police staked out throughout the theater but Slade manages to slip into Kitty's dressing room. This time, Slade wants to take Kitty away with him but Kitty's screams alert Warwick and the police. A chase ensures throughout the theater as Warwick and the police try to capture Slade/the Ripper before he can kill again.

I would have liked to have seen more of the Ripper stalking the streets, hiding in the shadows, his dark shape silhouetted by the fog and gas lamps but director Brahm seemed deadset on barely showing the Ripper when it's obvious that Slade is the Ripper.  Only at the end of the film does Slade/the Ripper actually pull out a knife. But where the film skimps on the physical presence of the Ripper on the streets of London, THE LODGER makes up for it with a chilling psychological profile of Slade.  His hatred for theater actresses stems from the death of his brother, an artist who killed himself over an actress. Slade tells Kitty it was the "beauty of women that led him to his destruction." Slade sees actresses as seducers of men. "Lovely women drive men down," he tells Kitty. His devotion to his dead brother (he carries a small portrait of his dead brother) and the vengeance he seeks against the type of women who destroyed his brother is creepy.

Slade also talks about his love of the river, how he finds it soothing. The water allows Slade to cleanse his hands of blood, to wash his sins from himself. Ironically, when Slade/the Ripper is cornered by Warwick and the police in the film's finale, Slade jumps through a window into the Thames River where he supposedly dies.  But in the final frames, as Slade's body floats by, it appears as though his leg kicks out in the water. Perhaps the water has resurrected the Ripper.

There is also a sexual tone to the Ripper's killings. The murders seem to be a sexual climax for Slade. Inspector Warwick notes that the killings are cyclical - every 10 to 12 days. That's the amount of time it takes for Slade/Ripper to become aroused for his next slaying. Whereas Slade has hatred for most of the actresses he encounters, his glare seem lustful toward Kitty.  She's different. She's nice to him. When he corners her after her performance, he wants to take her with him, not kill her like his previous victims.

One of appealing aspects of THE LODGER are its three leading actors.  Merle Oberon (who I had never seen in a film before) is stunning as Kitty.  With her beautiful, porcelain face, Oberon looks like she could play Marie Antoinette or Catherine the Great. Her Kitty is a strong character. At one point in THE LODGER, she becomes the detective, following Slade to his university medical pathology lab, trying to learn more about this mysterious behemoth.  She's cool under pressure, even when he surprises her in her dressing room. Oberon also gets to show off her musical talents, performing in two musical numbers.

I've become a huge George Sanders fan since starting this blog and this is my third film I've reviewed that he's in. Sanders plays Inspector Warwick in THE LODGER. Sanders seemed to play either cads in films like REBECCA (1940) or THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947) or charming heroes in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) or THE SAINT STRIKES BACK (1939).  Even as a man of the law, Warwick has no problem trying to woo Kitty who he is sworn to protect.  In today's world, that would be considered sexual harassment. In 1944, it was romantic.  Kitty and Warwick have a great scene where he invites her to the Scotland Yard Black Museum for a date and some questions about the lodger. Warwick flirts with her as she asks about murder weapons and nooses that killed numerous famous London killers. It's a nice bit of levity in this gripping tale.

The real revelation of THE LODGER is Laird Cregar as Slade/the Ripper.  Like Oberon, I had never seen Cregar before but his portrayal of the famous killer is haunting. He brings a pathos to his role with his soft voice but hulking exterior. The audience sympathizes with him for the loss of his brother. At times, Slade is charming and almost like an overgrown child. But director Brahm along with cinematographer Lucien Ballard (who would shoot many of Sam Peckinpah's films) know how to make Slade menacing too. Slade is often photographed from a low angle to make him look large and menacing. Ballard uses low key lights to highlight Slade's deathly stare. The deranged look that Slade/the Ripper gives the police when they have him trapped and cornered like an animal in the theater's rafters is unforgettable.

There would be pathos in actor Laird Cregar's life.  An up and coming actor who could play comedy or drama in films like HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), Cregar would act in director John Brahm's next film HANGOVER SQUARE (1944), also starring George Sanders.  But to play the role, Cregar would go on a drastic diet without medical supervision to try to slim down his husky frame. He died of a heart attack shortly after HANGOVER SQUARE was completed. Cregar was only thirty one years old. Cregar's performance in THE LODGER hints at great possibilities that will never be.

The real Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes. Because of Moral Film Codes at the time, the Ripper's victims couldn't be prostitutes so the filmmakers chose stage actresses instead. Besides this trade off and the lack of suspense when the Ripper does carry out his bloody deeds, director Brahm and cameraman Ballard make THE LODGER very atmospheric and moody with foggy cobblestone sets, nice use of shadows and light both indoors and outdoors, and some wonderful low and high angle shots not usually seen in films of the 1940's. Director Brahms had a nice film career as a director and would move on to a longer career directing television series like TWILIGHT ZONE, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, and toward the end of his career THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

THE LODGER is a worthy effort to the Jack the Ripper genre.  Thanks to a fantastically sinister portrayal of the murderous fiend by Laird Creger and some fine direction, lighting, and camerawork by the team of Brahm and Ballard, THE LODGER is a nice modern compliment to Hitchcock's first take on the Jack the Ripper character in his 1927 LODGER version.  I have not viewed the earlier version yet but plan on watching it some time in the future. The modern world has seen many serial killers in the last half century (Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer, the Boston Strangler) but the first serial killer that caught the media's attention and later the world was Jack the Ripper.

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