Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The Lodger is about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper and has been turned into film multiple times, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. I haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s silent film or read the book, though I know that in the book the identity of the lodger is left ambiguous and in Hitchcock’s film the lodger turns out to be innocent. However, in Brahm’s 1944 film – starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon and George Sanders – there is little question that the lodger is indeed the murderer.
Ellen (Sara Allgood) and Robert Bonting (Cedric Hardwicke) are a financially strapped middle-class family obliged to let rooms to a mysterious man (Laird Cregar) who claims to be a pathologist. He needs a room in the attic to conduct his experiments, keeps irregular hours, and is out most nights. His name, he says, is Mr. Slade, which ironically is the name of the street near the Bonting’s house.
Meanwhile, there is mass panic in London. There has been a series of murders by an unknown assailant, who the papers are calling Jack the Ripper. Police are practically blanketing London and still the murders continue. Scotland Yard, lead by Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders), have noticed that all the victims have so far been women who have been on the stage at one point or other. And troublingly, the Bontings have a niece living with them who is on the stage, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon). Kitty is working her way up the ranks from cabaret to musical theater.
Mr. Slade is a soft spoken man, but he is definitely a bit odd. He expresses dislike of actresses – calling them women who are “subtle of heart,” which is a reference in Proverbs to harlots – and is besotted by his deceased, sensitive artist brother. He is polite and Kitty thinks he must be a very lonely man, but he also radiates mystery and menace (and Laird Cregar is a huge man who towers over everybody, including George Sanders, who is over six feet tall). Mr. and Mrs. Bonting (especially Mrs. Bonting) begin to suspect that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper. Mr. Bonting initially pooh-poohs his wife’s suspicions as irrationally founded without facts, but gradually begins to join her in her suspicions. In fact, Mr. Bonting is a bit of an armchair detective, absolutely fascinated by the mystery, reading the morning papers and the evening papers in an attempt to stay always current.
There is a lot of newspaper reading in The Lodger: early in the morning, in the evening, always catching the very latest news the moment it hits the streets in the kind of sensationalist immediacy found today.
It’s not exactly a mystery that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper and the plot is not particularly well-developed. What it does have and one of the reasons I like it so much, is atmosphere. There is fog everywhere on the cobblestones of London. It’s not quite like the fog described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, which is almost a living substance, thick, murky, and polluting. However, it is still all-pervasive and would give the film a cozy feeling if there wasn’t so much menace. There are the buskers singing their songs while people wait to enter the theater where Kitty Langley is performing, the warm pub where people sing and drink with the fog outside, making the inside look all the more inviting. Policemen are reassuringly positioned on every corner of every street, giving the appearance of safety and solidity. But it doesn’t do any good and somehow Jack the Ripper continues to find his victims, practically under the noses of the police.
What also makes the film stand out is Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade. He is the ultimate alienated anti-hero. He reeks of alienation, with his puppy-dog eyes that can also threaten with a fanatical light. As DVD Savant describes the film and Cregar’s performance: “Once again teamed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm’s camera cranes over shiny cobble-stoned back lots and isolates characters in dingy rooms. Cregar’s alienation and weirdness is accentuated by dramatic accent lighting on his tortured eyes.”
George Sanders seems a bit under-used as the solid Scotland Yard inspector, much taken with Kitty, and solidly groping his way towards solving the mystery and trying to protect Kitty. Still, one never objects to the presence of George Sanders in a film, even when he doesn’t have much to do.
Kitty is actually a rather unique character, though not a complex one. She has just returned from Paris, where she learned the new Parisian dances, and has brought a company of French girls back with her to London, making her way in a very calm, business-like manner, like she was running a business and not a “saucy” show. She practically makes the cancan respectable. Even her respectable aunt and uncle seem to have no qualms about her chosen profession. She’s such a sympathetic person that it doesn’t seem to click for her how odd Mr. Slade really is. Perhaps it’s because, as my sister suggested, she’s used to meeting odd people in the theater or simply because she’s so busy recognizing the loneliness in him that it doesn’t register how dangerous he is or that he is in fact threatening her.
The Lodger can currently be found on youtube.