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The Lodger (1927)

Ever since reading FictonFan’s and Silverscreening’s reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, I have been doubly curious to see the film, which is also my contribution to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness’ “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” It was the third film that Alfred Hitchcock directed, but is the one that he considered essentially his first film, the first to be recognizably Hitchcockian.

The Lodger is one of many film and stage adaptations of the novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, published in 1911 and inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Hitchcock’s film, however, appears to be set in 1927, though there is a definite gaslight and Gothic ethos. Ivor Novello, who plays the mysterious lodger, would have made a fantastic Dracula, actually.

The film opens with a silent scream.

Neil Brand, who wrote the contemporary score for the version I saw, has the orchestra scream along with the image. The scream reminded me of Hitchcock’s later close-up image of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho. The beginning of The Lodger is really excellent and demonstrates Hitchcock’s visual skill, which requires minimal inter titles to explain the action. A blonde girl (Hitchcock already demonstrating his preference for blonds) has been murdered. There is one witness, who says she saw a tall man with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. We see the police, the curious spectators, the ghoulish interest, the press, everything in a rapid fire of images (including a brief glimpse of Hitchcock). We also see a sign for a show called “Golden Curls.” The image of the sign will show up mockingly throughout the film.

The story then shifts to Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault), her husband (Arthur Chesney), their daughter Daisy (June Tripp…who has golden curls), and the boyfriend/policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Joe and Daisy flirt with a heart-shaped cookie cutter and some dough, once again demonstrating Hitchcock’s flair for visual storytelling. Into this tranquil and domestic scene comes…the Lodger! Who looks like Dracula, or at the very least his cousin.

played by Ivor Novello

Would you let this man rent a room in your house?

The lodger is definitely a strange young man, who doesn’t like pictures of women with golden curls in his room and has a habit of looking tormented by some inner turmoil. Not to mention pacing restlessly in his room, which is shown with a glass floor that shows him walking while the Buntings look up at the ceiling, the visuals of his footsteps almost making us “hear” the sound of his footsteps that the Buntings actually hear. When the lodger’s not looking creepy, he looks like Lord Byron, all sensitivity and anguish.

Hurting him would be like hurting a puppy

The tension in the film comes from Mrs. Bunting and her husband beginning to suspect that their lodger is the mysterious killer after he sneaked out at night and was gone during the time when another golden-curled woman was murdered. Their anxiety is heightened when he shows a strong interest in Daisy, who does not see anything wrong in the lodger’s behavior. Joe, on the other hand, grows increasingly jealous.

It’s quite an exciting, atmospheric film and really shows Hitchcock’s ability to create tension visually rather than via words, as well as hitting on a number of themes that he would explore later. And if you have never seen it, I would definitely recommend watching it before reading the spoilers section below.

(Spoilers) I have to admit that I knew the surprise ending before coming into the film, that the lodger is actually, incontrovertibly innocent (unlike Laird Cregar’s lodger in the 1944 film), but I was curious how it would play out. The lodger’s innocence had a rather odd affect, I thought, somewhat like the affect of Hitchcock’s later Suspicion, though far less egregious. It makes Ivor Novello’s performance both sinister and romantic, which makes him a creepy lover. At one moment, he is stalking Daisy to her job as a model and buying her the dress she was modeling (it’s obvious that he’s a well-off young man, socially far above Daisy) and another moment gazing soulfully into her eyes like a young man with bad case of puppy love. In fact, the second part of the film feels more like a romance than a mystery or thriller.

I also have to admit that my view of the characters is somewhat colored by the fact that about two-thirds of the way through the movie, my sister labeled the two romantic leads as “pretty ninnies.” This is partly because the plot is not consistent. If he’s innocent, why didn’t he go to the police? Why did he run? Why is she standing by him, even though she knows nothing about it. They do not behave rationally. But they certainly look pretty while their doing it…especially Novello.

still looking mysterious

It is interesting to note that never again would Hitchcock have a woman place such unreasoning faith in a man for no reason. In The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll initially tries to turn Robert Donat in, Eva Marie Saint “helps” Cary Grant because she’s really working for the villain, Grace Kelly is simply turned on by the fact that she believes Cary Grant is a criminal in To Catch a Thief, and in Sabateur Priscilla Lane also initially tries to turn Robert Cummings in.

Regarding the ending, however, I’ve noticed that there is a theory floating around on the internet about another possible interpretation of the end of the film, which jives with my own impressions. Perhaps he really is the killer after all! Hitchcock originally meant to have the ending be ambiguous, but when Ivor Novello was cast, he was forced to change the script so that the leading man (rather like Cary Grant in Suspicion) would be innocent. But quite a few questions go unanswered. Like who killed the lodger’s sister and why? His sister was the first victim, but she died in the middle of a ballroom when the lights are turned off. Whoever killed her had to be someone in upper class society. But her murder doesn’t fit with all the other murders that come after, which seem to be happening in the street. Which makes one wonder if the lodger really killed his sister and went on a mad spree afterwards, until he saw Daisy, who perhaps reminded him of his sister.

It’s just a theory, but it seems odd that Hitchcock would make the lodger’s mansion look so creepy and Gothic. I half expected him to greet Daisy and her parents by saying, “I am…Dracula.” And then when they embrace, we can see the sign “To Night – Golden Curls” blinking in the background. Is it meant to be portentous of what is to come? Evidently, Neil Brand, the composer, thought so because as the lodger and Daisy embrace, the music grows gradually more ominous. Hmm.

His victims, waiting for Dracula to appear

Dracula welcomes his victims

Why is the sign “To Night Golden Curls” blinking in the background? Is that meant to be ironic or prophetic?

This post is my contribution to “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” Be sure to check out the other posts, which can be found here.

 

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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.

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Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_-_L_Gish_&_Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.

The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.

The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.

This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.

It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.

Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.

birth-of-a-nation-465

The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.

That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.

In two short films  – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a NationThe Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.

At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.

And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.

Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.

The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.

It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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