By Tony Williams.
Although currently promoted mainly as a restoration of The Lodger (1927), a film that its director regarded as his first real film, this two-disc DVD also includes the frequently unseen Downhill, also starring Ivor Novello (1893-1951), a major matinee idol in his time well known as a musical composer, scenarist, and dialogue writer for the first in the Tarzan series – Tarzan of the Apes (1932). While The Lodger has been available for some time on 16mm (often without musical soundtrack), fair VHS copies, and DVDs of varying quality, Downhill has so far been generally not as accessible. This may be due to the fact that although Novello is the first Hitchcock “wrong man” in these two films, Downhill does not fit into convenient Hitchcock classified norms and has a 34-year-old actor playing a public schoolboy uttering such immortal lines as “Does that mean I won’t be playing for the Old Boys, Sir?” when he takes the rap for his friend’s sexual misdemeanor. However, while outclassed by The Lodger, Downhill has some very good sequences such as a scene that appears to be from the cinematic “real” world and is then shown as being part of a theatrical entertainment spectacle, as well as some outstanding German expressionist shots. Novello is also the first matinee idol Hitchcock worked with and, like Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), will inhibit the way the director really wanted to conclude the film. In the awful 1932 Maurice Elvey remake, Novello will again repeat his original role, but the Avenger turns out to be his twin brother!
Both films have been beautifully restored via 2k digital restoration with appropriately lit tinting as near as possible to the original formats. They again provide another example of Criterion’s painstaking process of presenting the best possible new version to the general public. As with other Criterion re-releases such as Straw Dogs (1971) and They Live By Night (1948), much has already been written on the significance of these two early Hitchcock films that makes any further critical remarks superfluous. After viewing the restoration, viewers can turn to written material to appreciate the insightful approaches to both these films made by so many critics.
Perhaps the most significant feature on this DVD is Hitchcock’s first radio dramatization of The Lodger in the thirty-minute July 23, 1940 pilot episode of the CBS Radio Series Suspense. This appears to be the first time the director ventured into radio after he had directed Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent (both 1940). Featuring credited contributions of two Hitchcock actors Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn, playing “Mr. Sleuth and “Robert Bunting” respectively, the dramatization begins unpromisingly with its reproduction of standard radio narrative effects such as opening heavenly chorus and musical motifs over-emphatically accompanying each dramatic moment. Had Hitchcock fallen under the corporate control of American radio similar to his dominance by David O. Selznick in the production of Rebecca? We shall see.
No other performers are credited at the end of the program, nor can I find other credits elsewhere, so the focus is on the Marshall and Gwenn characters. Contrary to expectations, “Mr. Sleuth” does not refer to a detective character such as Malcolm Keen’s Joe in the original silent film but rather to the “Avenger” figure as described by Marshall – “Think of a hound and you’ll never forget my name.” Is this an acoustic Hitchcock joke such as “giving a dog a bad name”? Following the main narrative of Mrs. Marie Belloc Lowndes’ original 1913 source novel, the focus falls upon the character of Mrs. Bunting. Stepmother to Daisy in this version, she briefly mentions economic restraints affecting her household, necessitating extra income from any lodger that also featured in the ITV Armchair Mystery Theatre July 25, 1965 production featuring Brenda Bruce as Ellen Bunting and Charles Gray as sinister lodger, Mr. Quill. As well as providing some narration, Marshall provides a neurasthenic audio counterpart to Novello’s role in the 1927 version. When Daisy arrives home after visiting her aunt and learning of The Avenger’s nocturnal activities in terms of “golden curls tonight,” she speaks lines aurally counterpointing those scenes of frightened potential victims in the earlier film version – “I’ll dye them maybe, or pin them under my hat.” Like Gray’s later Mr. Quill, Sleuth is a Bible man and quickly perceives young Daisy as the scarlet woman he will drown in his own baptism of blood.
As this short radio version proceeds, evidence soon emerges of Hitchcock’s constant desire to subvert any formulaic constraint placed upon him. When Mrs. Bunting travels on the underground to attend an inquest during which she hopes to find that her suspicions about Mr. Sleuth are unfounded, Hitchcock resorts to those sound montage techniques he has abandoned after Blackmail (1929). Like Alice White in that earlier film, Ellen struggles with her conscience and undergoes a traumatic attack of guilt in terms of possible complicity in lodging Jack the Ripper inside the family home. When Marshall speaks the narrative, “She was equally responsible for his crimes…she had given him protection,” Hitchcock repeats the lines “protection” on the soundtrack in the same way he repeats the gossip’s lines “Knife” in that celebrated stream-of-consciousness sound montage scene in Blackmail. Fearing that Daisy will be the next victim, she and Mr. Bunting search for her throughout the house until they stop before a door. At this point, “Hitchcock” (via an actor impersonating him) steps not in front of the camera but outside the radio director’s control room to stop the show and break the rules of traditional American radio in an iconoclastic, quasi-Brechtian manner. He suggests improvisation to the consternation of both Herbert Marshall and the floor manager. “Wait a minute, Mr. Hitchcock. You can’t do that.” But he does and also refuses to provide a climax in the manner he once hoped to do with The Lodger, having the title character vanish into the fog with no resolution of his identity. “Hitchcock” also anticipates his role in the opening of his later television series to poke fun at the sponsor by intruding next week’s guest star into a disrupted narrative within which she has no real place. “Are you acquainted with Loretta Young? She will play a nurse in next week’s episode.” “Hitchcock” also refuses to abide by the rules of British and Hollywood production codes as to the imminent arrest of The Lodger. “Why on earth should he be caught?” When Marshall responds “Well, he was The Avenger.” “Hitchcock” replies, “Was he?”
This conclusion is a rare instance of the director managing to break traditional narrative rules in a modernist subversive manner that relates him to a European tradition he obviously loved but had very little opportunity to embrace in as radical a manner that he does at the end of this broadcast. In the twenty-six minute recorded extract from his interview with Francois Truffaut that contains more detail than appeared in the eventual book publication, Hitchcock affirms that silent pictures “were the pure motion picture” and that the total abandonment of what he regarded as “pure cinema” was mistaken. He understands the necessity for the use of sound such as dialogue emerging from people’s mouths and location sounds. His subversion of the ending of his later radio production of The Lodger reveals not just an idiosyncratic playfulness on his part but also disregard for oppressive conventions, whether acoustic or narrative, by providing another alternative as his complement to “pure cinema,” namely, “pure radio.” This allows him the possibility of supplying that enigmatic non-closure to his film version of The Lodger that he was never allowed to do. The interview with Truffaut and the two 1963 and 1972 interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, also included, reveal a potential that never came to full realization. His irritation with Truffaut in terms of the Frenchman’s inability to follow his suggestion about the dark significance of handcuffs emerges more in this audio extract than it does in the final transcription. Hitchcock’s “What do you think, Francois?” almost parallels that famous F.R. Leavis line, “It is so, isn’t it?” But it is one unfortunately lost on a dense recipient. Truffaut is certainly not the ideal Cambridge student ready to follow a lead, let along develop a line of enquiry suggested by another Master in his own particular field. His temperament is totally different as seen in his two later disastrous Cornell Woolrich cinematic adaptations.
Additional features on The Lodger DVD include an architectural essay on The Bunting House by Steven Jacobs that, like William Rothman’s visual essay on this disc, juxtaposes images from the film with later Hitchcock visual parallels. Both are excellent additions, especially the one by the author of Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze whose first edition provided so many screen extracts from The Lodger that set us all on further explorations, even if we disagreed with the critic’s philosophical conclusions. This new tutorial is very much appreciated. Another feature is composer Neil Brand’s acoustic and visual explanation of the choices he made in writing a new music score to accompany this re-release both in his own manner in terms of “noir” musical contributions, references to Bernard Herrmann techniques, and a desire to make the film as accessible as possible as Hitchcock did in his own era by providing a contemporary rather than archaic museum piece accompaniment. His new score succeeds on all levels. Two essays by Philip Kemp, “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and “Playing for the Old Boys,” appear in the booklet that also complement the rest of the material in this magnificent reproduction. For both Hitchcock and Novello, Criterion will certainly “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).