Synopsis: On a foggy night in London, police are on the lookout for the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who has already claimed three victims in the seedy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Despite the heightened police presence, the killer strikes again. One woman claims to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the crime, but she did not see his face.
Later that evening, the newspaper special editions hit the streets, and people eagerly come out from their homes to buy the latest news. One of these people is Robert Bonting, a down-on-his-luck investor whose wife Ellen has decided to let out one of the rooms in the house until their fortunes recover. A man arrives in response to her advertisement: a tall, hulking doctor who calls himself Mr. Slade, who rents the room on the spot after only the most cursory look at it. He tells the Bontins that he tends to keep odd hours, and he insists on using the back door to the house to enter and exit. He also avidly relates to Ellen some Bible verses related to the dangers of wanton women, and he tells her that the worst types are women of the theater. His own brother, he relates, was ruined by such a woman. Ellen tells him that her own daughter is performing in a music hall show, and that when he meets her, she will surely change his mind about the bad sort of women who perform in the theater.
This woman is the Bonting’s niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who does make an impression on the ungainly Mr. Slade. Clearly he is torn between his attraction for Kitty and his disapproval of the shameless board-treading strumpets of the London theater. Meanwhile, Ellen is growing suspicious of Slade; he appears to trained as a surgeon, as the Ripper is believed to be; he keeps strange hours; he harbors a deep resentment toward women. A police detective finds himself attracted to Kitty, and he begins to wonder if Ellen might be on to something….
Comments: Published in 1914 by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger tells the story of the down-on-their-luck family called the Buntings, who rent a pair of rooms to a stranger who goes by the name of Sleuth. Before long, a series of grisly murders take place in their London neighborhood and the Buntings begin to suspect their own tenant is the culprit. Even though the novel’s mysterious killer is known as “The Avenger”, he is clearly modeled on Jack the Ripper, who had terrorized the city some 20 years earlier (Lowndes, in fact, was inspired by rumors in her own neighborhood of a family that might have unwittingly housed the Ripper). Brooding and suspenseful, The Lodger was a bestseller, and was adapted for the screen a number of times, first and perhaps most famously by a young Alfred Hitchcock in 1927.
Hitchcock’s silent version was a hit, and Twickenham Studios’ 1932 remake, a talkie, retained its contemporary setting. But it wasn’t until John Brahm’s 1944 version that The Lodger finally became a period piece set in Victorian London, with Jack the Ripper clearly identified as the killer.
Unlike Twickenham’s low-budget version, this one is clearly an A-picture. We have first rate production values — the film’s opening shot is a slow pan over the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London that is almost unbroken; and we have a very strong cast of well-known actors who do very well indeed with the material they’re given.
So overpowering is the presence of Laird Cregar and Merle Oberon in this film that it’s easy to forget that two other high-powered actors are to be found in The Lodger. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the somewhat scatterbrained Mr. Bonting, a man who recently lost his fortune in an unwise investment, and whose wife is renting rooms in the house in order to gather the seed money to put him back in business. Hardwicke seems to be enjoying himself playing somewhat against type as a wiggy and slightly ridiculous character, and he is the closest we come to comic relief in this decidedly humorless melodrama.
A badly-needed bit of humor comes up in the scene between Inspector John Warwick and Kitty in the “Black Room” — Scotland Yard’s museum devoted to brutal crimes. That old smoothie George Sanders plays Warwick with his usual droll irony, and he functions as a believable romantic interest for the Merle Oberon character. In the final act he acquits himself well as an action hero, leading the police in a suspenseful chase through the Whitechapel theater where the Ripper is hiding.
The final act notwithstanding, “suspense” isn’t the word that comes to mind upon viewing The Lodger. Throughout the first part of the film the audience should be wondering — just as the characters do — if there’s really any reason to suspect Slade, or if the Bontings are just jumping at shadows like the rest of London’s population. But there’s no suspense about Slade at all; we know he’s the Ripper long before anyone else does.
Slade is so profoundly unbalanced and threatening around Kitty that everyone seems to know she’s in danger except her; she is so oblivious to Slade’s wild-eyed talk about the danger of beautiful women and how their evil must be” cut out of them” that I started to think there was something wrong with her. I suppose that, in Hollywood of the 1940s, a women can’t be pure of heart unless she’s unable to tell when she’s in danger from an obsessive man. But unfortunately, beautiful women tend to attract a lot of unwelcome attention; and as a result they tend to see more rather than less of the dark side of human nature.