“Uneasy Threshold”: The Lodger (1927), Trespassing and the Unhomely

I am not an academic.  I am a human being.  That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man.  It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. 

As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’  That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses.  Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.  

I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting.  Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history.  Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.

The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it. 

The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation.  What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?

As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene.  Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?

The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares.  Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.

When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.

The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix.  That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star. 

Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.

The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.”  The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters.  Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge. 

 It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.

The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic.  It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny.   Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.

The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.

Kitsch as Hitch Can: Waltzes, Missteps, and a Sense of Direction

Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Alfred Hitchcock—those were the Hollywood directors in whose films and careers I became interested in my youth, a by now but vaguely remembered period in my life during which most movie-going adolescents associated the business of making pictures with names like Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker. My folks rarely went to the cinema, least of all together; so, my image of Hollywood emerged on the small screen and its dated, black-and-white offerings. Owing to my father’s lingering doubt about the advances of tube technology, film to me had been chiefly a monochrome medium anyway; and as much as it irked me at the time to be missing out on the colorful and the current, I am retrospectively grateful for this early if belated introduction to classic filmmaking—the happy by-product of a less happy family life.

Prolific, long-lived and distinctive, Hitchcock is a particularly good usher into the world of traditional cinema, to dramatic and filmic technique, even though we are rather too readily drawn—with him and by him—into the mythos of auteurism, of a director’s control of what is presumed to be his work. Why is it that we think of classic cinema as being “directed by,” whereas stage and radio drama are primarily thought of (if thought of at all) as being written? Granted, from the framing of a shot to the editing of the reels, the director of a motion picture is called upon—or in a position—to supervise and coordinate more aspects of the creative process than the director of a stage play or radio production. Still, filmmaking is much more collaborative than we tend to recognize.

Quite a few pictures directed by Alfred Hitchcock are hardly what we think of as Hitchcock, for which reason we conveniently overlook or dismiss them, just as Hitch tended to brush them aside to preserve his auteur image. One of those non-Hitch Hitches is the 1934 confection Waltzes from Vienna, shot during a period when the director was not yet in a position to choose his projects. Irreverent as I am, I screened it last night in commemoration of the 110th anniversary of the celebrated suspense meister’s birth.

“It had no relation to my usual work,” Hitchcock told François Truffaut in an interview that served as the source for one of the most insightful books on filmmaking. I bought my first (German) copy of it when I was sixteen; my mother and I were about to visit my father, who was working at a plant in Libya at the time. Faced with the prospect of spending seven weeks in a land hostile to Western culture (those visa stamps sure looked suspicious to the immigration officials when first I traveled to the US), I decided to pack plenty of page-turners, the Truffaut volume among them. Too excited to sleep on the night before our journey, I had turned the pages of the Truffaut volume before we headed for the airport. I don’t recall ever reading a non-fictional book quite this fast and with such enthusiasm.

Still, familiar only with the director’s most iconic works, I was unable to enter the conversation, let alone contest Hitchcock’s self-assessment. It was not until 1999, the centennial of Hitchcock’s birth, that I caught up with Waltzes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; before then, the supposed misstep had been little more than a few brusque words and a couple of stills to me.

As it turns out, Waltzes, a “musical without music,” is not quite the, “cheaply” done and “very bad” movie its director made it out to be; nor is it true that it bears “no relation” to his “usual work,” unless “usual” refers strictly to genre, in which case one would have to regard as unrelated comedies and costume dramas like The Trouble With Harry and Jamaica Inn. What relates these and most of Hitchcock’s works to each other is not suspense but irony, not thrills but bathos. Waltzes—which tells of Johann Strauss Jr.’s attempt to come into his own as a composer and the intervention on his behalf of a sly benefactress who, in turn, is a threat to the son’s lover—may have been a more suitable project for Lubitsch, just as Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the kind of screwball material in which we expect Preston Sturges to excel; but it is only when Hitchcock looks more like Fritz Lang that he strikes me as The Wrong Man for the job.

In his setting of scenes, as in his staging of the battle of the sexes, Hitchcock relies on queer juxtapositions that elicit laughter even as they excite us. In the opening scenes of Waltzes, set in and around a burning building, those most at risk are entirely indifferent to danger, consumed as they are by the flames of passion.

In the climactic scene, a confrontation between young Strauss and the jealous husband of his benefactress, the crowds cheer the new composer, believing him to be having the time of his life, while the rhapsodized one is being thrashed by his ostensible rival, just as the true competitor, Strauss Sr., over at a deserted bandstand, comes to term with the fact that he has been upstaged. Whether employed to unsettle or amuse, incongruity plays a key role in Hitchcock’s storytelling.

While hardly danced as masterly or memorably as The Thirty-Nine Steps, Waltzes, too, benefits from clever and far from haphazard cinematography, as well as a strong interplay between image and sound, be it word or music. I suppose that in most cases, the collaborative effort is so successful that we ultimately give credit chiefly to the one we assume to have been at the helm of it all.

These days, though, a director seems to matter far less than an investor in pulling the strings, which are mostly wrapped around purses. Now that popular motion pictures are increasingly, if not primarily, a medium for special effects artists, one might be forgiven for turning to a misstep like Waltzes for a sense of direction, and for pursuing the auteur—a mere Hitchcock-and-bull story such a romance may be—along the meandering, mythical and nominally blue Danube.

Related writings
The (T)error of Their Ways: Conrad, Hitchcock, and the Aftermath of the London Bombings
Hang On! It’s That Girl from Number Seventeen

The (T)error of Their Ways: Conrad, Hitchcock, and the Aftermath of the London Bombings

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the image of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Thus ends Joseph Conrad’s long-in-the-works novel The Secret Agent. First published in 1920, the story had been conceived decades earlier, inspired by the terrorist bombings that took place in London during the 1880s and 1890s. In particular, it was the infamous 1894 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that served as a plot for Conrad’s narrative.

While based on events that occurred well over a century ago, the above passage could describe any suicide bomber today. Of this—Conrad’s The Secret Agent and its obvious connections to the recent acts of terror in London—I was forcefully reminded when I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller Sabotage last night. I had not seen this film in years and, being unprepared, was startled by its up-to-dateness.

Even though Hitchcock was not particularly pleased with it, Sabotage is one of his most mature earlier thrillers. It has none of the adventure or intrigue of his better known pre-Hollywood films, such as the seminal but perhaps overrated caper The Thirty-Nine Steps; nor does it have the romance and humor of his lesser efforts, such as Rich and Strange or Young and Innocent. Instead, it offers a portrait of a terrorist so stark, so dark, so nearly naturalistic that it remains startling today.

Hitchcock claims to have regretted the scene in which the innocent young boy, Stevie, the brother of the terrorist’s young wife, is blown up while unknowingly delivering a bomb as instructed by his stepfather. Compared to the inane Hollywood endings we are still expected to endure—such as the infuriatingly contrived reunion of Tom Cruise’s character with his teenage son in The War of the Worlds—Hitchcock’s Sabotage comes across as relentlessly true-to-life. According to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, characters with whom we identify are not generally blown to bits—especially not children.

The reality of our everyday, however, does not heed such conventions. The innocent are victimized without remorse, either by indiscriminate terrorists or their persecutors, as the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongfully shot as a terrorist suspect, forcefully drove home in recent weeks; his story continues to unfold as the probing into his death lays bare some of the criminal errors of anti-terrorist actions.

Hitchcock always enjoyed telling the story of The Wrong Man—innocent people unjustly pursued by the authorities the director had dreaded since childhood. During the chase that is essentially the Hitchcock experience, our sympathies are more often directed toward the hunted than the hunter, encouraging us to reexamine established roles of criminal and persecutor, to question our definition of justice.

Sabotage tells the story of flawed and guilty people—the saboteur, who risks a boy’s life to carry out his mission of destruction, and his young wife, sister of the victim, who ends up stabbing her husband in revenge, despair, or sheer confusion (this is being left ambiguous). Even the boy—whom we catch early breaking a plate and filching a bit of food—is not altogether innocent; his tardiness and negligence contribute to his death.

Killer, victims, and hapless messenger alike are sentenced to death brought on by ruthlessness and ignorance. Only a combination of knowledge and ethics, of smarts and decency, can save those caught in the web of terror that is our everyday.