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Silence is Golden

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

The Lodger, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1927. Silent Hitchcock Retrospective, Harvard Film Archive, 2020.

I have to confess that my interest in attending this event lay in the novelty of seeing an antique silent film for which a score was provided by a live pianist, just as it would have been done a century ago. In effect, you get "two for the price of one": a movie and a piano recital. In addition, being a devotee of later Hitchcock, I was intrigued to see some of his earlier and more formative work, of which The Lodger is regarded as a classic forerunner.

First of all, spare a thought for the pianist who played non-stop for a solid hour and a half - a duration way longer than any concert pianist would ever contemplate tackling. Notwithstanding the fact that the music is less strenuous or technically demanding and can be played from score, it's still some feat of stamina. And yet the excellent pianist (I confess I did not catch his name) seemed to have a "thoroughly spiffing time of things, by Jeeves!" And why wouldn't he? You get to be the voice of the movie. You add texture. You add meaning. It's a lost skill which used to bring sonic sense to an otherwise silent stream of moving photographs. It helps you contextualise the idea that cinema is really only cinema when image is combined with sound, a fact one is tempted to take for granted these days.

And such artistry is not to be scoffed at: the pianist at this particular screening is said to be an expert scholar in early film and his research into the music he plays is detailed, academic and historically accurate. Broken down, however, it is actually a far easier technical feat than it may at first appear: he seemed to play a pre-selected array of period songs and arrangements of music each composed specifically for one of a handful of tonal shifts in the film. There was the jaunty upbeat ragtime rhythms to accentuate the expositional details, the lyrical ballads to underscore romance and the minor key occasionally discordant flourishes to build drama and heighten tension. What was ingenious, however, was the way the accompliment built in dramatic intensity, rising to a grand climax at the film's third act. There was one moment when a knock at the door was well conveyed with two percussive chords and another when a shrill scream was rendered with notes in a tremolo fashion, but otherwise the music seemed to add no specific narrative embellishment other than tone and mood which is probably fair enough.

There is one very fundamental aspect which the live accompliment provides to the film and that is colour. Indeed, the 35mm restored print of the film was not actually in black and white but each frame had been dyed with basic colouring (mainly a golden glow) to render it "warmer". I would argue that this is a perceptive fallacy and it is in fact the music which adds the colouring and the warmth to the film. Without it, the golden hue would pale into virtual insignificance and attain no cohesive element at all.

The Lodger is a charming film but it's a tough watch for the uninitiated like myself. I am a philistine when it comes to classic film from the earliest period. Firstly you have to suspend disbelief in what you are watching to the point where you almost need to view it purely as an aesthetic representation rather than a realistic moving narration. This is for two reasons: one, the pacing of these old films is unnatural so even the tender and still registers as comic and clownish. Expressions are, however, held for so long as a way of trying to mitigate this problem that they come across as static and devoid of all nuance. This relates to problem number two, which is, understandably, the lack of dialogue. What you are viewing is in effect photographed mime and in the absence of speech, each actor has to hold each expression for so long and to pronounce it so explicitly that it strains all pretense towards naturalism and, arguably, defeats the intention of the art form itself. Where the still photograph created realism in the human form, sidelining painting, the early moving photograph reduced it to pantomime impressionism.

To his great credit, then, Hitchcock seemed able to overcome these technical limitations by keeping the narrative moving along at a rollicking pace. The story of The Lodger is a simple and needfully one-dimensional tale of romantic rivalry between the overtly good guy and the suspiciously dangerous one. Of course the girl is attracted to the mysterious and the dangerous, that old Byronic stereotype holding true. The Lodger, played by Ivor Novello, is also beautiful whereas the police man, played by Malcolm Keen, is plain. Hitchcock accentuated the sensuality of Novello to the point of near gratuitous eroticism - the way his primitive camera held steady on his face in agonising gradations perfectly explains why those early stars of the silent age were revered as classical demigods. In the absence of sound and nuance, physical beauty and photogenic magneticism was everything. In a sense, you might suggest that the rise of popular culture and our obsession with celebrity was rooted well in the limitations of film to articulate internal substance over external allure.

Of course the lodger is also suspected of being the Avenger, a Jack The Ripper type murderer stalking the fog ridden streets of grimy London. Here Hitchcock shows us his keen eye for later psychological horror: there are some wonderful hints at his mature hallmark style. One vertical shot of the lodger descending the stairs, his hands creepily sliding down the railings as he goes, is a wonderful early rendering of the taut claustrophobic anxiety created in Vertigo, while daring scenes of the heroine, Daisy (June Tripp) sitting in the bath, her legs in the clear water, a woman going about her domestic routine, yet similarly fragile and vulnerable, is an obvious root for the infamous shower scene in Psycho. But beyond visual Hitchcockian specifications there was something telling in the lodger's sly unspecified motivations which perfectly hinted at a darker trauma which formed the basis of so many later more compelling character studies of madness, neuroses and sexual perversity.

Apparently the ending was not one Hitchcock had in mind. He wanted it to end more inconclusively, with no denouement and with the innuendo over the lodger's motivations left more oblique. He was a young, inexperienced filmmaker and bowed to studio pressure. They would not countenance a star of Novello's calibre being considered a serial killer. It would have been a better film if he had had his way. It shows perfectly how commercial considerations have always been the bane of the auteur's instinctive artistic vision.


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