Fox Movie Channel schedule, I took the time to read up on THE LODGER (1944), starring Merle Oberon and George Sanders. Among other things, I was intrigued that it was directed by John Brahm, who later made THE LOCKET (1946) and SINGAPORE (1947); and George Sanders in the cast is always a plus for me. Happily, I already had a recording of the film, thanks to a Merle Oberon "Summer Under the Stars" day on Turner Classic Movies, so I watched it this evening.
THE LODGER is a terrifically atmospheric Victorian murder melodrama. The tone is set from the start of the opening credits, which wash onto the screen in waves -- a nice bit of foreshadowing. Fox must have used every fog machine in Hollywood, credibly creating a spooky, fogbound London. There are some tremendous shots of the silhouettes of police on horseback. This is the kind of film which could only be made in black and white; color would have made it a completely different movie.
Jack the Ripper is terrorizing London, slicing and dicing actresses in the streets of Whitechapel. During this time period, the Bontings (Sara Allgood and Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a kindly couple in tightened financial circumstances, rent a room to a strange man (Laird Cregar).
As time passes by, the Bontings gradually come to suspect their lodger could be Jack the Ripper himself -- and they fear their beautiful actress niece Kitty (Merle Oberon), who also lives with them, may be in great danger. Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders) is on the case, and it soon becomes apparent that his interest in protecting Kitty is more than professional.
There are few things I enjoy more in a movie than seeing George Sanders play an intrepid hero. Sure, he's a great villain, but he plays that type of role in so many films that when he puts his charismatic talents to use as a good guy, it's even better. Indeed, he's one of the reasons FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) is my favorite Hitchcock film.
Alas, it takes quite a while for Sanders to first appear on screen -- and his relationship with Kitty seems to take a giant leap offscreen, somewhere in between his asking her to tea and his showing up to take her to her opening -- but when he's onscreen he's great fun, whether he's pressing Kitty to spend time with him or dusting her home for fingerprints. Although...isn't it curious that he says early on that London police don't have guns, and yet he's shooting one during the action-packed conclusion?
It goes without saying that Merle Oberon is lovely; in fact, this was the film for which cinematographer Lucien Ballard invented the Obie, a spotlight which washed out Oberon's facial scarring. I thought she was quite credible as a music hall performer.
Allgood and Hardwicke are excellent as Oberon's aunt and uncle, ensuring that their roles are fleshed out and aren't simply stock characters. The supporting cast also includes Queenie Leonard, Doris Lloyd, and Aubrey Mather.
Laird Cregar is amazingly creepy; you really wonder at times why Kitty and her family don't kick him out, yet they're such believably nice people -- and he pays in advance! -- that it also makes sense that they're willing to explain away his actions.
Cregar's early death was a tragedy for films. One of his best roles was in I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941). He made many other quality films, including BLOOD AND SAND (1941), THE BLACK SWAN (1942), RINGS ON HER FINGERS (1942), THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), HELLO FRISCO, HELLO (1943), HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943), and his last film, HANGOVER SQUARE (1944).
THE LODGER runs 84 minutes. The screenplay by Barre Lyndon was based on the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes. The book was previously adapted as a silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927.
THE LODGER is available on DVD in the Fox Horror Classics collection, which also includes HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), starring Cregar and Linda Darnell, and THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942), starring James Ellison and Heather Angel. All three films were directed by John Brahm. There are plentiful extras, including commentary tracks and featurettes; I'll definitely be looking to pick this set up in the future. The commentary on THE LODGER is by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini.
As mentioned, the film will be on Fox Movie Channel this month, on May 13 and May 23, 2011. It's also been shown in the past on Turner Classic Movies.
Update: Please click here for a review of HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), starring Cregar, Sanders, and Linda Darnell.