Tuesday, December 20, 2016

THE LODGER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Kino Lorber

Jack the Ripper is a macabre fascination for many. His legacy absolutely refuses to die; partly, because an actual identity has never been affixed to this shadowy figure responsible for a series of throat-slashing, disembowelment and other sexually-charged mutilations perpetuated on five unfortunates in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888. For over a century, historians, criminologists, amateur sleuths and filmmakers alike have been endeavoring to put a face to the moniker affixed at the bottom of a series of perversely eloquent letters received by both the London Times and Scotland Yard. Purporting to be in ‘the Ripper’s hand’ these letters, including the infamous ‘from hell’ installment (which included a freshly excised human kidney as a souvenir) are today largely regarded as part of an elaborate hoax, either perpetuated by a demented – if aspiring – fan of the real serial killer (who never acted on such impulses but did not mind taking credit for whoever’s grotesque handiwork was responsible for these crimes) or perhaps, concocted in a press room to give an identity to the nondescript fiend, only ever officially referenced as ‘The Whitechapel Murderer’ and/or ‘Leather Apron’ killer within the crime case files. Jack the Ripper may have sold a lot of copy in his time, but he thus remains an enigma.
Alas, the real problem with classifying dear ole Jack as a ‘serial killer’ is that after a relatively short-lived franchise of victims, gruesomely dispatched between Sept. and Oct. of 1888, the murders and letter-writing abruptly ceased without explanation or an arrest ever to be made. Those more up on their psychiatric profiling must acknowledge a certain incongruity between the modus operand of serial killers and this anomaly to their brethren. Real serial killers cannot stop themselves from the ‘art of murder’; their voracity and bloodlust never satisfied. For them, killing is a compulsive hobby triggered by any number of signifiers to haunt them from the peripheries of their mind. Nor did the Ripper continue his reign of terror elsewhere in Britain, France or even America after the Whitechapel murders ended. Generally speaking, serial killers do not switch from one method of murder to another. If they prefer a gun or strangulation as their effective means of inflicting death, it remains so throughout their dastardly deluge. And Jack preferred a knife; possibly a scalpel too, leading to speculations the Ripper was either a surgeon or very closely tied to the medical community in other ways, due to his uncanny knowledge of human physiology. Over the years, a theory of revenge has been put forth with even grander speculations; the Ripper avenging a wrong done to him by loose, fallen women. Alright – I’ll bite: revenge for what? Ah, now there the motive becomes murkier still, unless of course one buys into the ingenious notion of a connection between Jack and the Royal house of Queen Victoria, as put forth in the Hughes’ brothers’ masterfully told 2001 thriller, From Hell. Hmmm.
Long before this, the Ripper’s reputation was firmly cemented in popular culture after the 1913 publication of Marie Adelaide Elizabeth Rayner Lowndes’ novel, The Lodger; the page-turning tale of a recently arrived stranger who appears on the doorstep of a cultured middle-class family one foggy eve, only to take up residency in their attic under an assumed name; using the secluded rental as his base of operations to carry out a series of unspeakable crimes.  Interestingly, the killer in the book is a figment of Lowndes’ imagination, never once referenced as ‘the Ripper’, although his fictionalized crime spree unmistakably parallels the real Whitechapel atrocities, then barely twenty-five years old. Lowndes deliberately set her novel in the then present to avoid any direct comparisons. And Alfred Hitchcock, who tackled the novel for his 1926 suspense movie, had remained true to this own time. Hence, I sincerely wonder what the authoress thought of director, John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944); itself, a remake; Brahm and 2oth Century-Fox deliberately setting the action in 1888 to more directly parallel the actual Ripper’s blood-thirsty assaults. In hindsight, Brahm’s The Lodger is a rather expertly staged composite of several ambitious motives simultaneously at play; first, production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s desire to make arguably the first intelligently transcribed and rather lavishly appointed American thriller about the Ripper; second, to unravel the mystery behind the mayhem, and third, to give one of his prized and rising stars, Laird Cregar the most plum role of his entire movie career.
Zanuck also likely delighted in thumbing his nose at the ensconced Puritanism of the Production Code of Ethics that otherwise forbade him to pursue this subject matter on any level. Indeed, Brahm skirts almost all of the code’s moral objections by staging the Ripper’s ferocious butchery under the cover of night and through a heavy coat of manufactured fog – the fumes of which sent actors scrambling for the exit in between takes to gasp and take in some fresh air. With all due respect to historian, Gregory Mank (whose reputation and work I greatly admire…he really can do no wrong) I do not subscribe to his sentiments on The Lodger as the greatest horror movie made in the 1940s, instead, preferring to ascribe the honor to any one of three psychological horror masterpieces made at RKO by the Sultan of Shudders – Val Lewton: beginning with 1942’s Cat People and ending with I Walked with A Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both made and released in 1943). But The Lodger has genuine star power in Laird Cregar, fast established at Fox as a superb villain, and, indeed, in this movie he delves deeply into the Ripper’s psychosis – inwardly and outwardly expressed by Cregar’s wounded, drooping eyes, caught with a desperately ill, far-away look of homoerotic tension as he professes an unhealthy ‘love’ for his own younger and more handsome brother, deceased and yet very much ‘with’ Cregar’s mystery man, self-christened as Mr. Slade (the name borrowed from a signpost not far from the upper middle-class neighborhood where the Bonting family will shortly come to know death on their own terms and under their roof.   
The Lodger is a fabulously appointed B&W period costume melodrama, fleshed out by some great supporting performances from Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), Sarah Allgood (as his wife, Ellen), Merle Oberon (top-billed as rising music hall performer, Kitty Langley – with a singing voice dubbed by Lorraine Elliott) and George Sanders (playing virtuous against type as Inspector John Warwick). From top to bottom, this Lodger is a quality affair; Zanuck investing considerably in James Basevi and John Ewing’s superb production design, lensed with an air of unsettling German expressionism by cameraman extraordinaire, Lucien Ballard. Add to this René Hubert’s exquisite costuming and Hugo Friedhofer’s sparse underscore, and you have the makings of a memorable bone-chiller. Except The Lodger somehow never quite attains its exalted place in the top-tiered recesses of our collective consciousness as anything more or better than par for the course of what was possible under the studio system then, afforded the proper cast, crew and budget to make it all come together as it should. As a disturbing thriller set in period evocations of merry ole London, I actually prefer MGM’s remake of Gaslight (made and released the same year) or The Picture of Dorian Gray (debuting one year later) to The Lodger; not entirely for their visual style but moreover for the subtly taut scenarios presented. Barré Lyndon’s screenplay for The Lodger has its own issues, not the least, grappling with the Production Code preventing more graphic accounts of the Ripper’s crime spree.
Actually, apart from director Brahn’s expertly staged opener, depicting a blood-curdling assault on a drunken busker, Katie (Helena Pickard), the rest of the Ripper’s victims are left the exclusive domain of the imagination; fueled by mounting speculations in the Bonting’s front parlor, perpetuated by the strange behaviors of their lodger, Mr. Slade – who comes and goes at all hours of the night. A word about this initial sequence: it was intended to take place after Kitty’s music hall debut and actually features the same actress we meet in those scenes later on, playing an entirely different character – a washed up actress named Annie Rowley. Due to imposed restrictions, the Ripper’s intended victims were switched from prostitutes to actresses (a fine line of distinction). But even more fascinating is Zanuck’s eleventh hour decision to recut the movie so Annie’s murder opens the picture; necessitating a redubbing of a line of dialogue at the start in which Pickard’s character is instead referred to as ‘Katie’ – not ‘Annie’. Shot in half shadow, from a high angle and under a dense curtain of fog, Zanuck likely assumed no one in the audience would notice if the first victim and the one we later encounter shortly before her own demise are one in the same. And in this regard he was absolutely vindicated. Not a single critic or critical eye in the audience spotted the doubling up of this performance. Because of air-raid restrictions, virtually all of The Lodger’s night scenes were shot during the day – the entire outdoor set tarped to achieve the desired moonless and fog-laden murky effect.
The Lodger opens with Katie’s murder. As the discovery of her mutilated corpse insights a gathering of gawkers come to marvel at the fiend’s handiwork, we settle in on a mysterious figure swiftly parading through the fog with medical bag in hand. The audience, if not the residents of Whitechapel, have seen their first glimpse of Jack the Ripper – a.k.a. Mr. Slade, appearing on the Bonting’s doorstep in reply to their advertised room for rent. Robert Bonting is a one-time aristocrat brought to financial ruin by several mismanaged business decisions. His wife, Ellen is doting and patient, suggesting to Mr. Slade he must not take Robert’s austerity too seriously. Robert has suffered a nervous breakdown and is apt – unintentionally, of course – to be short with strangers. Mr. Slade is shown to rooms on the second floor but prefers the isolated solitude of their attic to the suite once occupied by a now deceased aunt.  He will rent both rooms as it suits him for twice the going rate Ellen was hoping to get. Ellen explains to Mr. Slade that if she can amass the moneys her husband lost through misfortune via the rent, then she will have a handsome present to give Robert for his pending birthday. She also introduces Slade to the housemaid, Daisy (Queenie Leonard) and their niece, Kitty Langely – something of a congenial woman in private but an audacious flirt on the stage, mimicking a Parisian accent as she performs can-can styled revues that quickly make her the toast of London’s west end.
Mr. Slade remains rather aloof and cryptic about his profession. In the meantime, Kitty meets Annie Rowley at the music hall in between performances. The one-time aspiring star never made it past a few performances beyond the footlights. But she has a few words of advice for Kitty; rather cruel in her superstitions and darting off into the night before Kitty’s big night. Only a few hours later, at the wrap party, Kitty is informed by Inspector John Warwick and Superintendent Sutherland (Aubrey Mathers) of Annie’s grisly murder – the latest of the Ripper’s victims. Kitty offers what evidence she can to aid in Warwick’s investigation, although at present he seems far more interested in her legs than her mind. The two begin a social courting ritual, much to Ellen and Robert’s approval. But now, Ellen begins to suspect Mr. Slade might be the man the police are after. She heard him leave the house at midnight and return in the wee hours of the morning. Only the other night, she discovered the remains of his medical bag burnt in their downstairs stove; Robert suggesting the police are on a witch hunt for any man who possesses such a kit as early descriptions from various witnesses have described such a bag in the Ripper’s possession. Indeed, on the night in question, an old frump was slaughtered in her rundown flat only moments after lending her prized concertina to Wiggy, the barfly (Anita Sharp-Bolster). Ellen has even begun to doubt Mr. Slade as a legitimate doctor working at the nearby hospital; a claim Kitty cannot resist to confirm by tailing Mr. Slade to the hospital’s clinic the next afternoon – discovered in her deception, but neither offending Slade nor inciting his rage over her curiosity. Instead, he apologizes for his suspicions about her profession. In reply, she offers him free tickets to her next performance, believing it will ease both their cynical minds.
Alas, in attending the theater, Slade’s Jekyll and Hyde vindictiveness is triggered. He stalks Kitty and sneaks into her dressing room after the performance, threatening her with bodily harm, determined to separate the perceived wickedness from this beautiful creature who now realizes she is in grave danger. Slade is Jack the Ripper! She screams. He flees and the chase is on. Warwick and Sutherland seal the area with a small army of bobbies; Slade wounded in the neck by one of Warwick’s stray bullets before being cornered atop a narrow precipice overlooking the Thames. Wild-eyed and with knife drawn, Slade prepares to meet his end; shot once more – this time in the chest, and hurtling from an upstairs window, presumably to his death in the icy waters far below. Ellen offers a brief benediction; a queer if penultimate arousal of empathy for the Ripper as the camera holds tight on the waters below and the brief appearance of something floating face down. Could it be? Did Jack the Ripper survive?
The Lodger was such a huge hit for Fox, Zanuck immediately ushered in a sequel of sorts; Hangover Square (made and released the following year). Alas, it would be the final jewel in Laird Cregar’s crown. Towering well over six feet and tipping the scales at 300 lbs. Cregar was a formidable presence on the screen, yet by all accounts, a real pussycat and bon vivant with his costars whom he adored and was beloved by in return. The hefty Philadelphian, born Samuel Laird Cregar, was bitten by the acting bug early on, and, in his teens was performing at California’s Pasadena Playhouse. Chronically concerned his weight would limit his appeal, Cregar was encouraged by mentor, Thomas Browne not to lose an ounce of it, but rather develop a ‘thin man’s personality’ to compensate. And thus, Cregar emerged, first in bit parts, as the screen’s most enigmatic terror with brashness lighter than air. Toggling between stage and screen work, Cregar carved a niche for himself at Fox as one of their top ‘heavies.’  Dissatisfied with being typecast as the villain, Cregar was looking forward to his role as Javert in Fox’s remake of Les Misérables; a project repeatedly postponed while Zanuck pressed ahead with Hangover Square; Cregar again hired to play the haunted brute: pianist, George Bone.
Determined to change his prospects and image, Cregar went on a crash diet, taking prescribed amphetamines to trim his waistline. Alas, they also put a severe strain on his system, resulting in abdominal ulcers necessitating immediate surgery. While under the knife he suffered a massive heart attack and as a result, was hospitalized, dying several days later. He was only thirty-one. Since his time, The Lodger has been remade twice more, first in 1953 as The Man in the Attic, starring Jack Palance; then again in 2009 as The Lodger again, this time directed by David Ondaatje. Both versions are staged in a contemporary setting – cheaper and less likely to confuse with the already convoluted rumors, legends and stereotypes perpetuated about Jack the Ripper.  John Brahm’s reputation is not well-known today; considered – if, at all – as just another workaday director in the studio system gristmill. But he brings a real moody finesse to The Lodger; an overriding dread, perfectly complimented by Cregar’s central performance. Brahm takes Basevi and Ewing’s art direction, utilizes pre-existing and redecorated sets on the Fox back lot and maneuvers his camera throughout the action into penetratingly dense fog banks with a genius for maximizing the cinema space. What he does here goes well beyond mere ‘coverage’ or simply ‘showing off’ the gargantuan sets to their best advantage; though, this is a byproduct of his invisible style. But Brahm is more interested in using sets to reveal something deeper about the Ripper’s psyche; an innocuous spiral staircase backstage at Whitechapel’s Palace Theater, as example, back-lit as the vaporous tendrils of a spider’s web, revealing the complex circles in Slade’s demented mind, but also foreshadowing his unsuspecting ruination and capture.
The Lodger arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and although being advertised as ‘restored’ this 1080p transfer leaves much to be desired. We should point out that, owing to improperly stored elements, previous home video incarnations of The Lodger have looked poor to downright abysmal, with streaking and mottling throughout; compounded by a barrage of age-related dirt and scratches. A lot of these anomalies have been corrected and/or tempered, marking a vast improvement herein in hi-def. What continues to lack here is overall image clarity. I suspect, though do not exactly know, whether or not a lot of The Lodger did not survive in original camera negatives (OCN) and what is here is gleaned from second – or possibly – even third generation dupes with an obvious loss in overall sharpness and image refinement. There are moments scattered throughout The Lodger where fine detail is so blurry, soft and out of focus, whole portions of the screen are reduced to impressionistic blobs of starkly contrasted B&W. Contrast is another issue; occasionally bang on, but more often than not, boosted – and on several occasions – to distracting levels; whites blooming, blacks registering tonal gray at best. Inconsistent is the way I would sincerely classify this transfer. Disappointing, too – especially given the stature of the movie.
The audio is DTS 2.0 mono. Mostly, it sounds right, but lapses into moments of stridency. Extras are all ported over from Fox’s previous DVD release and include a ‘making of’ featurette in which a slew of historians weigh in with sound bites on their opinions and fun factoid info. We also get a stills montage set to music and two separate audio commentaries; one from Gregory Mank, the other cohosted by Alain Silver and James Ursini. Mank’s is the better of the two, although I sincerely enjoyed what all three historians had to say about this movie’s backstory and afterlife. Finally, we get a Lux Radio broadcast of The Lodger, starring Vincent Price and Cathy Lewis, the 2007 restoration comparison featurette and trailers for this and other movies in Kino Lorber’s canon. Bottom line: The Lodger is a seminal work in Fox’s deep catalog. Again, it is given short shrift on home video. Although I am not entirely certain how much more can be done with less than stellar elements several generations removed from the OCN, I suspect more could have – and should have – been attempted to ready this title for Blu-ray. Disconcerting of Fox to take the low road yet again, though hardly surprising given their track record. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


No comments: