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SINGLE WHITE MALE:  WE TAKE IN SOME 'LODGER'S

(NB:  Our original plan was for Zack Handlen of The Duck Speaks to participate fully in this chapter of TWTTIN. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his control, Zack was forced to withdraw from the project. However, I have included in this discussion the observations he submitted prior to that time.)

The background: 

The unsolved 1888 Whitechapel murders by the killer dubbed Jack the Ripper are the stuff of legend. A quarter of a century later, a writer named Marie Belloc Lowndes published a novel called 'The Lodger', an expansion of her own short story published two years earlier.

The novel opens with a middle-aged couple, the Buntings, facing destitution. Formally a butler and a maid, the Buntings took the decision some time earlier to leave domestic service and to strike out on their own by keeping lodgings; but their venture has not been a success. Now, having already suffered the humiliation of having to pawn their furniture and their other possessions, they face the very real possibility of starvation. Mr Bunting cannot even afford a penny to buy a newspaper, in order to follow the investigation into the recent shocking series of murders of women committed by a man who calls himself "the Avenger".

Then a seeming miracle happens: a man turns up on the Buntings' doorsteps looking for lodgings; he tells Mrs Bunting that his name is Mr Sleuth. He shows interest not in the main, well-furnished rooms, but the two plainer ones, the attraction being the presence of a gas stove and a sink. Mr Sleuth explains that he is a man of science, and these will help him in the carrying out of certain experiments. To Mrs Bunting's utter relief, he takes all four rooms and pays for them a month in advance, relieving the Buntings' immediate financial needs.

In time Mr Sleuth reveals himself as rather an eccentric. He demands the removal from his drawing-room of the pictures of women that Mrs Bunting had framed and hung as decoration, and often Mrs Bunting hears him reading aloud from the Bible those passages most derogatory of the female sex. But his wants are simple, his habits quiet; and above all else he is, Mrs Bunting assures herself, a gentleman.

But with the passing weeks Mrs Bunting notices something else about her lodger: his habit of slipping silently from the house at night; nights that just happen to coincide with the murders committed by "the Avenger"....

The novel: 

LK:  The genesis of Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel was clearly the stories - urban myths? - that came to light following the Jack the Ripper murders, either from landlords certain the Ripper had taken lodgings in their house, or from fellow boarders who were equally convinced that a fellow lodger was the man. Most of these stories fell apart upon closer inspection, but a few were seriously investigated.

So, comments?

ZH:  It's like five pages of plot stretched out to an interminable 306. I like character studies, I like suspense building, but sweet Jeebus that was dull.

LK:  It's certainly more interesting in theory than it is in execution! I mean, I don't think anyone was expecting great literature, but I was hoping at least for a little lurid entertainment. You really do have to stretch to see how contemporary audiences received this book, and why it was such a success. Because it was the first? Because the people reading had lived through Jack the Ripper, and the premise alone was enough?

ZH:  Going into the book, I knew a little about the Hitchcock film, so I spent about two hundred and fifty pages thinking that the lodger would turn out to be innocent. Looking back know makes the novel even clumsier, as everything I took to be intentional ambiguity was simply the writer going for the most obvious conclusion. Standards of the era, the evolution of the thriller, and authorial intent make it difficult to judge how well The Lodger succeeds as a book of its time, but its creaky plotting makes it little more than a historical curiosity these days.

I mean, I can't remember the last thing I read that went to such lengths to deflate its own premise. Not only is the lodger's identity fairly obvious from the get-go (unless you're operating under a misconception, like I was), but the main characters are never in any danger from him until the last ten pages--and that danger is in a public place. You would expect the climax to happen in the landlady's home (hell, that's where everything else happens), but instead it's a museum, with armed policemen wandering around nearby.

LK:  I guess my main difficulty with the novel is deciding whether or not we're supposed to take it at face-value....because if you do, it is absolutely horrifying! For mine the most successful part of the novel is the opening section that delineates the Buntings' struggles with their poverty. To me that's a very effective evocation of life in a society with no welfare system as we might take for granted; if they had no money they had no money and there was nowhere to get any. You have the real threat of loss of everything, of starvation; but also the indignity of it, the literal need to watch every penny. So on one hand you have that profound understanding of what the Lodger's coming really means to these people. So far so good.

BUT---- That's lost as the novel goes on. You still get remarks about what the Lodger's money means, but you don't feel any more that that is Mrs Bunting's main motivation. It possibly would have been better if it had been; if there was a real bitter struggle between Mrs Bunting's desire to do the right thing, and her awareness of what a return to poverty would mean. As it is Mrs Bunting never really confronts the fact that she is allowing brutal, repeated murder to go on, in exchange for financial security. Even when we get to the point where Mrs Bunting might be forced to deal with the reality of the situation, by attending the inquest, we get the old "ladies mustn't hear the medical evidence" bit.
 
Instead we have this disturbing situation where if a gentleman does it, it must be okay. My problem is that there doesn't seem to be any criticism intended. If I had any feeling that this was an examination of the class system, of the almost-brainwashing that went on to make "a good domestic", that could have worked brilliantly - but I get no sense of that at all. It's just - well, most ladies and gentleman are wonderful, and if one goes haywire every now and then, that's not too high a price to pay for all the good stuff.

CD:  I also picked up that Ellen practically warns the lodger about the increased police presence on the streets, almost as if she had deliberately chosen financial survival over her obligation to report her suspicions. 

LK:  We can read that as her trying to hang on to her financial security - at whatever human cost - but I wonder if it isn't even darker than that? At the end of the novel, when they're at Madame Tussaud's, the lodger sees the Police Commissioner there and thinks Mrs Bunting has given him away - and accuses her to her face of betraying him. So, one, he knows she knows; and two, he considers it a part of her duty towards him to go on covering for him. How's that for a beautiful summation of the master-servant relationship?

ZH:  Yeah, the movie versions don't tend to trumpet, "a shocking expose of the servant class not questioning their social betters! Thrill as a middle-aged woman doesn't do anything because of class mores!"

And aside from that, there's the curious sympathy towards the Avenger's actions. The characters are horror-struck by the murders, but once the landlady begins to suspect what's happening, she spends page after page thinking how maybe the killings aren't really such a bad thing after all. Which, as you said earlier, Lyz, isn't a bad exploration of the serving class mindset to gentility, but it's difficult to separate the character from the author after a while. The killings just seem like a sort of lark, and the landlady even goes so far as to blame the women themselves--as if The Avenger is just a nice boy driven to cutting people up by the decadence around him. And the final reveal is bizarre; the lodger wigs out at the landlady, and there's a moment when you think something might actually, y'know, happen, only for him to make a clean get-away, and the family is never bothered by him again. The hell?

CD:  I think you're right.  It's just so easy to fall into the ex-English major's trap of assuming that a writer who belongs to a disenfranchised group would automatically have progressive views on matters of gender and class.  Maybe Lowndes didn't intend to say that the Avenger's victims deserved it - although it certainly can come across that way! - but that the Avenger might have been a productive member of the ruling class, had he not been corrupted by his own (perfectly understandable) revulsion at society's sexual corruption. (As an aside, I have to mention that I'm reminded of Peter Barnes' The Ruling Class, where instead we have the British upper class embracing someone who believes he is Jack the Ripper and never realising that he's insane).

Anyway, I'm still inclined to give Lowndes at least a little credit for self-awareness.  There's an interesting parallel between the Buntings' desperation and the circumstances that surround the East End "ladies of the street" which stood out for me although the poverty angle is rather quickly forgotten about.

LK:  Sometimes disenfranchisement induces over-identification with the class/group a person aspires to and hence reactionary views: if someone really, really wants in - or up - they become even more hard line. Although I'm not sure "They were asking for it" is a view confined to any particular era or class or gender. Here at least you get a sense that she chooses to think that because the alternative is being critical of a gentleman.

There's just one moment there, when out of the blue the narrator says something like, well, women aren't "real" citizens, so why should they feel any sense of civic duty? - and it suddenly seems like she's going to really say something - about the marginalisation of women in that society, and that perhaps they would identify with other social outsiders - and then it's altogether gone.

And of course, the punchline of the novel is that the Buntings go back into domestic service! So in fact, I do find The Lodger pretty terrifying.

ZH:  I wonder how much the author's attitude towards the "Avenger" reflects the time period? These days, the Ripper is basically a mythical bad-guy; it's sort of fascinating to read a story where he's almost treated as a necessary evil. (ie, at least somebody's cleaning up the streets, eh?)

LK:  But from the point of view of film adaptation....three hundred pages of what's going on in a landlady's head? And it does so little with what it does give us. Daisy's in the house, but it's clear she's in no real danger, because - to coin a phrase - she's not that kind of girl. And Joe the cop never even sees the lodger.

ZH:  And it's frustratingly repetitive, too; once the landlady catches on, it's just scene after scene of her being nervous, dreading more news, being irritable to her family, rinse and repeat.

LK:  Maybe the Russians or the Scandinavians might have been able to make something cinematic out of that....but you can certainly understand why all the film-makers who did adapt the novel simply lifted the premise and did their own thing with it....

The movies:

For the purposes of this discussion, the four different film adaptations of The Lodger under discussion will be abbreviated as follows:

- The Lodger (1927)
- directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ivor Novello - IN1
- The Lodger (1932)
- aka The Phantom Fiend - directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Ivor Novello - IN2
- The Lodger (1944)
- directed by John Brahm and starring Laird Cregar - LC
- Man In The Attic (1953)
- directed by Hugo Fregonese and starring Jack Palance - JP


LK:  Perhaps we need to start this conversation with the great unanswerable question about Jack the Ripper, namely, did he get away with it because he was a loner and no-one figured out what he was doing; or did he get away with it because he was the Ted Bundy of his day?

CD:  I really do wish I could consult my high school self, since I've forgotten much of what I once learned about Ripper lore.  I guess we can agree that there were two main interpretations of the Ripper that have been nurtured by culture. The vision of the obviously disturbed loner without a doubt belongs to Lowndes and all the film versions; the "Ted Bundy" interpretation seems to have become overwhelmingly the preferred one over the past few decades. I suppose that idea was very attractive once the Victorian era became widely seen (with plenty of justification!) as a period of moral hypocrisy and unchecked social Darwinism.

LK:  Reaching its ne plus ultra point with the "Murder By Decree"-esque royal family theory.

But of course, even at the time it tied in with the view of a lot of the more radical - and not so radical - newspapers. We put different labels on it today but the theory is as old as the murders.

CD:  As for the REAL Jack the Ripper...if I remember correctly, there's a good case to be made that he was an educated person with medical expertise, given the grisly modus operandi. With all the bizarre ideas about criminology and psychology that were going around in the late nineteenth century, it would probably be really easy for someone who didn't set off any alarms with his outward behaviors, especially if he fit the profile of the "city gentleman", to get away with murder as long as he wasn't sloppy or killed anyone "important" (shades of Elizabeth Bathory).

LK:  Okay, so the films: they fall very neatly into sets of pairs. The two INs are both set contemporary to the time of their production, and both have their Lodger turning out to be innocent; LC and JP are both period pieces, and both have their Lodger turning out to be guilty.

JP is a reasonably straightforward re-make of LC, and re-adapts the same screenplay (Barré Lyndon gets a writing credit). The main difference is the motive assigned for the murders. The victims are still "actresses" - and we'll talk a lot more about that point - but here it's a lot more conventional, in the sense of a killer with mother issues. The Lodger's mother was an actress who broke his father's heart and then ran out on him. She ended up "on the streets", while the father spent ten years drinking himself to death in front of his son.

So, the first two versions have the Lodger turning out to be innocent: the tension, apart from the basic issue of guilt/innocence, is that the daughter/niece of the house becomes attracted to him, and therefore may be in danger herself. The latter two version have the Lodger guilty, and so she really is in danger.

So theoretically, at least, both LC and JP are a lot closer to the novel. But both of them take some fairly substantial liberties with the story, too. Chad, you hadn't seen LC before - reaction?

CD:  That it does more than make up for watching Sheldon Lewis' mediocrum opus! Although, with the exception of a couple of very well-staged scenes, I thought the direction was somewhat placid, the film was very well-done and I'm surprised that it's not better-known. Laird Cregar's performance alone makes it a classic.

LC seems to be the film that really tries to straddle both theories on Jack the Ripper. Like Jack Palance's portrayal, it seemed that the Lodger was someone who would be seen as shy and slightly troubled, but also someone who wouldn't automatically be perceived as dangerous. Of course, then comes his misogyny, which probably wasn't meant to raise too many eyebrows in Lowndes' novel but which is meant to be a warning in LC.

For me my greatest impression was that LC at least shows a sort of "prototype" of modern perceptions of the serial killer. In fact, I was surprised at how sympathetic LC was, which contrasted so much with the "Take 'em down like a rabid dog!" attitude you see in so many of today's thrillers. I don't know if that was a legacy of the novel and the possibly screwed-up Edwardian notions that informed it, or if it genuinely did reflect a different attitude that was more willing to reflect the humanity and tragedy in a person who kills compulsively.

LK:  A lot of that. as you say, comes from the performance of Laird Cregar, who could be quite scary on film, but was also good at playing sad, wounded types. (The sympathetic tone is even more obvious in the follow-up film, Hangover Square, which I think I told you about, because there he genuinely doesn't know what's he's doing: when he finds out he's as horrified as anyone else.)

I think JP is a lesser film than LC, but there are some things about it I like very much. Jack Palance was essentially working off the Laird Cregar script, but did it in a quieter, less flamboyant way, so you can believe it would take longer for the penny to drop, or for the girl - who is called Lily here - to realise that she's in grave danger. Now, at the outset I looked at the three men playing the various Lodgers and said to myself, well, of the three, Jack Palance is the one I would least let into my home under those circumstances; but that works out quite interestingly because his Lodger is more believably overlooked, if I can put it that way.

The other thing I like about JP is the way it uses the Lily character: instead of her being the embodiment of everything that the Lodger is out to destroy, as Kitty is in LC, she is the one who almost convinces him he's wrong, that all actresses aren't like that. So you get a very interesting tension between what we know he's doing, and our glimpse of the normal man he might have been in other circumstances. Lily's interest in her Lodger is more credible than Kitty's - she just thinks she's coaxing a shy, lonely man out of his shell, teaching him "not to be broody", as she puts it (and in a sense, she's right); whereas Kitty comes across as a bit dim for not reading what are some fairly clear danger signals.

But as you said right from the start, Chad, there's a very odd use of the word "actress" all the way through these films.

CD:  None of the versions really flat-out scream, "THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT PROSTITUTES!", but I thought LC was especially coy, especially by presenting Kitty as an aspiring actress when it's obvious from the stage show that she's a cabaret dancer (not to mention giving the cabaret a MUCH more respectable audience than it would have had in real nineteenth century life).

Would an upper middle-class Victorian couple really have been all that supportive of their niece starring in a burlesque act?

LK:  The LC version seems to me very much shaped by being an escapist war-time film - if you can have an escapist entertainment about a serial killer! While both the early versions go out of their way to be as contemporary as possible, with LC you've got a very romanticised depiction of an era pre- both wars; it's completely Hollywood's "London", right down to the impossible characterisation of Kitty - and her aunt and uncle's attitude to her profession. Also, although they account for the aunt and uncle having to take in lodgers, you never get any sense of them truly being in financial difficulty.

Obviously the family should have been lower middle class and much poorer; the kind that would take in lodgers, in lieu of getting a job. But this is, after all, a high-class studio production starring Merle Oberon, so that was never going to fly - and everyone got, as it were, an upgrade. It may not even have been conscious on the part of the producers that this was thematically wrong. (And it might also be a case of American film-makers not quite understanding the British social dynamic.)

Now, possibly there are some unspoken implications here (in the early days of Hollywood, it was common practice for prostitutes who got arrested to give their profession as "actress", which contributed to the public view of Hollywood as one big vice den), but really, I don't get that. It seems to me we're supposed to take Kitty's act, and "nice" people's reaction to it, at face value.
I wonder how the story would have worked out if Kitty had been an actual serious dramatic actress? If we had a struggle between her obvious seriousness and devotion to real art, and the Lodger's conviction that all actresses are brazen hussies luring men to destruction?
 
Of course, then we wouldn't have had Ms Oberon flashing her frilly knickers at the camera.

CD:  Isn't the motive for the killings in LC different from the other films, and the book? Turning it into a "revenge by one degree of separation", rather than hatred sparked by a personal slight, is a fairly drastic change.

I wonder if part of it was to add to the sympathetic portrayal? In a weird way it demonstrates that the killer's motive is less about misogyny - or really, if we want to be technical (and give a nod to what appear to be but I hope aren't Lowndes' actual attitudes), anger at feminine promiscuity - and more about his despair at the destruction of a life he loved and which he believed had a great deal of potential. It's probably not just an accident of the limits of cinematic narrative that we never really get either the brother or his lover's point of view. I even thought that there was a bit of an implication, if a very subtle one, that the lodger is tragically misguided by blaming his brother's downfall on a woman and by extension all, ahem, "actresses". It really does alter the entire dynamic of the story.

It's funny how much the "personal wrong" theory says about not only misogyny, but Victorian attitudes toward crime. It's as if it's all but unthinkable that someone from the upper class, whose morality exists on even a genetic level (which is basically the convenient conclusion of so much Victorian and Edwardian criminology), could be such a violent, uninhibited monster.

LK:  One of the interesting aspects of these four films is how broadly they vary in the motives they assign for their killers - and I guess that's where the divide really occurs. Considering that all four films are based upon the same premise, it's astonishing how few points of comparison there are between the first pair (IN1 and IN2) and the second pair (LC and JP). They just don't touch, anywhere.

I admit that the ending of IN2 came completely out of the blue for me. It's essentially an unambitious and, in most ways, obvious work - it certainly lacks the moral manoeuvring of IN1 - and then it pulls out that ending. It just hit me all of a sudden that after IN1, in which the Lodger spends the whole film trying to kill someone but fails, here we have an innocent person turning out to be a killer! Of course, calling him "a killer" is a bit unjust, but the fact remains, he doesn't just kill his brother - he stops, and thinks about it, and THEN does it. And he does it after making sure that his brother knows who he is.

I tell you, trying to assign relative guilt and innocence to the two Ivors - ! It's a shame that the film's so cut, and we can't know what they really intended here. I wonder if any of Ivor Novello's biographies have anything to say about it?

CD:  It reminds me of the morality you see in quite a bit of modern thrillers. Even in films where the killer is established as mentally ill, they are almost invariably killed. It is frustrating that the film had been so heavily cut, especially if, despite the circumstances of the film's creation, they were trying to make a point about violence and retribution.

Then again, maybe audiences were supposed to see it uncritically as a "mercy killing," which would again re-enforce your point about how conventional the film is.

I found it difficult to watch IN1 critically, since I couldn't stop myself from looking for Alfred Hitchcock's "signature"---

LK:  I wouldn't worry about that - it's pretty unavoidable!

CD:  ---And I did see a great deal of it, even though Hitchcock originally wanted a different ending, including the obsession with mob justice, an innocent man being unfairly judged guilty, and misdirection that continues up until the end.

I was most fascinated by the twist: that it turns out that the Lodger is obsessed - but with the Avenger, who killed his sister, not with murdering blonde women. It feels like a bit of a cheat in that it doesn't turn out that the Lodger was just an unconventional loner, but I suppose it does make more sense dramatically to tie him in some way with the murders and have it turn out that there was a mystery after all; it's just that the solution wasn't the one the audience was led to expect. And at least it's more satisfying than the end of the novel!

I want to bring up the "contemporizing" of the films. I'm reminded of the early Dr. Jekyll And Dr Hyde adaptations we examined, but it seems an even stranger decision for The Lodger, since the Jack the Ripper murders are so much an aspect of Victorian London.

LK:  I'm quite sure that the modernisation of IN2 was just because it was cheap; but IN1 strikes me as a deliberate artistic choice - and then the question is why? I suppose the issue was whether the decision was in fact made for budgetary reasons, and Hitchcock took that and ran with it; or whether that was the idea from the start. I'm not sure I've ever read anything about that point. Hitchcock did say much later (re: Under Capricorn) that he didn't like doing period pieces, so perhaps we're making it too complicated.

But that whole opening sequence, that feel of a society where a mass media is just beginning to become such an overwhelming presence and force--- It's such a powerful evocation of the society of the time, it seems to me that the opportunity to craft a sequence like that was part of the motivation.

CD:  All this does raise the question of whether or not either IN1 or IN2 (but especially IN2) really succeed as "Ripperological" films when divorced from the harsh urban realities of Victorian London. And this leads to the question of whether or not such films should be viewed as "adaptations" of the Jack the Ripper legend or of actual attitudes surrounding the murder. Personally I found IN2 somewhat jarring for that reason, but it did lead me to wonder whether the films should indeed be considered in the context of the Ripper or as films about the phenomenon of serial killers in general. (This probably says much about my thinking as a late twentieth century boy; one has to remind oneself that serial killing existed as a pre-modern phenomenon outside Jack the Ripper).

LK:  I guess this is a perfect illustration of the way that an event, a point in history, takes on a life of its own over time. The core of it, those desperately sick and brutal killings by someone who was never caught, becomes the hook in people's consciousness. So it's used and re-used and re-set, even without the specifics of the social milieu that made those killings possible.

But, as you say, very particular social forces were at work then; and I think it's very significant when that aspect of the story began to be given weight as far as the whole "Jack the Ripper" franchise, if I can call it that, is concerned. During the seventies and into the eighties, stories about Jack stopped being just about the hunt for a killer. Part of it, of course, was simply the centenary anniversary aspect of it, but I also think it had a lot to do with the state of society at the time, with people feeling disenfranchised and unable to trust their leaders. (More so than usual!) THAT was when Jack really came back in force, and brought with him a whole lot of conspiracy theories and cover-up explanations. People were ready to hear about the poor being brutalised by the rich, and the government facilitating it.

Well, now....we seem to have come rather a long way from a rather tepid 95-year-old novel! - and it's been fun. Thank you!

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----07/05/2008