Why should the fog in “The Lodger,” one of many films about Jack the Ripper, stand out? The black-and-white cinematography of Lucien Ballard sharply divides the buildings from the fog, lending thickness to the haze. The soupy fog’s ceaseless rolling transforms into a pulsating creature that whispers death. When the first murder occurs off-screen, fog creeps around a close up of a woman’s limp arm and hair next to a flowing sewer. The shot is so unflashy, yet twistedly beautiful in its simplicity. The same goes for “The Lodger”: it may be skimpy on narrative and psychological depth, but John Brahm’s clear direction and the visuals deliver icky-ness, if not mystery.
After the murder (in a series of murders of actresses), Mr. Slade (Laird Cregar) appears at the doorstep of Robert (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Ellen Bonting (Sara Allgood) for lodging. He stays out very late, but he’s polite… except when it comes to women of the stage. Applying King Solomon’s philosophy concerning prostitutes to actresses, Slade says, “She increases the transgressors among men.” Coincidentally, the Bontings have a pretty niece — Kitty (Merle Oberon) — who is a rising actress. Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders) enters as a love interest for Kitty and a law enforcer out to stop the Ripper.
Between Ballard’s ominous lighting, Brahm’s camerawork and Cregar’s lumbering movement, it’s so obvious that Slade is the killer that it’s insulting. But what the lack of subtlety does do is give an interesting, if shallow, look into the antagonist’s sexual dysfunction.
The Motion Picture Production Code did clean up the Ripper’s deeds for the screen by hiding the gore and replacing the prostitutes with washed-up actresses. Yet you’ll be surprised by how many troubling details screenwriter Barré Lyndon (adapting from Marie Lowndes’s novel) includes. For one, a phallic object—a knife—attacks flashy female sexuality (and you thought the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s were only copying “Psycho”). The movie also recognizes Slade’s duality as a doctor and murderer, although there’s not enough time to play with that. He talks of cutting the evil out of women so that lifeless beauty will remain, as if he were hacking away at some cancer inherent in females.
Kitty is no lifeless beauty, but I didn’t care about her. Why does a nice girl like her sing suggestive songs in French while dressed in a cancan outfit? Oberon doesn’t let us know, but at least her song-and-dance numbers are fun. And why does she allow herself to be alone with the visibly disturbed Cregar? There’s line between niceness and stupidity, and Kitty high jumps it.
Considering his tendency to play decadent cads, I was disappointed to see Sanders act unconvincingly as a straight-laced inspector and dull love interest. Everyone else in the film fulfills their roles, but Cregar dominates.
“The Lodger” is in and out in 84 minutes. The scenario may not stick well in celluloid memory, but it’s an entertainingly fun ride while it lasts.