Sunday, 15 January 2012

"The Lodger" - Spooky! Or just plain old coincidence? You be the judge!

On the evening I started reading The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc, I finished Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 bestseller, The Lodger, which is quite possibly the first ever novel to feature a sex-obsessed religious nutter going around killing young blonde women. I downloaded The Lodger from the Project Guttenberg site at the same time as The Path to Rome – and only discovered a few minutes ago that Mrs Lowndes was actually Hilaire Belloc’s sister.

Now, you might say – in all fairness – that “Belloc”, Mrs Lowndes's maiden name, should have provided a clue. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I had no idea when I downloaded and read the books consecutively that the authors were related. Pedants and rationalists will no doubt point out that I must have known this fact, having read AN Wilson’s biography of Belloc a decade ago. And I no doubt once did, but had long since forgotten the connection.

Synchronicity, I say. (I’m sure Jung – the inventor of the concept – would have concurred.)

In The Lodger, a well-bred, effete, neurotic, thirty-something teetotaller whose only reading matter is The Bible, turns up at a Marylebone lodging house run by a married couple who, having made some bad choices after a lifetime of domestic service, are down to their last few shillings, and facing the prospect of starving to death. Their tenant, who pays handsomely and without question, as long as they accept no other lodgers (they can accommodate up to four), signals his “eccentricity” by turning the portraits of women which line the walls of his rented sitting room to the wall, by leaving a large pile of gold coins lying around in plain view, by asking for bread, butter and milk for his dinner, by reciting passages to the detriment of the female sex from the Good Book, and by constantly sneaking out at dead of night into the freezing fog which has London in its grip.

So, pretty average guy, then.

Meanwhile, young blonde women are dropping like flies something chronic, they are (I'm sorry - Mrs Lowndes's dialogue style is catching), slaughtered by someone who calls himself “The Avenger”.

A regular visitor to the house is Joe, a remarkably thick police detective who has the hots for Daisy, the landlord’s pretty blonde daughter from his first marriage. Daisy lives with an aunt, but, before too long, turns up to stay with her dad and step-mum.

What could possibly go wrong?

Emma Bunting, the landlady, begins to suspect that the lodger is The Avenger, but instead of voicing her suspicions to Joe the clueless detective or to her husband – who is obsessed with the case, popping out to buy the latest paper every few hours to catch up with the fiend’s heinous doings – she becomes asort of accomplice, deliberately diverting suspicion from their only source of income. But then, towards the end, her husband, Robert, also realises what their lodger has been getting up to on his nocturnal outings.

SPOILER ALERT: And still they don’t tell anyone, even though women continue to die, and all because to be associated with such lurid events – albeit entirely unwittingly - would render the old couple unemployable. In the end it’s the lodger who gives himself away when he mistakenly assumes – on a visit to Madame Tussaud’s – that his landlady has betrayed him to the authorities. After hissing threats at her, he flees the scene and never returns to the lodging house, leaving his money behind. He turns out to be an escaped lunatic who stole the money before escaping from the asylum. As far as we are aware, he is never caught, the Buntings’ secret is safe with them, they get a decent job looking after a nice old lady – and anonymously donate the money the lodger left behind to a foundlings hospital. Naturally, Joe and Daisy get hitched.

The central theme throughout is the threat of becoming unrespectable: not to lead a quiet, buttoned-up little life would mean ruin for such ordinary, humble folk – maintaining respectability is far more important than saving the lives of young women you don’t know.

The Lodger was a best-seller published before the First World War, and went on to be a successful play (Who Is He?), co-written by Mrs Lowndes. In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a silent film starring the famous Welsh song-smith Ivor Novello – who’s as camp as a row of tent-pegs - as the lodger. The film, given the beguiling sub-title “A Story of the London Fog”, can be seen in its entirety here

I’m not a great fan of silent movies, but even I can tell this one’s a bit of a masterpiece. A great Hitchcock innovation can be found at 24’05”, where the family and the detective stare up at the ceiling as the lodger paces back and forth agitatedly in his room, making the chandelier sway below: the director had a special glass ceiling built so the family are staring up at the soles of Novello’s shoes. Another example of vintage Hitchcock is the juxtaposition of humour and tension – just before the glass ceiling scene, the detective, on hearing about the lodger's aversion to the pictures in his room, remarks “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls”, which, given Novello’s sexual proclivities,  must have had the more knowing elements of the audience in fits.

SECOND SPOILER ALERT: In the film, released fourteen years after the book, the elements of the modern thriller are beginning to slot into place. For a start, it’s full of sex and gllitter: the lodger and Daisy fall for each other; Daisy is a show-girl (unthinkable in 1913); we see Daisy undressing, getting ready for a bath – and then see her in the bath; befitting the 1920s, we’re given a far more glamorous view of London's West End (it's all dead dreary in the book, apart from a visit to Scotland Yard's Black Museum); we see a lot more of the murders than in the book.

And, of course, the lodger’s innocent, OK? In fact, he’s the wealthy brother of one of the dead girls, and goes out at night hunting for The Avenger. And, in the end, poor old plodding Joe is given the heave-ho and the lodger as Daisy flounce off into the sunset (boy, is she going to be disappointed!).

Respectability obviously isn't quite the obsession it was before the First World War. How fast social attitudes change, and how powerfully moving images – on a TV or cinema screen – help change them. That, and wars, of course.

The Lodger, by the way, continues to resonate: the latest screen version, directed by David Ondaatje and starring Simon Baker, the smirky, pretty-boy Aussie actor from The Mentalist, was released in 2009. Whenever we see a serial killer drama, I reckon we ought to doff our hats to Mrs Lowndes - but in a very quiet, buttoned-up way.

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