Hello, Persephoneers! Let’s celebrate the new look with a particular favorite classic film of mine, a historical thriller called The Lodger. This version of the film, based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel of the same name, was made in 1944 and stars Merle Oberon, George Sanders, and Laird Cregar.
In the autumn of 1888, young women – mostly actresses and aspiring actresses – are being brutally murdered in London’s seedy Whitechapel district. The film opens with an elderly couple, the Buntings, discussing the news of the latest murder as they sit in front of the fire late at night. Oddly enough, their new lodger, Slade (Cregar), returns from a night out on the streets. He discusses the case with them briefly, then hurries upstairs to the safety of his attic room. This bothers Mrs. Bunting just a little bit, but she quickly dismisses her suspicions when she discovers that her niece, music hall performer Kitty Langley (Oberon), is returning to perform in London and will be staying with them.
Inspector John Warwick (Sanders) is the lead investigator on the case, and the trail leads him straight to the Buntings’ door, where he meets and is beguiled by the very enchanting Kitty, who is just as attracted to him. He sees how oddly Slade behaves around Kitty, and this leads him to suspect that Slade might know something about the murders.
The film culminates in Slade’s attendance of one of Kitty’s performances, despite the fact that the theater is well-guarded by police. He corners Kitty backstage and attempts to kill her, only for Warwick to intervene. As the police give chase, Slade jumps into the Thames, preferring to take his own life than die at the end of a noose.
This particular version of Lowndes’s book, as well as a few other films dealing with the Ripper murders made from this time until the early 1960s, transform the Ripper’s victims from desperate prostitutes into actresses so as not to upset the public’s delicate sensibilities. This film almost romanticizes the victims and implies that while being an actress in the Victorian era was frowned upon and could lead to a dissolute life, it didn’t mean that the young women had necessarily deserved their deaths. They are portrayed as young women, much like the exquisite, talented Kitty, who are pursuing their passion on the stage and are very sadly paying for it.
The film also plays down much of the suspense and aura of menace that is present in the original novel and also in the 1927 silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In the novel, we know there is something creepy about Slade, but he appears to be a very normal, if socially awkward, young man. In the film, though, Slade is basically your neighborhood creeper; you can tell there’s something not right about him by just looking at him. It’s an inadvertent nod to what the police in the real Ripper case were looking for in 1888; they expected someone who looked and acted mad to be their Ripper when really, he was very likely an ostensibly normal man who lived in the neighborhood and who operated right under their noses.
The original novel is widely available and can be found for free on Amazon and Project Gutenberg. Next week, I will analyze the Hitchcock film, which should be quite fun and interesting!