Sympathy For A Killer?
DIRECTED BY JOHN BRAHM/1944
STREET DATE: DECEMBER 5, 2016/KINO LORBER
As a follow-up to last month’s Noirvember, I guess we’re now in the territory of Dreadcember, to coin a term destined to be forgotten after this sentence, with Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of style maven John Brahm’s (The Undying Monster, The Locket) haunting Jack the Ripper chiller The Lodger. Filmed entirely on the backlot of Twentieth Century Fox, this period gothic noir, to introduce another needlessly complex descriptor, captures the look and feel of Whitechapel 1888 with the terror and immediacy of a late-Victorian scandal sheet decrying “Ghastly Murders in the East-End!” As photographed by master cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Killing, The Wild Bunch), gaslit street lamps rarely burnished so brilliantly; nor have shadows been as evocatively cast as those that enhance the dark deeds of a husky figure, armed with a medical bag of sharpened knives and surgical instruments, evading the combined forces of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard through the London Fog.
Based on a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger had been filmed before in 1927 (by Alfred Hitchcock), 1932 (again with the star of that earlier version, Ivor Novello), and would be remade by Fox in 1953 (as Man in the Attic) — an even later modern variation would appear in 2009 — this version stars the immortal screen heavy Laird Cregar, who would himself pass away within a year of the film’s release at the untimely age of 31, and remains definitive for its period atmosphere and unique sympathy created for the serial murderer. Due largely (pun unintended) to the 6’3”, 230-pound actor’s menacingly soft-spoken interpretation of history’s greatest (and unknown) killer, Cregar was apparently allowed a good deal of improvisatory license in creating his Jack the Ripper, perversely playing his character’s dark obsession with “actresses” (Production Code for prostitutes) to flamboyant depths of depravity, suggesting all manner of murderous impulses with each eye-line lit, sidelong glance. From staring at his own reflection in the Thames as he washes away another murder spree, or watching his eyes literally light up as he glares with an unhealthy intensity at a fellow lodger, the actress Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), no actor took such malevolent glee in appearing as delightfully unsavory as Laird Cregar; yet never does his Jack the Ripper appear less than human nor his interpretation seem less than believable.
A stylistic triumph, Kino Lorber presents the 2007 restoration of The Lodger to admirable effect, the German Expressionist-like visual flourishes director John Brahm indulges throughout highlighting to eye-popping detail the billow of smoke that escapes the Ripper’s room while burning his medical bag or, in the film’s exciting backstage theater-set climax, the shadowy rungs of a metal grate that files over Cregar’s sweaty visage as he attempts to elude his police pursuers. With two audio commentaries, the first, from the film’s 2007 DVD release, has noir and genre specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini arguing over the effectiveness of the film’s gothic and stylistic trappings, while the second, from film historian Gregory William Mank, is a well-spring of information on the film’s production and Cregar himself. Also including a 16-minute screen restoration comparison and a making-of documentary, I must admit, however, that the most illuminating feature on this disc was a contemporary half-hour radio program in which then-fellow Twentieth Century-Fox contract player Vincent Price full-gustily enacted the role of The Lodger. Much as I love Price’s unique and then-developing brand of hammy histrionics, it is astonishing how much more effective Cregar’s whispering eccentricity is in the role. Even killers, one supposes, are human, and in The Lodger the singular Laird Cregar terrifyingly suggests an all-too-human killer.
The images used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality of the Blu-ray.