The Lodger begins four murders into the Jack the Ripper killings (the film actually goes over the historical number but also makes some rather liberal changes to the history). Just after a murder occurs, which seems a rather unfortunate event since the victim passes a number of police officers and even a vigilante gang, a gentleman inquires about some lodgings nearby. Said gentleman is Laird Cregar, a pathologist; the lodgings are in Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke’s house. Her sister has passed. Not only is there a sitting room and bedroom for Cregar, there’s also an attic with a kitchen. He’s very interested in the attic. Allgood and Hardwicke have fallen on somewhat hard times–he made a mistake and lost his position, they need lodging income. Cregar overpays. Perfect arrangement.
Hardwicke’s not particularly happy to have a tenant, but Cregar promises he’ll be a model tenant. Though he does go into conniptions about there being portraits of stage actresses on his sitting room wall. And he doesn’t seem thrilled at the prospect of sharing a roof with one–Allgood’s niece, Merle Oberon, is a music hall singer and dancer of growing renown. But all seems well.
Other than Cregar being exceptionally suspicious. Down to giving what seems like has to be a fake name.
As the murders continue, Allgood becomes more and more suspicious of Cregar’s odd behaviors. Hardwicke’s usually the one to dissuade her. And after his initial apprehension, Cregar is able to at least appear kindly towards Oberon, maybe just a little nervous. Cregar’s a big guy, but appears meek most of the time he’s opposite Oberon or the rest of the family.
While Oberon’s new show is opening, a former actress (Helena Pickard) is murdered. She’d just been visiting with Oberon, which leads Scotland Yard to the theater to ask some questions. George Sanders is the inspector. Oberon is what keeps Sanders coming back asking questions. All the victims, he reveals, have been former actresses. Seems Lodger’s Ripper has a definite type.
Soon Allgood’s suspicions finally lead to Oberon and Hardwicke getting more interested, but their initial investigations into Cregar don’t reveal anything suspicious. He’s just a giant, socially awkward, meek pathologist. Even if he did burn his bag at the mention of the Ripper having a bag. And will soon be burning a bloody coat with a flimsy excuse. Oberon’s busy with Sanders’s charming courtship, which starts at Scotland Yard’s murder museum.
When the film gets into the third act and Allgood and Hardwicke finally confide in Sanders–but not Oberon, who’s obviously in great danger but preparing for a bigger opening–everything starts coming together, despite a last minute (and unresolved) foil in the evidence against Cregar. The Lodger doesn’t even run ninety minutes, has two musical numbers, two murder sequences, and it’s still got some occasional padding. What’s unfortunate is how, despite Allgood and Hardwicke being present throughout, it feels like they disappear a bit too much in the second act when Cregar gets comfortable enough to talk to Oberon. And Sanders vanishes altogether for a bit; his subsequent courtship of Oberon, despite showing so much promise, is offscreen and unmentioned. Cregar’s the star, to be sure. Sanders’s second billing is inflated. Arguably so’s Oberon’s top billing but, well, she’s got the two musical numbers and is the unwitting object of Cregar’s obsession.
All the acting is great, particularly Cregar and Hardwicke. Allgood would be better if she had more to do as the film progresses. She’s still great, but the part shrinks. Oberon and Sanders are both good. But they don’t have anything near the “wow” moments Cregar gets. At the start of the film, Lucien Ballard casts a light on Cregar’s eyes to make him appear creepier than he already appears. It doesn’t last for long, just focuses the audience’s attention on Cregar’s odd behavior. Once the light stops, Cregar just gets better. It’s like director Brahm figures out how to showcase his disturbed behavior better, without literal lighted emphasis on him, instead on how to frame Cregar in shots. And Ballard’s there to make sure the shots are phenomenal.
Nice supporting turns from Pickard and Queenie Leonard (as the maid).
Outstanding score from Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer, the sets, Ballard’s photography, Brahm’s direction, and Cregar’s intensity make The Lodger something special. Ballard’s lighting success isn’t just on Cregar or in Brahm’s expressive shots, it’s in the functionality of the gaslight era. He’s constantly changing light in shots as a character will turn off the gas, light a candle, and so on. Or move throughout the house in the same shot. The house itself is never creepy, just dark (which might explain why no one is ever too weirded out by Cregar while they’re at home). There’s also all the exterior stuff–the foggy London streets and alleyways; they’re all beautifully done, but in detail and Brahm’s direction of the action on them.
Barré Lyndon’s script is a tad slight on the investigation stuff, slighter still on the romance between Oberon and Sanders (Sanders being a distinct character is superfluous by the third act, as he doesn’t interact with Oberon with any specificity), and then the postscript. After a fantastic chase finale, The Lodger’s got no resolution.
Still, it’s a rather effective thriller. Exquisitely produced and acted, especially by Cregar, who manages to not so much to humanize a monster but reveal human monstrosity.