That’s all you needed to say back then. Everyone knew what this was about. “The Lodger” was one of Hitchcock’s first movies, in the late 20s; it was the pilot episode for the immensely popular radio show “Suspense” – with an appearance by Hitch himself at the end – in 1940. Everyone knew what sort of story this was - and they knew who was guilty, too. But let's pretend we don't. Let's just start the movie with fresh eyes, wondering how John Cleese time-travelled back to 1943:
Not Cleese, but damned close. If you don’t know the subject by now, perhaps this will help:
That’s right. London, the fog, the gaslight, the man with a bag: it’s Saucy Jack. The Ripper. “The Lodger “ radio plays concerned a strange man who rented a room, stayed out all night, flew into rages whenever anyone mentioned showgirls, and generally acted like THE MOST SUSPICIOUS MAN IN ENGLAND. But here he is played with painful reserve by our subject, Laird Cregar:
Sad, distant, chilly, frightening – it’s the most human Jack the Ripper you’ll ever meet. Naturally, as the story requires, his rooming-house owners have a lovely showgirl relative, played by the incomparably lovely Merle Oberon.
Bonus fact: she was to play Messalina in a 1937 adaptation of “I, Cladius.” And she was probably part-Indian. (Born in Bombay, which she later denied.) I always thought she was one of the most beautiful actresses of the era, although I like Paulette Goddard better; much more fun. (By the way, if you think they don't make them like that any more - you know, the gorgeous creamy dames shot in smoky black-and-white by George Hurell - well, Mr. H lived long enough to shoot Audrey from "Twin Peaks.")
Anyway: it was shot on the backlot, moves a bit slowly, and has that suffocating Gothic air you either enjoy in a movie or find somewhat tiresome. It has some shots that exploit the B&W vocabulary to the fullest, though:
It finally comes to life at the end, when Cregar’s Ripper stops hiding his crimes, and is so unhinged by his attraction to Merle he makes an advance, even though his entire nature is screaming for him to gut the sinful creature.
This is when it gives the entire picture to Cregar, and he walks away with it:
Trapped in a theater, he becomes the Ripper, and this ought to be the iconic image of the entire horrible story:
The movie does something very unusual at the end: it drops the music. All we hear is the Ripper’s breathing as the mob closes in. The last few scenes redeem the entire picture, if you haven’t been unduly impressed.