Friday, September 21, 2012

Film Pairing — The Lodgers — Laird Cregar, Jack Palance, Simon Baker

Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote a book in 1913 about Jack the Ripper called The Lodger.  It has been made into a movie a number of times, including the very first as a silent film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 and later made with sound in 1932.  In slightly more modern times, there are three films that use the book, two of them surprisingly faithfully, as the basis for cinema drama. 

Incidentally, there have been other Ripper movies about or allude to the notorious throat slasher, but the following are based on Lowndes’ classic version of the story.

The Lodger (1944).  I think this is the classic version.  And it boasts a more renowned set of actors.  Laird Cregar plays the Ripper, building the monstrous madness of his character, step by step, until the riveting end.  There are subtle suggestions of love and incest as well as a kind of Biblical madness, carefully and brilliantly hinted at in Cregar’s portrayal. The cast, plucked from the best of the 1940s actors, also includes Merle Oberon, George Sanders and the fine Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  We are definitely dealing with gothic horror and the first glimpses of psycho-sexual aberration as a plot device.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard and the direction by John Brahm create an eerie environment for the story to unfold.  The suggestion at the very end may, though we know very little, seems to be at odds with what we do know about the real “Jack the Ripper.”

Man in the Attic (1953). We are returned to London of the late 1800s, cobblestone streets winding through darkness only slightly lit by gas lamps, with sets and scenes almost directly lifted from the 1944 film.  While the Man in the Attic isn’t poorly done, it’s difficult to figure out why they made it.  It’s nearly identical — and the first is very well done. There are some shifts.  One is the final horse and buggy chase through the damp streets to the dark waters.  But the main difference is the choice of actors to portray the Ripper. In this one the strange, new lodger is Jack Palance.  Criminally insane is written all over Palance’s face from the start, but then it always is. It was also fun to see Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) in a significant role in the film. Constance Smith as the female lead is effective and may have been more charming than Merle Oberon.

The Lodger (2009). I liked this, but there were a number of people who get paid for their opinions who didn’t.  In this version, liberties were obviously taken.  The time is now, and the place is Los Angeles.  We are also drawn into two subplots not part of the original story line.  While we are still trying to trap the murderer, we are drawn into the serious relationship problems between the possibly mentally unbalanced landlady and her suspiciously disappearing husband.  Additionally we are compelled to deal with the investigating detective’s troubled private life.   Both of these plots may create mystery as well as horror. Certainly these sublplots were not part of the earlier films, but they do provide an interesting twist at the end.  I’ve always appreciated Simon Baker’s low-key acting.  As the lodger, he is far less the obvious psychopath.  Alfred Molina does his usual fine job of being interesting while not being particularly likable. It works here. Lots of darkness, rain and blood.  Some artistically jumpy camera moves.  Hope Davis does a fine job in the complex role of the landlady.  Perfect film for a rainy night at home.

I think that all three in one evening is way too much.  Choose two.  If it were up to me, I’d choose the 1944 and the 2009 versions, unless you particularly enjoy seeing the same dialogue delivered by a different set of actors.  With regard to what we imbibe during an evening of throat-cutting, my guess is start with Guinness and finish with a hot toddy. 

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