Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

  • In silents no one can hear you scream. Investigating the Master’s take on Jack the Ripper
  • The elusive maniac emerges from the shadows in one of his earliest big screen outings
  • Often mistakenly called the first “real” Hitchcock film and his first crime thriller
  • But it was actually built on the solid crime-driven plots of his earlier works
  • A Story of the Home Video Fog: some great quality versions, but many awful ones
  • Analysing all the best Blu-ray, DVD and digital releases worldwide

Note: this is one of 50-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Hitchcock’s third feature outing is often falsely considered his first real film, mostly due to the other two being lost or all but unavailable. It’s an accomplished, gripping drama that easily holds aloft the high bar set by its older siblings. Retitled The Case of Jonathan Drew in the US, like its shadowy, unseen protagonist, this film is a creature of the night: it takes place entirely after dark, either indoors under artificial light or outdoors in thick, all-enveloping fog. Those of a nervous disposition may wish to think twice before venturing further…

Ivor Novello in The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Elephant Films Blu-ray screenshot

Ivor Novello is The Lodger; French Elephant Films Blu-ray


Production and release

Spoilers ahead: This was the first of a handful of screen adaptations of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ immensely popular and still highly readable eponymous 1913 novel. It’s based on the activities of Jack the Ripper and expanded from her original 1911 short story. Iconic actor-composer Ivor Novello stars here in the first of his two back-to-back Hitchcocks, prior to his fall from grace in Downhill. Without spoiling it too much, I’ll just say this dark tale of multiple murders continues Hitch’s most beloved theme of the wronged man; one he’d already explored in The Mountain Eagle. My friend and film buff Allan Fish (1973–2016) sums it up very succinctlyThe Lodger marks the first of Hitch’s famed cameos, though his supposed second appearance, towards the end, is strongly disputed. Even Alma gets in on the act in her sole Hitch film cameo, as a woman listening to the wireless – although she too may appear twice.

Lowndes’ novel is in the public domain and available freely online. However, if you desire a physical copy, the definitive reprint edition is this one from 2015, edited by Victorian literature scholar Elyssa Warkentin. Among many contextual additions it includes the incipient version of the story. In 2018 she also published a collected volume of Lowndes’ rare short stories. Note that both are only available in hardback. The Lodger is a brilliant, acutely observed and superbly evocative read, and it’s easy to see why it’s become such an enduring classic.

The Lodger was Hitch’s third completed film but the second to get wide release in the UK. It’s well known that his first cut was vetoed by Gainsborough’s distributor, C.M. Woolf, as being unreleasable, as he had the director’s first two films. Michael Balcon, Hitch’s mentor and the head of Gainsborough Pictures, came to the young man’s rescue by hiring Ivor Montagu to work alongside Hitch on re-editing the film. Montagu’s contributions were to remove many superfluous intertitles, tighten the editing and ordering reshoots. To that end, the scenes featuring the first victim, the showgirl victim and the lodger’s mother were all added after the fact. Montagu also enlisted the help of expatriate American artist and graphic designer Edward McKnight Kauffer, best known for creating hundreds of iconic posters for the London Underground and later, American Airlines. His striking title cards, clearly showing strong influences of Vorticism and Constructivism, came to define the look of the film.

The newly retooled work enjoyed very enthusiastic trade screenings, including at Nottingham’s Scala Theatre on 15 September 1926The Lodger was  shown publicly in London from January 1927, and rolled out across the rest of the country in February. This has led to it often being given either release year, though both are technically correct.

The Lodger aka Les Cheveux d’or (The Golden hair) French poster

Big spoiler: Hitch frequently posited the notion that Novello was originally supposed to be guilty, as per the ending of the novel, but that he was pressured to make the matinée idol innocent so as not to upset his legions of fans. This is plausibly just another of Hitch’s many tall stories, as he probably didn’t read the book until long after he was familiar with the ending depicted in the film. Hitch was a keen theatregoer from a young age and often spoke of how impressed he was when he originally encountered the story via its 1915 stage adaptation, Who Is He?, also co-written by Belloc Lowndes. The lodger of the play had already been altered to make him a cultured gentleman, innocent of all wrongoings, so in this and other respects the film is based equally on both sources. In much the same way, latterday interpretations of The 39 Steps are based as much on Hitch’s drastically rewritten film as they are on John Buchan’s source novel.

The many faces of The Lodger

Believe it or not, four distinct versions of the film have been issued on official home video, along with five different scores – and six different running speeds! Factor in all the bootleg variants too and that’s a helluva lotta lodgers. The first official release, initially issued in the late 1990s on VHS, is known as the “archive version’’ (AV) and is a transfer of an older, fairly worn but complete print. It’s tinted and toned throughout in amber or sepia hues for the indoor scenes, with vivid blues for the many outdoor night scenes. It’s been transferred at the slightly-too-fast sound speed of 24fps (74min) but runs for 71min on various pre-2010 Euro DVDs, with their additional 4% PAL speed-up. Lastly, it features a lively and evocative jazz/modern classical score by Paul Zaza. Despite its technical shortcomings, the AV succeeds in giving a perfectly enjoyable presentation; it was a revelation when it first appeared and still stands up very well today. I know I’m not alone in having a nostalgic fondness for the AV and it’s certainly, far better than the many awful B&W bootlegs floating around. They were once the only way to see The Lodger at all, but they should have long since been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Within little more than a decade, however, the AV was superseded by the BFI’s restored version (RV), which is truly a thing of beauty. It has a stabilised, vastly improved image and optimally runs at a more accurate and pleasing 20fps, equalling 90min. However, as indicated below, a few releases have it sped up or slowed down to run at 86–99min.

There are actually a handful of restored versions in the BFI archives, as the original one was improved incrementally over several decades. Three different RVs appear on home video and though all have the same amount of footage, their overall appearance varies quite significantly. Some releases feature a couple of earlier modifications (RV1 and 2) that have chemically-applied colour schemes similar to the AV. Both seem to have the same amount of damage, though it’s very slightly less evident on the RV1. However, this looks to be the result of the RV2 releases being more detailed due to superior mastering, which has the unfortunate side effect of also highlighting any flaws more efficiently.

The film was most recently refined as part of the Hitchcock 9 project and that’s the version (RV3) on post-2012 releases. This time around, an incredible amount of work has been done to minimise onscreen damage, to the degree that it’s hardly noticeable even when looking for it. Additionally, the previous iterations’ already gorgeous colours have been comprehensively overhauled in the digital domain. Now, for the first time since the film’s initial run, its original pallette has been reinstated. The night scenes are especially impressive, rendered in rich blue shades and turning to a deeper blue tone with amber tint to signify thick fog. This is truly one of the most beautifully coloured silents I’ve seen. It’s an incredible achievement; hats off to the restoration team.

As well as the AV’s Zaza score, the three RVs between them have been wedded to four additional custom scores. I like all of them to varying degrees, but whatever your taste you should find at least one to suit.

The bottom line is that as with Nosferatu, that other most notable silent about a nocturnal killer, The Lodger was always intended to be seen custom-scored and in colour. If you’re watching in B&W you’re doing it wrong.

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) BFI poster, 2012

“As the negative no longer exists, the source material for the restoration was a number of nitrate prints, held at the BFI National Archive since the 1940s, and other material that had been made from them in the various restorations over the years. An international search proved that our material was unique and, importantly, the access to Ivor Montagu’s hand-corrected list of edited intertitles showed that the film’s continuity had survived extremely well. After identifying and scanning the best material, several hundred hours were spent on the removal and repair of dirt and damage, resulting in a far cleaner image. The Lodger was tinted and toned on its original release, the differing colours used to dramatic effect. Earlier photochemical restorations had reproduced these effects, but digital imaging systems allow incredible scope for adjusting the contrast and depth of the colours to ensure a balance with the underlying black and white cinematography. – BFI programme notes

A pictorial journey

Prior to the appearance of the AV and RVs, The Lodger really suffered: whenever he was sighted in the shadows it was only via blurry, battered and chopped up copies. These screenshots represent his home video journey over the past couple of decades:

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US St. Clair Vision bootleg DVD screenshot

This is perhaps the most common bootleg transfer: a well-worn copy of the Vintage Films 16mm reissue (likely c. 1930–1950). Once prevalent on VHS, the first DVD was from Laserlight/Delta (1999, w/Sabotage), and subsequently copied by many other bootleggers, eg the much-repackaged St. Clair DVD. It often has a vintage needle-drop score, but can anyone identify the music? There are a couple of particularly memorable cues at 2 and 5 min. Please let me know!

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK GMVS/Waterfall bootleg DVD screenshot

UK GMVS/Waterfall bootleg DVD. Yes, it looks bad, but a screenshot doesn’t convey how much the image quality fluctuates – it’s often even worse than this – and bounces around inside the frame. Unwatchable.

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network archive version DVD screenshot

UK Network archive version DVD

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network DVD, restored version 1

UK Network DVD, restored version 1

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US MGM DVD, restored version 2

US MGM DVD, restored version 2

The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network Blu-ray, restored version 3

UK Network Blu-ray, restored version 3

More comparative screenshots:

  • Landlady: UK Network DVD AV, RV1 | US MGM DVD RV2 | UK BD RV3
  • Lodger: UK Network DVD AV, RV1 | US MGM DVD RV2 | UK BD RV3
  • Mother: UK Network DVD AV, RV1 | US MGM DVD RV2 | UK BD RV3

Home video releases

If you intend owning only one copy of the film, by all means get the US Criterion issue. Their US region A/1-locked BD and DVD are awash with extras, not least of which is the restored Downhill. Leading silent film musician Neil Brand provides new scores for both films; his masterful, sympathetic orchestral score for The Lodger is performed by the Covent Garden Sinfonia, while Neil himself plays piano for Downhill. There’s an additional three hours of featurettes, interviews and the 1940 radio adaptation of The Lodger. Lastly, they include a 16-page foldout booklet with essays on both films. Phew. The next best DVD is still the US MGM: in terms of image, audio and extras, it’s (foggy) streets ahead of all the others. Even its restored transfer (RV2) improves on that found on the UK Network DVD (RV1). The MGM’s image is more detailed and its colours are more subtle and refined. See below for comparisons.

In contrast, the UK region B BD has attracted some controversy for its Nitin Sawhney-composed score. Classically-based and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, it actually works very well for the most part. Its most conspicuous sin is in Sawhney’s inclusion of a couple of anachronistic 5min pop songs – I kid you not – which have drawn the ire of many silents aficionados. They’re perfectly pleasant ditties, but simply belong in another film from a much later time. Or confined to one of Sawhney’s own albums. In this context their presence simply taints the mood and undermines Hitch’s exquisite visuals. Sawhney’s comments in this news report are very telling and perfectly illustrate his entire attitude towards this project.

The overall package gives a strong impression of being a vehicle for Sawhney’s music accompanied by a Hitchcock film, rather than the other way around. Sawhney’s presence gets more prominent billing on the sleeve than Hitch himself, and the bonus material is centred around the composer rather than the filmmaker. There are two soundtrack CDs and the only on-disc extras are a featurette, Scoring The Lodger with Nitin Sawhney (19min) and a slideshow (2min). All a bit light considering this is the key early work from the world’s most famous director and the most well known British silent of all. It redeems itself somewhat by including, like the Criterion, a very informative 16-page booklet on the genesis, production and legacy of the actual film. The Sawhney-scored French region B disc manages to stay more on point with a short video intro in French (8min) and a Hitchcock 9 featurette (9min). Rounding off, there’s the efficient yet ubiquitous Hitchcock: The Early Years (1999) featurette (24min), which appears – and reappears – on just about every other release of Hitch’s British films. But beware, it does have two unforgivable flaws: burned-in French subs and a transfer at the pre-restoration PAL DVD speed of 25fps (86min). Lastly, beware the Spanish and German bootleg BDs.

Ivor Novello in The Lodger (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US Criterion Blu-ray

Ivor leans in for a kiss; US Criterion Blu-ray

I’ll qualify my comments by reiterating the majority of fans will thoroughly enjoy any of the official releases and they’re all infinitely better than any of the many bootleg versions. None of the four licensed versions of the The Lodger are slouches, and all use their relatively limited but authentic colour schemes of differing shades of amber, sepia and blue most effectively. Factor in their generally great scores and you’re bound to have a very satisfying viewing experience. It’s just a pity several recent releases are some way short of all they could be, and not for reasons of production costs. In conclusion, via MGM and Criterion, the US has by far and away the best DVDs and BD of The Lodger to date. As I keep saying, if you can’t play overseas releases, get a multi-region set-up and enjoy your favourite films done properly.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp (centre) in The Lodger (1926). Malcolm Keen is holding Ivor's legs.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp (centre) in The Lodger. Malcolm Keen is holding Ivor’s legs.

In the above pic, the man standing third from right behind the railing is often said to be Hitch in an unconfirmed second cameo. If so, it means this scene was directed by Alma Reville, who was credited as assistant director. Personally, I think it’s wishful thinking: even a cursory glance at the film itself shows him to be in his 50s or 60s; way older than the then 26-year-old Hitch.

The Lodger (1932)

Ivor Novello reprised his Lodger role in a 1932 talkie remake by prolific British director Maurice Elvey, and it’s well worth a watch for fans of the original. This version, the second of several, has a third different ending, following those of the novel and Hitch’s film. It was chopped down by around a third for US B-movie release and given the more lurid title of The Phantom Fiend.

The Lodger aka The Phantom Fiend (1932) with Ivor Novello and Elizabeth Allan, US lobby card

The Lodger aka The Phantom Fiend US lobby card

Apparently PD, sadly only a fairly poor quality transfer of the 63min US reissue edit is available on DVD from a number of PD labels. I’m afraid exactly the same fate has befallen any number of very worthy films. The current best source for the abbreviated Lodger is the 12-DVD/50-film Dark Crimes set (Mill Creek, 2005/2012, also expanded and reissued 2006/2012).

There were two more versions of The Lodger associated with Hitch: he directed a half hour, July 1940 radio adaptation, starring Hitch regulars Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn, stars of his soon-to-be-released Foreign Correspondent. Coincidentally, the latter filled the role played by his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitch’s film version.

Another radio adaptation from 1947 had a more peripheral connection: it featured a couple of minor recurring Hitch actors supporting Peter Lorre, who starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent.

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For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This guide is regularly  updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see the About page.


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