B&W, 1944, 84m.
Directed by John Brahm
Starring Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Laird Cregar, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Sara Allgood
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Fox (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
B&W, 1944, 84m.
Eighteen years after Alfred Hitchcock made a splash with his first (silent) thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Twentieth Century Fox took a stab at a big-budget sound remake of the novel inspired by Jack the Ripper written by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. The source novel changed the name of the maniac to "The Avenger" and had to be altered considerably (with a happy ending) for Hitchcock's version with Ivor Novello (who reprised the role for a little-seen 1932 British sound version), and subsequent versions have included an opera and another Fox film, Man in the Attic with Jack Palance. For this 1944 version, directing reins were handed to the stylish John Brahm, who had shown a knack for spooky atmosphere with Fox's The Undying Monster in 1942 and would go on to helm The Mad Magician and some of the best episodes of the 1960s series, Thriller.
Though he's third billed, the film is easily stolen by Laird Cregar as the titular lodger, Mr. Slade, a hulking man in Victorian London who rents a room at the home of financially-strapped Robert and Ellen Bonting (Hardwicke and Allgood). Their niece, Kitty (Oberon), works as a popular music hall performer and catches Slade's eye, but Ellen starts to suspect that her new tenant might be the same ripper who's terrorizing the nocturnal city streets. Brought in to investigate is Inspector Warwick (Sanders), who also takes an interest in Kitty and delves into the sinister mystery.
The requirements of the Production Code required the ripper's choice of victims to be changed from prostitutes to "actresses," but otherwise the foggy atmosphere and intense performances make this a strong and highly memorable adaptation with a particularly intense turn from Cregar, who became an instant star. With only four years of big screen experience under his belt including Heaven Can Wait and I Wake Up Screaming, Cregar was poised to become a major Hollywood star and was immediately booked to team up with Brahm and Sanders again for the following year's Hangover Square (which is even better). Unfortunately a heart attack cut short his life and ended a promising career, leaving behind a handful of indelible performances that can only leave us wondering what might have been. In any case, this is a fine showcase for his talents, and he works well opposite his two stars with Oberon getting some of the most glamorous close ups of her career. Ripperphiles will likely be annoyed by the story's resolution (which patently contradicts the facts of the real murders), but if you go along with it as a fanciful spin on one of the world's most famous serial killers, there's plenty of shivery fun to be had.
The Lodger first bowed on DVD from Fox as part of its Fox Horror Classics Collection in 2007 packaged with The Undying Monster and Hangover Square, making it an unofficial Brahm set as well. Extras on the DVD include an audio commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (touching on Brahm's short but notable theatrical career, the integration of Ripper lore, and the long history of the source material, the 15- minute "Man in the Attic: The Making of The Lodger" featurette with Kim Newman, Steve Haberman, Dr. Drew Casper, and Stephen Jones covering the production of the film in the wake of Hitchcock's version, an audio option to play a half-hour radio production of the story with Vincent Price, a restoration comparison, the theatrical trailer, a separate galleries for production stills and promotional artwork.
In 2016, the film finally got the HD treatment from Kino Lorber with a sparkling, nicely detailed transfer provided by Fox; black levels look superb and the uptick in quality is evident in the tactile quality now found in the many textures of the period clothing and cobblestone steps. It's a real joy to watch, and the DTS-HD MA English mono audio sounds excellent (with optional English subtitles provided). The extras from the DVD have been ported over (commentary, featurette, trailer, galleries), while new additions include theatrical trailers for The Undying Monster and I Wake Up Screaming. New to this release is an excellent new audio commentary by Gregory Mank, author of Hollywood Ripper: The Rise and Fall of Laird Cregar, which is packed with info not covered in the other track and loaded with trivia about the various period songs, the ins and outs of Cregar's private life and career status, the production process at WWII-era Fox, and lots more. Definitely a major upgrade all around.