All right, after a longer delay than expected (my apologies), here with go with John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944). This is actually a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 effort, but Brahm’s film stands just fine on its own, thank you very much. Laird Cregar plays the title character. He is none other than Jack the Ripper, renting an upstairs room in a fashionable district. There he performs some rather dark medical experiments and obsesses over his deceased younger brother. Meanwhile, the family (pater familias Sir Cedric Hardwicke, mother Sara Allgood and singer/dancer daughter Merle Oberon) have more and more unanswered questions about their tenant. Hardwicke holds his suspicions at bay, but Allgood and Oberon become more and more nervous. Oberon has every reason to be, as her profession marks her as a likely Ripper target (so, yes, the fact that the actual killer’s victims were all prostitutes is rather glossed over). George Sanders shows up as the Scotland Yard detective assigned to the case, and also as Oberon’s love interest.
There have been so many Jack the Ripper movies, one must be very, very cautious about calling this or that one the definitive tale. I won’t make such a claim for The Lodger, but it is easily one of the best. Unlike Brahm’s The Undying Monster, which, as I wrote two columns ago, is fun but uneven, here Brahm has a film that is perfectly consistent in tone. The opening murder is chilling, a textbook perfect exercise in showing just enough to set the mind in overdrive, imagining all sorts of brutal horrors. Thereafter, the film becomes a case of gradually mounting suspense, as Oberon unknowingly places her neck in a slowly tightening noose.
Good as Brahm’s work is, the single biggest reason for the film’s success is almost certainly Laird Cregar. He was a large, unusual figure. Imagine Stephen Fry with a sociopath’s stare, and you’ll have a pretty spot-on mentail picture of Cregar. He would play a very similar role (his last before his death, and opposite George Sanders once again) in Brahm’s follow up, Hangover Square (1945). But this is the stronger of the two films, and features what I would argue is the more impressive acting achievement. Cregar is excellent in Hangover Square, effortlessly seeing the movie through its flaws, but his character is essentially sympathetic there: he doesn’t know he is a murderer. Here, Cregar is playing a monster. His misogyny is epic. His remorse is nonexistent. And yet. And yet. Somehow, Cregar conjures something in his audience, an emotion that we are not used to feeling for such creatures. It isn’t exactly sympathy, or pity, or understanding, but it is a very close cousin to all three. And so even though we never stop looking at the character as a figure of fear, and fervently hope that Sanders is going to catch him in time, we are also never allowed to forget the character’s humanity. The more I think about it, the more rare Cregar’s accomplishment seems. There have been plenty of sympathetic villains on the screen, but there the effect usually involves the audience at some level condoning the crimes. Here, we don’t. He is absolutely terrifying, and absolutely human.
That’s some kinda acting.