Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.
Less than 40 years passed between the series of gruesome London murders by the unknown killer dubbed Jack the Ripper and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Concerning the fictional Avenger and his multiple young, blonde female victims, the film was a direct reference to very real crimes that were well within living memory of many in the audience. Their remembrances would have perhaps faded dream-like over the years, more cultural memory than tangible experience, but the connection was clear.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, based on Maria Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel, was not Hitchcock’s first film, but it was the first to showcase his brand of stylish suspense, as well as his trademark dry, sometimes sick humor. In The Lodger, he began utilizing visual cues that he would still reference decades later. It was the perfect story for the burgeoning director, with Jack the Ripper’s famous anonymity providing the foundation for an exploration into cultural assumptions, suspicion and mob justice. Lodger was a smashing hit in its day, in part because it cast the languidly handsome Ivor Novello as the titular character, a strange and mysterious man filled with equal parts insecurity and white-knuckled desire.
Though considered iconic today, the 1927 Hitchcock version is still somewhat flawed, known more for its moments of genius than its overall effect. A softness in the cinematography fails to make the best use of the light-dark metaphors; everything from deep silhouettes to bright peroxide curls blends into gray. There is a clumsiness in both visuals and metaphor, misleading moments used in lieu of actual suspense and an unnecessarily heavy-handed moral. Subtlety was never Alfred Hitchcock’s style, and that is all too evident in his Lodger. Yet the morbid humor and barely concealed sexuality that permeates the film lifts it out of its potboiler trappings and fully into the modern thriller genre. Lodger plays with the concepts of bondage, obsession and homosexuality, none of it covert. Novello, a gay man once described as collecting lovers as one would collect flowers, plays a character who is described bluntly as having no interest in women.
Lowndes’ novel was widely popular, so much so that traits of its fictitious Avenger are often conflated with actual facts from the Jack the Ripper murders. Our common cultural perception of the psychology behind The Ripper comes almost directly from Belloc Lowndes’ book. The 1944 The Lodger, the second remake of Hitchcock’s silent, expands on this psychology and is not coy about its real world origins, further blurring the line between fact and fiction by calling the killer “The Ripper.”
If one ever doubted that the gruesomeness of the actual crimes were what drew in audiences to Hitchcock’s original and three remakes over a 25-year period, the French poster for the 1944 Lodger should put that doubt to rest. A looming, shadowy Laird Cregar stares menacingly as a small, red rendering of Merle Oberon is superimposed upon him, her scalloped, uplifted cancan skirt looking at first glance like the spilling entrails of a murder victim.
More than 50 years passed before a fifth version of The Lodger was filmed, this time by director David Ondaatje. The Lodger (2009) was conceived as tribute to Hitchcock. Ondaatje was no stranger to the famed director, having previously written and directed the short subject Waiting for Dr. MacGuffin. Set in modern-day Hollywood, Ondaatje’s Lodger is not about Jack the Ripper but rather a copycat recreating the five canonical Ripper killings. Police detective Chandler Manning (Alfred Molina) blusters and insults his way through the case, while in another part of town, a mysterious man (Simon Baker) rents a guest house from disturbed Ellen Bunting (Hope Davis), who is both immediately attracted to and suspicious of her new lodger.
The Lodger references a variety of 1940s film noir, making it resemble the 1944 remake more than Hitchcock’s 1927 original. These random noir elements in the 2009 version are paired with a few token Hitchcock references and an overabundance of Gothic cliches. There are spilled inkwells, thunderclaps of impending doom, a housewife sporting an improbable Veronica Lake peek-a-boo and a hilarious attempt to film a crumpled vinyl gym bag as though it were Marnie’s purse. These are merely curios floating about like so much flotsam, attached to nothing and bereft of any real meaning.
The Lodger is the kind of film where the pool of suspects is almost exactly as long as the cast list, which is a hell of a lazy way to create suspense. There are outrageous gaffes such as a police researcher protesting, “You don’t need me. Why don’t you use the Google?” And he means it: he proceeds to print out webpages found on “the Google” and submits them as official reports on the 1888 Whitechapel murders. It is all very silly, though the silliness is tempered by the cynicism of a film that uses brutal murders to break up the monotony of a railroad plot.
The 1927 Lodger is cynical too, but its cynicism is derived from the reality that human beings often display a lack of, well, humanity, and once acknowledged, one can attempt to examine the reasoning behind behavior. Our understanding of the overall message in the film comes from our investment in the characters. No such investment occurs in the 2009 remake, with characters so hokey they practically dare us to give a damn.
Revisiting the 1927 silent and the Ripper murders probably seemed like a good idea on the proverbial paper. The crimes are fascinating and well known, plus The Lodger was the first so-called “real” Hitch film, and it would now be in the hands of a director who had already done a Hitchcock homage. Yet there is very little comparison to be made between the two films, simply because the goals of the filmmakers diverged so greatly. Alfred Hitchcock examined the very real consequences of mob mentality, while Ondaatje is content to merely play with his cinematic building blocks, mashing haphazard filmic elements together until they reach a reasonable runtime.
It’s disturbing, though, that the 2009 film so blithely uses actual murders as source material for such a trifle. Hitchcock, despite his morbid humor, acknowledged the brutality of the crimes. And the murders were brutal and terrifying, metaphorical attacks on all women, a literal ripping out of womanhood by someone who likely wanted to remove women from society altogether. Hitchcock understood this and wisely created female characters that were reasonable, genuine people, easy to relate to. Ondaatje’s version indulges in the thoughtless sexism of exploitation and a series of hysterical female characters that fail to resemble reality at all. The 2009 version practically revels in its cluelessness, rendering it distasteful and entirely unnecessary.