The Lodger (1944)

The 1944 film The Lodger, starring Merle Oberon, Laird Cregar and George Sanders, is a fine example of movie making splendour, ponderously piling suspicion upon suspicion in a brave attempt to create suspense.

The Lodger doesn't fail at all, however, and in spite of some ropey material at times, the three above mentioned leads act their socks off, and are watchable for every second of their screen time.

Less convincing are the cookie-cut Cockneys, the London bobbies in the fog and the behind-the-scenes antics at the music hall, up until the finale of course, which takes place in and around the eaves of a theatre.

It is an epic climax, and worth the wait, something of a classic even. Laird Cregar delivers so much in every scene, it is hard to keep your eyes off him. He is a little like Charles Laughton, an actor born to this, and able to win the viewer with the most subtle and considered acting.

Laird Cregar is indeed fantastic, and gives the performance of his short, short life. He would die in the year of this movie's release, 1944, and aged only 31.

Laird Cregar was already a sensation at this point, or at least becoming one, after only three or four years of starring roles. When The Lodger, one of the many films made about Jack The Ripper, opened in January 1944 at Broadway's Roxy Theatre, Cregar appeared in person and received a five minute standing ovation. 

Even more famously, and later that summer, a teenage Cregar fan, presumably smitten with Cregarmania, was pursued by police and threw herself out of a high window, breaking her leg.

There are pluses and minuses on the way up the ladder to acting fame, and one concerns the problems of casting. Very often, young actors try several things, in order to find their strengths. Cregar was no exception, and in a few years had appeared in musicals, screwball comedies, two noir classics (I Wake Up Screaming and This Gun For Hire) and The Lodger, which to be specific, is probably to be classed as psychological horror. 

The Lodger still has many film noir elements to it, including the psychopathy of the villain, plenty of shadowy scenes, and spooky angles, all favoured of the film noir style. Horror as a genre was not quite there yet, and was still a loose formation of monster pics, psychological fare such as this, and imaginative and film noir like drama, such as Cat People (1942).

What the camera liked about Laird Cregar was not just the soulful, lovelorn eyes, but the silky voice and the menace that both provided as a contradiction to his size.

By the time Cregar came to make Hangover Square, his final film, he felt that typecasting was taking over, something that may well have been cemented in his mind by The Lodger, in which he plays a kind of sexually-deranged ogre. 

Instead, as he told co-star George Sanders, he sought to be 'a beautiful man'. This quest for beauty caused him to lose around 100 pounds in weight, on a crash diet which included a prescription of amphetamines.

Laird Cregar's Jack the Ripper moment was an intense acting job, probably heightened by the fact that Cregar's close friend David Bacon, star of the serial The Masked Marvel, was murdered during filming of this, also using a knife, just like The Ripper did.

The effect may have been intense, but whether it was or not, the raging psycho Cregar portrayed in The Lodger became his public face. For a gentle, sweet individual who was probably at heart a comic,  and was certainly known to be hypersensitive and as prone to sudden laughter as he was to tears, this was probably not the best direction.

By all accounts, indeed, Cregar sounds great fun, camping it up here and there and appearing in drag. This kind of high-melodrama stock villain however, was just his thing for a short spell.

And film noir aficionados will notice that there is a fairly common theme here, which concerns men that are psychologically affected by pictures of women. It is something that comes up several times in the canon.

Here, in The Lodger, we are dealing with a hatred that dare not speak its name however, perhaps because it did not have a name in 1944: misogyny.  The problem that the psychopath faces is expressed literally by Cregar's character Mr Slade, when he questions Merle Oberon about her beauty. "How can it be possible to both love and hate something?" he asks. And this is the crux of quite a large amount of psychological violence.

Everything is concealed here within layers of action and doubt, but the question remains truly dramatic: how do men react to extreme and unattainable beauty? Perhaps they do not really know if they like or dislike women? If they are to philosophically pursue this question, is this to lead to madness?

None of this is immediately known about Jack the Ripper, but then little was known about psychology, psychopathy and criminal violence, really until quite recently. 

Hollywood in fact was doing its bit here, speculating on what the motives for such crimes might be. Certainly it is sexual, and the violence is gender-based. 

But a lot more needs to be said than just that. Slade, in The Lodger, does seem to confess that he hates women, and most of all he inclines towards hating women that appear on stage, because there these female figures they seem to taunt men all the more. 

Images frustrate him as a psychopath, as does real beauty, and so combined on stage, where artifice is added to the natural sexual inclination, we do indeed have masculinity in turmoil.

The resulting impulse is strictly noir; and it's violent.

* * *

Laird Cregar's Hollywood funeral at Christmas 1944 was suitably gothic in its own right. Pall bearers included Tom Neal, the star of Detour (1945) and reading the eulogy was Vincent Price, who according to biographer Gregory William Mank:

"... immediately replaced Laird as Fox's top villain, inheriting the career Cregar might have had."

The fear of being typecast, compounded with his low-esteem body-issues, certainly contributed to Laird Cregar's death. In his life however, he outshone everyone he worked with, most of the time. Certainly he steals the show in I Wake Up Screaming, leaving Betty Grable and Victor Mature looking quite wooden at times.

Hollywood, with its commingling of dream and nightmare, offered rewards galore for its stars, but the pressures were and probably remain intense. 

Laird Cregar's fear, even at the young age of 30, was that he would never achieve his dream of being a leading man, indeed "a beautiful man."

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