Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inspired by Hitchcock and the Ripper: The Lodger

In an eminently defensible decision, BBC History magazine’s 2005 readers’ poll selected Jack the Ripper as the “Worst Briton in History.” At least Whitechapel’s notorious serial killer would inspire some interesting fiction, including Robert Bloch’s classic short story, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel, The Lodger. The latter would become the source material for several motion picture adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1927 silent film and David Ondaatje’s contemporary updating of The Lodger story (trailer here), which opens in New York tomorrow.

While Ondaatje’s Lodger takes place in present day Los Angeles and Hitchcock’s Lodger is set in foggy London eighty-some years prior, both films start in roughly the same place. As a serial killer stalks his victims, sensational press coverage heightens the city’s growing anxiety. Against this backdrop, a reserved stranger with a mysterious black bag rents living quarters from a family, but insists the portraits be removed from his walls, because their eyes disturb him. From there, the films diverge completely.

Malcolm, Ondaatje’s secretive lodger, explains to his prospective land-lady, Ellen, that as a writer he keeps odd hours and can never be disturbed. He refuses to meet her husband, but offers plenty of up-front cash. Ellen has no problem with any of his conditions, particularly his cash, but she is also clearly attracted to her new tenant.

Simultaneously, Chandler Manning of the L.A. County Sheriff’s department is pursuing a serial killer who is re-enacting the murders of Jack the Ripper. As an expert in Ripper history Manning would seem to be the perfect cop for the case, but the forensic evidence from the recent killings has exonerated a man Manning previously sent to death row for a similar pattern of murders. With his career in jeopardy, Manning is convinced the key to the case lies in determining which historical Ripper suspect the killer believes he is emulating, so he enrolls his unfortunate partner in a crash course of Jack the Ripper 101.

In what is more-or-less the lead role, Albert Molina is an impressive screen presence as Manning, elevating the film above standard thriller fare. The British actor is great fun to watch as he growls politically incorrect abuse at his partner and delves into the Ripper lore. A number of interesting character-actors flesh out Lodger’s cast, including Philip Baker Hall (who was probably born stern and flinty), as the territorial LAPD Captain Smith. Unfortunately, Simon Baker (star of TV's The Mentalist) fails to convey a true sense of menace as the title man of mystery, but Hope Davis is quite convincing in the surprisingly tricky role of Ellen, his on-screen foil.

Ondaatje and cinematographer David A. Armstrong (known for his work on the Saw franchise) often visually channel Hitchcock and the script even lifts an entire scene from Psycho (not the shower sequence) as a tribute. Unlike Armstrong’s previous films, Ondaatje wisely keeps most of the gore safely off-screen. While the clichéd final ending is a bit of a disappointment, The Lodger is still a modest, but enjoyable little thriller, thanks in large measure to Molina’s thoroughly entertaining performance. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Quad Theatre.