Eh?

“Another.”

So, Joseph Losey week safely over, we got this box set of “Fifty Film Noirs”, many of which are actually old TV shows and stuff, and many of which are VERY BAD QUALITY.

One of the stranger things included was a film I didn’t even know existed, THE LODGER.

No, not that one.

And not that one either.

This one! A ’30s remake of the Hitchcock original, again starring Ivor Novello, and directed by Maurice Elvey. Elvey could be the great lost mediocrity of British cinema, working over five decades and building up a truly negligible body of work, although there are islands of interest speckled among his ocean of dross. HINDLE WAKES, which he filmed twice, in 1918 and 1927, has a good reputation as a rare unpatronising look at working-class life and leisure. And anybody whose career runs from 1913 silent shorts to 1958 TV episodes is tied into our history in ways that are unimaginable now.

THE LODGER, unleashed stateside as THE PHANTOM FIEND, isn’t exactly one of Elvey’s highest points, but it has plenty of weird interest. Mostly sound-stage-bound, it occasionally throws in ciné-veritéstreet scenes showing news vendors hawking the latest accounts of “the Avenger” and his murderous exploits. It features a frighteninly nubile Jack Hawkins, playing “straight man” to Ivor Novello’s very queer gentleman.

‘ere I am, J.H.

It has a bizarre and lively leading lady, Elizabeth Allen (later to be seen slaughtering German fifth columnists in WENT THE DAY WELL?). And it has the strange, sometimes comical figure of Novello himself. And one simply superb cut: Hawkins describes how a murder victim’s throat was slashed from ear to ear, and Elvey jumps to Novello, in his room, drawing the bow across his violin with passionate intensity…

Brrr…illiant. Disgracefully, I can’t remember if this occurs in the Hitchcock. Very possibly it does. Elvey is also aided by his gifted screenwriters, actor/director Miles Mander, and director/producer/author Paul Rotha. So it’s hard for me to say where the idea came from. Perhaps a clue that I need to re-view the original. In fact, I have a dozen or so early Hitchcocks that need viewing…

Seemingly Novello’s Welsh accent was considered quite impossible in the early days of British sound film, so the script contrives a Serbian backstory for him, and his Celtic inflections are subsumed in cod-Balkan. Novello is a Shadowplay favourite because he is funny. Also, because of his peculiar dressing-room shenanigans. As with Ramon Novarro, there is absolutely no mistaking his homosexuality, which means that every film where he plays it hetero becomes a piece of Brechtian theatre, only more amusing. 

Ivor is startled by a portrait on the wall!

But mainly the film was interesting because the crumbling soundtrack, bad splices and low-quality telecine made it all but inaudible. “It sounds like it was recorded on tissue paper,” Fiona said. When you can’t hear what people are really saying, it’s fun to just make stuff up and imagine a new story that would incorporate these lines:

“Insatiable nothingness.”

“Taking orders is an early morning cup of tea.”

“Why could I find something for to be strong in me?”

“What with the back-station, nobody wants a butler these days.”

“Just in time, pod bank.”

“Nine million people in London are immersive in Stanford Heath.”

(Casually) “Ah, that’s the murderer come in.”

“Ah, should… earth coat git.”

“You ought to know better than Sister Agatha’s common wife.”

Which leads to this reply: “You are lucky to have that at all.”

“Yes, I sorry he didn’t appear scraped away.”

“What’s wrong with him?” brings the response, “Ah, he’s slightly dark.”

Some of these are more suggestive of a screwy Russian sci-fi film than a fogbound London shocker. Which makes me want to try running this inaudible early talkie alongside this unsubtitled Soviet space opera. Who needs drugs?

6 Responses to “Eh?”

  1. From the look of these screen grabs if someone’s planning to make The Ivor Novello Story, Paul Reubens would be perfect casting.

  2. Of course my main man Jeremy Northam played Novello in Gosford Park, but left out the Welsh accent — it’s a notoriously difficult accent to do, and maybe it was felt that it would be hard on American ears. But it would have helped to put across the character’s displaced feeling in the country house: Novello moved among the upper crust but was not of them.

    It’s a fascinating life story — apart from the two Hitchcock films (Downhill has a very interesting sexuality about it) he was a wildly popular songwriter who staged trashy theatre spectacles that went over huge with the middle classes. In the postwar years of rationing he was arrested for a black market scam (everybody was doing it at the time, just like in The Third Man). His accuser was a woman, he called her a liar in court, and this ungentlemanly act got him a harsher sentence.

    I saw a documentary about Novello where former London gangster Mad Frankie Fraser (speciality – electrodes to the testicles) visited the jail where he and Novello both did time, and speculated on how very hard it would have been for a man of Novello’s sensitivity and culture to spend time in prison.

    Despite this momentary disgrace, Novello managed to get himself buried in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral (thanks to Christopher Fowler for that tidbit) which perhaps suited his coffin fetish…

  3. And leave us not forget Malcolm McDowell’s magnificent entrance in If. . . — where Lindsay Anderson has his costumed to resemble Ivor Novello in The Lodger (Hitchcock’s version).

  4. As homaged by regular Shadowplayer Alex.

    Fiona thinks Novello’s hand, in that shot, looks like it’s made of wax. And if you look at any Novello film, there are always shots where he appears to have wax hands. Very strange.

  5. Kind of like the hand at the top of the stairway in Whale’s The Old Dark House — which inspired Charles Aadams’ “Thing.”

  6. I love that hand! I love how its attachment is briefly questionable.

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