That was fascinating! If I hadn't already known this was an Alfred Hitchcock film, I'd now be looking up the director's name in order to hunt down his other movies. It's a British silent movie, but what makes it special is the fact that it doesn't feel like a silent movie. It feels like a normal movie that just happens to have the odd intertitle. You hardly even notice the soundtrack, since Hitchcock's doing such a fascinating job of telling the story visually that it doesn't really occur to you to listen. You're getting everything through your eyes.
I'd even say that it more closely resembles a modern movie than it does one from the 1960s or 1970s, since movies these days are almost made to be watched with the sound off. I think there are three important factors in this.
Firstly, you can watch it properly. The actors are mostly giving proper performances that you can watch in detail without having to go into Silent Movie Appreciation mode or anything. This makes a huge difference to the storytelling, oddly enough, since you can convey far more information in a scene that's being played realistically. The actor playing the title role, Ivor Novello, is even subtle! Look at the chess game for instance, which has almost no intertitles and yet the actors' body language tells us as much as you'd get today in two dialogue scenes. The cast of this film have the kind of conversations in which you know what they're talking about just from looking at them, so you don't need or even want to be told the exact words.
Secondly, just as important is the way Hitchcock's telling the story. Narrative beats and entire sequences get conveyed visually, so for instance an attempted love scene takes place in the kitchen and so Malcolm Keen starts messing around with pastry and a heart-shaped cutter. That probably sounds corny, but it works. Another scene has the characters listening to their lodger pacing in the room overhead, so Hitchcock sets a chandelier swinging and then fades into a camera angle looking up at Novello through a floor made of glass. (These days of course you'd just use sound.) For a scene where Keen is trying to imagine the events leading up to the crime, Hitchcock points the camera at a footprint in the mud and then projects moving pictures inside it. It's really impressive stuff, actually. Hitchcock always used to say that cinema was a visual medium and I'm tempted to say that all his efforts here make for a better movie than you'd get these days with sound. It's imaginative, it's visually stimulating and it's dynamic to watch.
Thirdly, it's not just a dry technical exercise. On the contrary, it's stylish. Hitchcock had spent time in Germany, studying their movie industry, and here he's borrowing from German expressionism. Look at his use of light and shadow. Look at Novello's introduction, which makes him look so much like a vampire that at one point there's a cross-shaped shadow on his face. (My version of the movie was butchering that scene with some criminally overblown music, but if you mute the volume at that point, you might see that Novello's actually rather good in it.)
I've already said that I like the cast. Ivor Novello was a proper star in those days and I thought he was outstanding, although I had to squint to get past what the soundtrack's doing to his introduction. Meanwhile the female lead is also excellent, even without the scene where she apparently strips naked for a bath. Apparently her name's June. No surname, just June. Of the actors playing her parents, Marie Ault is full of realism and conviction, while Arthur Chesney is if anything underplaying. I liked him, but he doesn't have his co-stars' clarity.
The one who's letting the side down is Malcolm Keen, if you don't count occasional slips from his co-stars or else cameos like an amusingly unconcerned policeman at a murder scene or the girl who goes "drat". Keen's pantomiming. He does have that clarity I was talking about, but he's hollow and he's not inhabiting his role. I actually laughed (in a bad way) at his reaction to "I'm sick and tired of your interference; I never want to see you again." However to be fair to the guy, by general silent movie standards it's a relatively subtle performance and he's only looking so bad because everyone around him's so good. Besides, he had the longest screen career of anyone here (1916-1962), since Novello only did sixteen years of movies before returning to the stage as a matinee idol, writer and composer. Every year the British record industry still gives out Ivor Novello Awards.
The film's based on a book and a stage play about Jack the Ripper, but it's been fictionalised to be about a serial killer called "The Avenger" who every Tuesday kills a blonde. No, really. Similarly this film has no prostitutes, although one can sense echoes of it in how the film is portraying the female lead's life as a professional model. I actually quite liked all that. Jack the Ripper is a huge card to play. He brings a lot of baggage to your story, which might easily distort it. I like the film fine as it is... and besides, if you're desperate for your Ripper fix, there are plenty of other adaptations (1932, 1944, 1953, 2009) to compare it with. The 1932 one even brings back Ivor Novello.
I was more impressed by the film's first half. The second half has plot stuff, a studio-imposed deus ex machina revelation and an action moment in the finale that doesn't work. There are elements are reminiscent of later Hitchcock films, yes (e.g. a bath scene that reminded me slightly of the shower scene in Psycho), but you'd be a bit disappointed if this was the best he'd ever do with them. Mind you, there's an excellent murder.
There's some mildly spicy stuff about the movie's production, if you're interested in historical background. One of Hitchcock's first jobs had been as assistant director to Graham Cutts in 1920, but seven years later Cutts found himself working under Hitchcock on The Lodger. Hitchcock felt a bit awkward about this, but Cutts hated it like poison. He started badmouthing Hitchcock and the film to anyone who'd still listen to him, which was unfortunate since as a former director he still had studio connections. Eventually he managed to win over the head of distribution, C.M. Woolf, and Hitchcock got told that "Your picture is so dreadful that we're just going to put it on the shelf and forget about it", complete with two other films he'd already shot, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. His career was on the point of death. Fortunately the co-founder of Victory Films called in a founding member of the London Film Society called Ivor Montagu, who was impressed by the film and even went so far as to suggest specific changes and reshoots.
Hitchcock was reluctant at first, but he eventually made the changes and then tried to claim they'd almost all been his in the first place, downplaying Montagu's involvement. They were improvements, for instance making scenes clearer and reducing the intertitle count from 300 to 80. The film went on to be a critical and financial hit, of which it was said, "It is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made."
Broadly speaking, it's great. It surprised me. I liked the second half, was stunned by the first and overall found it more immediate and less dated than I'd ever imagined a silent film could be. Hitchcock later called it the first real Hitchcock film. I don't know if the naturalistic acting style is down to him or just the preference of the British film industry back then, but if it's the latter, then I need to see more British silents. Anyway, it's really good and people should be watching it just as much as the more famous 1950s Hitchcocks. I liked the London location shooting too.
Summary: suspense film, a bit sinister, Hitchcock being much more Hitchcocky than you'd expect this early in his career and in some stylistic ways going a good deal further than he would later on. "Be careful, I'll get you yet."