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Barbican Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’

It was only just last year that we saw filmmakers take another crack at this old nut. Cribbing the original title and whisking Hitchcock’s 84-year-old thriller away to the sprawling hills of West Hollywood, we find another ‘Alfred’ – in this case Molina – heading up proceedings.

The fact that almost no part of the core plot has changed over the last eight decades is a fitting testament to the timelessness of great story telling. Indeed, even through the grainy veil of early black-and-white footage, Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story Of London Fog (1927) is still a delightfully entertaining and gripping work; a superb choice for composer Paul Robinson’s particular brand of music.

In his tenth such work to date, Robinson unites with his sextet of accompaniment veterans, HarmonieBand, once more, in a new score for the legendary director’s 1926 silent film. Back in the twenties you wouldn’t have found the official soundtrack of your favourite film on the shelves of local record stores.

In the silent film traditions of Japan – and even parts of Germany – it was common to have narrators called Benshi establish a running commentary along with the picture. However, the only soundtrack that most of their British counterparts would feature was a honky-tonk piano played live with each performance; a far cry from the eighty-piece, symphony orchestras that are the staple of big-budget cinema today.

Robinson hasn’t quite stretched to the grandeur of the London Philharmonic is his new composition for The Lodger and is still writing for the same five, faithful colleagues with whom he has worked on nine previous films. They comprise a remarkably small number of instruments – eight in total – including piano, drums and saxophone. What is astonishing in Robinson’s scores is variety of sounds and textures that is able to draw from such a small ensemble.

Creating the myriad of atmospheres and soundtracks demanded by the varying locations and scenarios of a feature length film is no mean feat. Robinson handles it effortlessly though, slipping from brooding contemporary sounds that underscore tension in one scene to a jiving, jazz band, in the next, as the film cuts to a flashback sequence. While this kind of shift could be dazzlingly jarring without the helping hand of a studio cross-fade, Robinson handles the transition with convincing ease, moving from one style to the next inside a single beat.

Though it might be considered tempting to throw in a honky-tonk style nod to the original piano music that would have accompanied the film, Robinson resists, letting his score exist in its own time period. This doesn’t mean he’s taking himself too seriously, though. He twice throws in special effects (sometimes referred to in music as ‘Mickey-Mousing’): a cymbal crash timed perfectly with a falling tin tray and a comedy thud on the drums as the clumsy Mr Bunting has something of a Laurel and Hardy moment. Touches like this are a settling reminder that while Paul Robinson is a hard-working, award winning composer, he hasn’t let his craft overshadow Hitchcock’s own quirky sense of humour; many tongue-in-cheek splashes of which are present in The Lodger.

Existing in its own time period, though, can‘t help present certain drawbacks for the score. Throughout the film, Robinson’s electric organ can be heard kicking out a number of overtly synthesised sounds, the type of which are arguably inconsistent with the aesthetic of an early silent film grounded very much in its analogue roots.

While this has no reflection on the composition itself, the presence of electronic sounds that identify more with the action films of the eighties than they do with the silent cinema of the twenties may be distracting for some. Robinson can be forgiven though, when we consider the significantly limited number of instruments he’s working with.

Ultimately, Robinson’s score reinvigorates a remarkably aged film, with note-perfect musical precision. Modern cinema perhaps takes for granted its access to sweeping, orchestral soundtracks; quick to forget the humble honky-tonk beginnings of silent film. Robinson’s bespoke musical accompaniment – realised in HarmonieBand’s live performance – shows us the dramatic effect a well-tailored soundtrack can give to a film that was erstwhile deprived. From his seat behind the organ, he carefully conducts a wonderfully wrought score that adds even to the polished performance of matinee idol Ivor Novello and the expert direction of master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. 

Matthew Groizard