The place is late Victorian London, and the city has been rocked by a series of brutal murders in Whitechapel, all apparently committed by the same man - but who? The police are baffled and the public are nervous about when the killer will strike again. So it is tonight that there are more policemen on the streets than usual, not to mention gangs of would-be vigilantes, but despite their vigilance they do not prevent another victim falling foul of Jack the Ripper, as the murderer is now known. Later that evening, a large figure looms from the fog: Mr Slade (Laird Cregar), a pathologist looking for a room to rent...
This verison of The Lodger was the second remake of Alfred Hitchcock's silent original, and the film for which Cregar, who died tragically young the same year of making this film, was best remembered. Whereas in the first movie we are unsure of whether the new lodger of the title is in fact Jack the Ripper, here it's blaringly obvious from the second he walks into frame, which makes the trustfulness of one character in particular somewhat difficult to believe. Nevertheless, thanks to sympathetic playing it's possible to overlook the more ridiculous aspects.
Mainly this is down to superbly atmospheric direction from John Brahm, working from Barré Lyndon's script, combined with Lucien Ballard's excellent cinematography to create perhaps the most vivid conception of that special kind of Hollywood's Victorian London ever put on film. The moody black and white gloss is offset by equally moody playing by Cregar, whose Slade character never appears comfortable in daylight: the shadows of the gaslit streets suit him so much better, and he professes a love for hanging about near the Thames, letting the water drift around his hands as he moves his face near to the surface.
Yes, he's touched in the brain alright, and this is down to the psychological approach to the killer's motives, very trendy in the American cinema of the 1940s. Slade has a grudge against actresses (not prostitutes, you couldn't say that in movies of this time), which is unfortunate for Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), a music hall performer who lives with her aunt and uncle (Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke) who are now Slade's landlords. He develops a fixation on her beauty, but his troubled mind won't allow him to go about getting to know her in a healthy manner and as he pops out for a spot of slaughter of an evening, we become aware that Kitty could be next on his list.
The plot sticks only loosely to the facts of the case, but that studio-rendered cityscape of narrow streets and heavy fog conjures an authentic tone for all that. George Sanders is the police inspector on the case whose idea of a hot date is to take Kitty to the Black Museum of Scotland Yard and view the murder weapons, though his presence is more centred on making us doubt whether Slade is the actual culprit, not that we doubt it very much. Some fun can be had by looking out for instances of Slade's homosexual tendencies that have warped him: he always uses the back door, Hardwicke describes the killer as a "back alley specialist", he has a small painting of his late brother which he rhapsodises about, and most of all he is set on killing women for bringing out a mixture of lust and disgust in him. Not all of these are intentional, but they do add a later of twisted depth to what could have been a pretty basic horror, as does Cregar's fine, queasy performance. Music by Hugo Friedhofer.