Thursday, November 04, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger

From Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 film The Lodger:

[The lodger is a black and white silent movie. In the clip you see people downstairs, the chandelier shaking, and they look up at the ceiling. The ceiling goes "see through" and you see a guy pacing up stairs. It sort of looks like they are looking up at him through a glass ceiling. You see the soles of his shoes. It is a 17:30 here: ]

From Kill Bill

[In Kill Bill Thurman advances toward Lucy Liu over the glass floor of the club and we see her shoes from underneath. They say FUCK U.]

My first thought seeing these two clips together was that there really was no significant connection between the two. A view from below of feet walking. A coincidence. You look for Tarantino to be swiping from Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai pics. Not so much from silent movies. But the more I thought about it the more important it seemed.

The Lodger is about a town in fear of a serial killer who identifies himself as The Avenger and who only kills "fair haired" women. Daisy is a blonde woman whose parents have a room for rent. A mysterious man -- the lodger -- takes a room. He is strange -- goes out at odd hours, demands all the paintings of blonde women be removed from his room. Daisy is dating Joe, a police office who has recently been put on the Avenger case. Daisy and the Lodger share an attraction. Her parents fear he is the Avenger. Daisy breaks up with Joe because of his jealousy, at which point Joe hits on the theory that the Lodger is the Avenger. Joe has him arrested, at which point they find a gun, a map of the kills, and a picture of a blonde woman in his room. The Lodger escapes custody and explains his story to Daisy -- his sister was murdered by The Avenger and he has been tracking down his sister's killer. The town attacks the Lodger thinking he is the Avenger, but Joe gets a phone call saying the Avenger has been arrested elsewhere. He goes to save the Lodger from the mob. The Lodger and Daisy end up together.

We have no idea why the killer identifies himself as The Avenger -- in fact the Avenger is really a McGuffin in the film, just something that brings the characters into a relationship. Hitchcock wanted The Lodger's innocence to be ambiguous at the end. The studio would not allow it, but they did allow him to never show The Avenger.

The scene in the clip is the Lodger, early in the movie, pacing upstairs, worrying Daisy, Joe and Daisy's mother, below. For 1927 the "see through floor" would have been a pretty stylish effect, I think. In 1927 you have to get clever if you want to show how walking above disturbs people below, because you don't have sound. You can see why a a foot-fetishiest like Tarantino would notice it -- his films are filled with images and references to feet, from the foot massage discussion in Pulp Fiction, to loving shots of feet in Kill Bill (Uma Thurman demanding her big toe to wiggle) Death Proof (which opens with the image of feet on a dashboard), and Inglourious Basterds (Christoph Waltz fitting the shoe to Diane Kruger).

Tarantino does not just mindlessly swipe an image from The Lodger. He reminds us of The Lodger to reverse it: The Lodger revolves around a killer of blonde women. Tarantino's main character is a blonde woman who kills. The Lodger paces back and forth, aimlessly. Thurman is walking with purpose toward her target. Tarantino fills in the blank provided by Hitchcock: Hitchcock's Avenger is a non-character whose name is inexplicable. Uma Thurman is the main character who is obviously avenging a wrong. He makes literal Hitchcock's imagery: Hitchcock had a "see through floor" as a special effect. Tarantino has Thurman walk on a glass floor. It is a bit of a fuck you to Hitchcock, a bit of a "LOOK WHAT I CAN DO" so it is a nice detail that Thurman's shoes have FUCK U written across the bottom, and because of that see through floor we can see it.

Tarantino wants to establish his film as better than all other action and suspense films, and himself as better than Hitchcock. But Hitchcock is a pretty major presence to try and overthrow. So he goes after Hitchcock through one of his smaller films, but one that in its themes -- a man wrongly accused, sexually motivated murders -- will be a bit of a prototype of Hitchcock's later films. He is cutting the tree that towers over him at the root.


Joel Gunz said...

Excellent post! But where's the Miltonic element?

Geoff Klock said...

The Miltonic element is that it is the kind of allusion Milton uses -- not just an allusion, but an interpretative allusion. Like Milton, when Tarantino references something he does so to comment on it, to change how we view it, to make it appear flawed in some way -- so Tarantino can come along and "finish" it. So in this case he notices for example that Hitchcock never explained the whole Avenger angle. Tarantino will recast it to fix that.

plok said...

That was worth the trip for sure!

Mind you, we kind of travelled backwards, eh? A neat trick!

And, goddamn weirdly, my verification code is "nowledsh". Man, that kind of freaks me out!

Geoff Klock said...

Plok! I am so glad to have you here to witness my return to blogging.