Tuesday 1 September 2009

Hangover Square (1945)

Director: John Brahm
Stars: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell and George Sanders

After the success of 1944's The Lodger, the best version of the old Jack the Ripper story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, most of the cast and crew returned for this reprise in another form. This time out the source novel is by Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote Gaslight and Rope, but John Brahm returned to direct, Barré Lyndon to write the screenplay, Laird Cregar and George Sanders to head up the cast. Replacing Merle Oberon as the delectable lead is Linda Darnell, who had been the leading lady in the greatest swashbuckler of them all, the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro, and played the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette.

Sadly this was Cregar's last film. After really arriving in the cinematic world with The Lodger, his 15th film, he departed it with Hangover Square, his 16th, and when I say 'departed', I mean it literally as well as figuratively. Through an attempt to avoid being typecast as a large and heavy man in the sort of roles that Sidney Greenstreet usually got, he embarked on a crash diet of epic proportions, losing a hundred of his three hundred pounds in less than a year until his heart gave out under the strain. He was only 31 years old when he died and he didn't live to see this film released. He's still a big man here, hard to hide given that he was 6'3", but he seems thinner, less imposing and much younger too. It's easy to see how he could see himself as a romantic leading man.

It's a twisted irony that the actions he took to reach his goal are the ones that precluded his reaching it. In trying to leave the horror thriller genre he merely ensured that he'd be remembered for it, especially given how reminiscent he often is of Vincent Price, who not coincidentally provided the eulogy at his funeral. Like Cregar, Price had a number of films behind him in a variety of genres, but was starting to dip his feet into the genre for which he'd become forever associated. From early films like Tower of London and The Invisible Man Returns, he made Laura in 1944 and Shock in 1946. The suggestion of course is that had he lived, Cregar might have followed the same sort of career path.

Here he's George Harvey Bone, a distinguished composer or at least one on the track to becoming distinguished. He lives at 12 Hangover Square in Chelsea, hence the title of our film which has nothing to do with drink. It's the early 20th century and there's a killer loose in London. An antiques dealer is stabbed then set on fire in Fulham at the same time that Bone finds himself stumbling down the Fulham Road. He's apparently unable to remember where he is or what he's done but he has blood on his collar and a knife in his pocket.

Fearing the worst, he turns himself in to Scotland Yard, explaining his situation to Dr Allan Middleton, a psychiatrist played by George Sanders who has tests run on his blood and the knife. These come back clean, so while Bone could have committed the murder, the obvious things that could prove it couldn't prove it. Yet the blackouts continue, sometimes for entire days, where he could apparently do anything without even a shiver of a recollection. Of course, as a decent young composer, he has no reason to hurt anyone anyway, but that incentive soon arises in the form of Netta Longdon.

Longdon is a singer, one that dances even more suggestively than Merle Oberon in The Lodger and Bone is impressed enough to follow her out to the bar and play something for her. Her lover Mickey has words that fit the tune and it doesn't take long for him to raise 50 guineas selling it, 25 for him and 25 for her, not a one for George. She's a gold digger, eager to play up to him and whisper sweet nothings into his ear, just so long as he continues to write songs for her. She even switches her affections from Mickey to a theatrical agent called Eddie Carstairs, whom she plans to marry, while still pretending to be lovey dovey with George. Of course he has to find out sooner or later and that's it for her, but Dr Middleton has his ideas about how that all goes down.

After The Lodger I was eager to see Hangover Square, not expecting TCM to grant my wish within a couple of weeks. However they did precisely that, not because of Cregar or Sanders but because of composer Bernard Herrman who is being featured throught October 2009. Being a story about a mad pianist and composer, this is a peach of a film for someone who would go onto write such famous soundtracks as Psycho. In fact, in the way that Herrmann writes the music, Bone's concerto is actually a musical interpretation of his crimes; what he can't remember consciously is still there subconsciously manifesting itself into his composition.

The finale is wonderfully done, Bone playing his concerto with passion to a rapt audience, including the woman who loves him despite himself, and becoming a name to be reckoned with. The piece is full of suspense and menace, aptly fitting both the memories that come flooding back and the arrival of Middleton and the law. The sweeping cameras and dark music whirl the story to its fiery climax and the conclusion to Cregar's career. No wonder Stephen Sondheim was influenced by it when composing Sweeney Todd. It was only Herrmann's fifth score but he was accomplished as early as his first, which was no less a film than Citizen Kane.

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