Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hangover Square (20th Century-Fox, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had run the film Hangover Square from 1945, a quite obvious follow-up to the 1944 20th Century-Fox remake of The Lodger: the same director (John Brahm), writer (Barré Lyndon) and male leads: Laird Cregar as a psychopathic killer and George Sanders as the Scotland Yard official (here referred to as a police-affiliated doctor rather than an actual cop) who’s trying to catch him. One interesting aspect of this movie is how the billing got flipped around: whereas The Lodger had billed the female lead, Merle Oberon, first, George Sanders second and Laird Cregar third, Hangover Square had Cregar first, Linda Darnell second and Sanders third! Turner Classic Movies showed this as part of a month-long salute to composer Bernard Herrmann, who no doubt particularly relished this assignment because the gimmick in this story (based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote the originals for Gaslight and Rope) is that the mad killer is also a genius-level composer, George Harvey Bone, and the score includes a full-length movement for a piano concerto that supposedly represents Bone’s greatest work.

Aside from that, Hangover Square is a pretty close ripoff of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not so much Stevenson’s original novel as the 1932 and 1941 film versions of it, both of which had the schizoid hero torn between a good woman and a bad one. Here the good woman is Barbara Chapman (Faye Marlowe), aspiring pianist and daughter of famous conductor Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier, in what’s probably his second-best role, after the Holy Father he played in Orson Welles’ film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth three years later), who’s encouraging Bone to write a great piano concerto which her dad has promised to premiere at a soirée at his home, with Bone himself as soloist. The bad girl is music-hall singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), whom Bone encounters after he tells police psychiatrist Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders) that he has spells during which he blacks out completely and has no idea what he’s done until he comes to again hours later — and Middleton, who’s supposed to be the voice of reason in this movie but on this point is totally off base, says that he should take time off from serious composition, mingle with common people and have fun.

Accordingly Bone attends one of Netta’s performances (the handbill for it gives the date as 1903, the only clue we get as to when this film takes place — though all the homes and streets are still rather anachronistically lit with gas instead of electricity and only the presence of a telephone indicates a more modern technological age) and she realizes she can seduce him into writing songs for her shows. Netta is a fascinating character whose ruthless, femme fatale aspects are a bit beyond Darnell’s capabilities as an actress (once again this is a movie from the classic age that would have been a lot better with Barbara Stanwyck as the female lead — not only was she unsurpassed at playing these sorts of hard-bitten, unscrupulous women, but she could have sung the part herself whereas Darnell was quite obviously being voice-doubled); she’s vamping Bone to get songs out of him while at the same time she’s in a relationship with her manager, Eddie Carstairs (Glenn Langan — so two of the cast members of Hangover Square were in stupid sci-fi movies in the 1950’s: Napier in The Mole People and Langan in The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast) and Eddie is pimping her out to rich men in order to make them both money.

The first third of Hangover Square is almost ludicrously overwrought — thinking of the This Is Spinal Tap joke, I said, “This movie starts at 11!” — but the film gains strength and power as it progresses, mainly because of the skill with which Cregar nails both sides of the character’s personality. The tumbled state of his psyche, the ease with which the traumas that are piling up on him can send him into a murderous psycho state, is the most real part of this film. Brahm and Lyndon make a mistake by showing Cregar as a murderer in the very first scene — both Charles and I thought the film would have been more appealing if they’d kept the is-he-or-isn’t-he suspense going a little while longer (and Charles said he’d have liked it better if the Cregar character had turned out to be an innocent man being manipulated by someone else to commit murder — though perhaps Patrick Hamilton had already done the innocent-being-driven-crazy-and-framed-for-murder bit in Angel Street, the source for Gaslight, and didn’t want to repeat himself) — and for much of the early going they seem uncertain whether to make Hangover Square a thriller or a horror film.

At least part of the horror is the twist in Bone’s personality that in his psycho states he must not only kill, but dispose of the body by fire — which gives Brahm an excuse to stage some pretty spectacular fire sequences, especially when Bone discovers how Netta has been deceiving him and kills her. As luck would have it, the night he commits the murder is not only the opening night of her big show (there’s a chilling little moment illustrating the transitory nature of fame; when she disappears before her second night, unseen hands pull down the placard advertising her and put up a new one with a different show title and star) but also Guy Fawkes Day, which not only gives Brahm an excuse to stage a Guy Fawkes bonfire but allows him and Lyndon to have Bone dispose of Netta’s body by disguising it as a Fawkes effigy (which fools a passing policeman), throwing it on the bonfire and burning it up.

The film’s ending is as baroque and over-the-top as the rest; fighting a reluctant batch of Scotland Yard personnel who can’t believe Bone is a murderer, Middleton (whose character has definite Holmesian aspects — given Sanders’ repeated successes as lesser detectives, not only in this film and The Lodger but earlier in RKO’s Saint and Falcon series and later in Lured, Sanders as Sherlock Holmes remains one of the great might-have-beens of cinema history; too bad Sanders reached both his creative and career peaks at a time when Basil Rathbone owned Sherlock Holmes on screen!) has finally convinced the Yard’s detectives to arrest Bone on the night he’s supposed to premiere his concerto — and Bone, realizing what’s going on and fearful of being institutionalized, first tries to flee from Chapman’s home (in mid-performance he tells Barbara to take over as piano soloist), then sets the place ablaze and, as everyone else evacuates (there’s a grim bit of amusement as the orchestra members — especially the bass section — try to get out with their instruments), Bone retakes his seat at the piano as the entire house burns down and collapses around him, immolating him.

Hangover Square is an overwrought movie but one with considerable appeal. Herrmann’s score is fascinating — Charles said he ought to have added two more movements and presented it as a full-fledged concerto — and it’s also Cregar’s final film and the only one he made after an ill-advised crash diet lowered his weight from 300 to 200 pounds but also provoked a heart attack that killed him at age 31. Sources differ as to why he wanted to lose weight so badly; the “official” version is that he wanted to be able to play romantic leads instead of being relegated to psycho villains and Sydney Greenstreet-type roles, but one story I’ve heard is that Cregar was Gay and thought he’d have a better chance picking up men if he were slimmer. Be that as it may, Cregar died before Hangover Square was released and, as with James Dean’s final two films, the shadow of his actual death hangs heavily over this film and just adds to the sense of doom that surrounds his character.