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Tuesday, 10 October 2017


The beginning of 1945 brought horror fans a posthumous tribute to a notable actor who had died too young and with much promise left unfulfilled - most poignantly perhaps to himself. As we saw with 1944’s The Lodger (see my review of 3/6/2017) Laird Cregar was a talented character actor of imposing build who was tragically uncomfortable with the disparity between his appearance and the self he yearned to project. He saw himself as a romantic lead and while this may have seemed delusional to cruel doubters, if he’d been born later in the century he may well have benefitted from the shift in perceptions that allowed previously ‘unlikely’ sex symbols to emerge such as the diminutive Dustin Hoffman or the overweight, unprepossessing yet gifted charm of Gerard Depardieu. Sadly, it was not enough for Cregar to dream in quiet frustration. He carried out a disastrous plan, without medical supervision, to crash-diet a third off his formidable size down to the sleek lines of the suave matinee idol of his mind’s eye – with fatal consequences.

The role that triggered Cregar’s self-sculpting was the psychotically murderous pianist George Harvey Bone in Fox’s Hangover Square, a meaty part which many actors would kill for, never mind within. He however feared it simply prolonged the large man of menace pigeon-holing he was so desperate to escape. After initially refusing it, the studio’s iron-clad contract forced him to renege; thus, since he couldn’t change the part, he decided he would change himself.

Hangover Square is a strong psychological thriller about homicidal compulsion, often labelled a film noir, and Fox gave it a handsome treatment. It had much in common with The Lodger, reuniting director John Brahm with Cregar and co-star George Sanders. Both actors were engaged again in a battle between good and evil at the dawn of criminal psychology. Here Sanders oozes his trademark poise not as a police officer but as a psychiatrist, although the difference is negligible since after a consultation with troubled Bone he immediately tips off a police superintendent (conveniently waiting in an adjoining room!) to have plainclothesmen tail this potentially unstable chap. Incidentally, Sanders replicates his suave opportunism with the ladies by once more flirting with the central lady concerned, in this case Bone’s girlfriend Barbara played by Faye Marlowe. (Forties filmmakers were clearly inspired by a familial quality here – it’s amusing to note that Sanders real-life brother Tom Conway crosses the same doctor-patient boundary as an urbane psychiatrist in 1943’s The Seventh Victim).

Bone’s problem is that he is a highly-driven composer and pianist plagued with unfortunate mental blackouts for long stretches during which he cannot account for his actions. We however can; Barré Lyndon and Marian Spitzer’s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1942 play begins by showing Bone stabbing to death an antique dealer in a striking point-of-view. Unlike The Lodger there will be no mystery about the killer’s identity in this film – instead it’s a portrayal of a man’s mind unravelling under the increasing torment of his hidden tendencies.

Events are played out against the backdrop of an Edwardian London period only a few years after the Whitechapel of 1888 used in the previous film and is well realised by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and art directors Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler. Fox even blessed the production’s music with a terrific and inventive score by maestro Bernard Psycho Herrmann. Whenever Bone suffers one of his psychotic episodes of compulsion, the soundtrack switches to shrill pipes to emphasis his discordant inner state as his vision swims in milky confusion. Reputedly Stephen Sondheim credited Herrmann’s work here as a great inspiration for his equally Guignol-esque classic Sweeney Todd.

Supporting Cregar and Sanders there is a nice contrast between Marlowe’s winsome and guileless Barbara and the conniving gold-digger chanteuse Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) who would be hard to resist if we didn’t know she is constantly feathering her own nest at poor Bone’s expense. Sanders’ Dr Middleton had advised the tormented Bone to find “some other emotional outlet” besides music. Notwithstanding his nocturnal hobby of sleepwalking murder, Bone is distracted even more from such counsel by Netta’s manipulation of him to write her hit songs whilst stringing him along with the promise of wedding bells.

It’s a measure of Cregar’s skill that he never loses our sympathy for his character despite attempting to throttle the undeserving Barbara in the throes of his red-mist rage and actually killing his own Siamese cat (mercifully off-camera). Whilst investing Bone with a haunted, sad-eyed depth of feeling he has that effortless likeability reminiscent of the similarly-framed Stephen Fry. It’s a shame he didn’t recognise that his voice’s beguiling softness of tone was also a valuable instrument for offsetting aspects of his appearance that he disliked.

Of course what helps us to side with the character is when Bone finally gives Netta her comeuppance with the aid of a knotted curtain sash, strangling her in the style of the Indian Thuggee cult and disguising her as a Guy Fawkes dummy to burn atop the community bonfire on November the fifth. This scene may have been slightly mystifying to American audiences unfamiliar with this British celebration.

On this subject there are a couple of comic cultural moments for British viewers caused by concessions made to Transatlantic moviegoers. Bone gets the idea for Netta disposal after he is besieged by a gang of street urchins wheedling the traditional ‘money for the guy’ out of him. Their dialogue is delivered (or dubbed) by the most charmingly well-spoken Cockneys you’ll ever hear: “He’s a bit of alright!” – “How splendid! A shilling!” - as though they’re dodging Eton housemasters rather than the workhouse. This reverse Dick van Dyke experience goes one better later on. Listen out for the lovely satirical swipe made by a passing newsvendor who, with unusually clear enunciation, calls out: “They can’t find the body. Police at their ruddy wits’ end as usual”. Bonus gems like this make writing about old horror movies priceless.

Eventually Bone has to face the music - literally so when Alan Napier’s Sir Henry Chapman sponsors a first concerto performance by him. Although Bone has spent almost the entire film untouched as the world’s most obvious murder suspect, in the end he cannot outrun himself. To his credit, Dr Middleton predicts this and tries to stem the inevitable psychopathic dam-burst: “Listen, my friend, you’re out of balance”. Bone locks the shrink in a cupboard by way of reply and heads off to his host’s place. As he begins to play the planned concert, suddenly all those terrible deep-frozen memories thaw into a wave of horrific self-realisation. The dark doom-laden feel of his work doesn’t help, signalling a turbulent soul crying out for release as the same fingers that extinguished life hammer the keys. At times like this, one can see why pianists are such ideal tortured performers in horror movies. It wouldn’t be the same somehow if he played the tuba. 

As if hearing a musical confession, the police and the freed Middleton interrupt the concert, forcing Bone into a confrontation that leads to a flaming fate of going down playing as the wrecked house burns around him. “It’s better this way” soothes Middleton to Barbara, having settled his bill by way of female companionship.

The legacy of Cregar’s drastic weight loss down to 200 lbs for Hangover Square ultimately taxed his heart and stomach. Sadly he did not survive a resulting operation and died two months before his last film’s release - on December 9th 1944. In his desperate desire to chase one elusive image, he denied audiences the chance to see him illuminate many more (Javert in a scheduled film of Les Misérables for director Brahm again and a possible Henry VIII on stage) - roles which would have been eagerly awaited precisely because of the qualities uniquely radiated through his imposing stature - if only he could have found peace with himself. Although he was determined to be a thinner man, Laird Cregar left us as a burgeoning young talent much too soon.

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