Hangover Square (1945) John Brahm
“I’ve worked all my life for this one night.”
This line spoken by composer George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is chilling in the context of the film and even more so as you consider its off-screen significance, which I’ll cover momentarily. Bone is a late 19th/early 20th century London composer who suffers from amnesia, a condition triggered by loud, discordant sounds. We see a spectacular display of this in the film’s opening scene, a great beginning for a gaslight noir that’s impressive on its own merits of decor and costume, but add in a crazed murder and we’re hooked. Director John Brahm knows the period well and proves himself expert in making the era come alive as he also did one year earlier in The Lodger (also starring both Laird Cregar and George Sanders).
Bone is working on a piano concerto to be performed by a symphony orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier), the father of Bone’s girlfriend Barbara (Faye Marlowe). Yet Bone fears that during his states of amnesia he may be unknowingly committing violent crimes. He seeks the advice of Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders), a Scotland Yard mentalist. Bone also discovers a singer named Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) and writes a song for her that turns out to become a huge hit and – thinks Netta – the start of something big, at least for her. Although Bone is clearly falling for Netta, she’s concerned only with how he can continue to supply her with hit songs.
The film is immensely compelling, mostly due to Cregar’s superb performance, but the pacing keeps things moving surprisingly well with just enough interesting elements converging toward an absolutely spectacular ending featuring excellent camera work by Joseph LaShelle and a superb score by Bernard Herrmann. (Cregar was also an accomplished musician, and although Brahm required the actor to mime his piano-playing, those scenes frequently look authentic.)
The behind-the-scenes story of the film is both famous and tragic. Cregar had been receiving glowing praise for his supporting work (mostly as villains) in films like I Wake Up Screaming (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and others but desperately wanted to become a leading man. Once he won the role of George Harvey Bone, Cregar embarked on a crash diet, using amphetamines to help him lose the weight quickly, but also causing erratic behavior, which led to many confrontations between actor and director. Cregar completed the film, but died from a heart attack just weeks before the film’s release. He was only 31. Go back and read the first line of this review. Cregar could’ve said the same thing about this film. Had he lived, there’s little doubt he would’ve received more leading roles and even if he hadn’t, he would certainly have given us many more great performances. Watching the ending of Hangover Square is both astonishing and heartbreaking. If you haven’t seen it, you must. You can also purchase the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of the film.
Next: My thoughts on Noirvember 2017 as a whole
Photos: The Bernard Herrmann Society, DVD Beaver