|Vintage Pulp||Feb 7 2011|
We’re just going to come out and tell you that 1945’s Hangover Square is a tour de force. It’s one of those titles we never quite got around to, but we fixed that last week and rarely have we made better use of ninety minutes. A Victorian melodrama, a mystery, and a thriller, Hangover Square tells the story of a brilliant composer beset by blackouts during which he fears a dark and violent side of his personality emerges to wreak havoc Jack the Ripper-style on nocturnal London.
Every element of the production clicks, but the success of the picture is mainly due to director John Brahm. Working from Patrick Hamilton’s novel written for the screen by Barré Lyndon, the German-born Brahm does no less than put on a directorial clinic. He cut his teeth in Berlin during the boom years of expressionist cinema, and here he uses an array of dynamic tracking shots, dollies, low-angle close-ups and blurry point-of-view sequences to bring this story to life. As good as Brahm is, the film would not have worked without top notch performances and he gets one from his lead, Laird Cregar. Playing a composer named George Harvey Bone, Cregar is by turns baffled, oafish, charming and terrifying. Bone is a good man—that’s clear. The question is whether he remains good during his blackouts or turns into a murderous Mr. Hyde. We don’t have to wait long for the answer.
If Cregar has a dark side, he isn’t the only one. Linda Darnell, playing a cabaret singer named Letta Longdon, is a femme fatale for the ages. Longdon is all sweetness and lovely smiles, but she’s as rotten as she is ravishing, a creature of high ambition and zero morality always plotting ways to use men to climb the ladder of the popular music industry. Nonecan resist her, even though her duplicitous nature is always clear, never more so than in the shot above, in which we see her kissing the smitten George Harvey Bone while looking toward some imagined future gilded with ill-gotten gains.
Other cast members include George Sanders, Faye Marlowe, and Glenn Langan, but it’s Cregar and Darnell that give this story its heat. Cregar, in addition to turning in a great acting performance, plays all of his composer character’s piano parts, and we’re not talking about “Chopsticks.” In several scenes the camera pans from his hands to his face as he pounds out concerto quality music. Sadly, he never got to see Hangover Square finished. He died December 9, 1944, three months before the film was released. He had dropped one hundred pounds for the role in an attempt to break out of the fat man parts he had been playing until then, but the crash diet killed him. It's reasonable to assume, based on his performance here, that he would have succeeded in moving into more mainstream roles. But he never got the chance to deliver on the promise he showed.
We've discussed the directing and acting, but the brilliance of Hangover Square extends beyond those areas. Its technical elements are all wondrous. Particularly impressive are its special effects. It may sound strange to say that about a film made in 1945, but it’s true. In modern films fire is digitally inserted. Before CGI, flames were live, but were produced under controlled conditions via the use of gas jets. But asany fireman will tell you, real fires smoke. That’s what makes them so dangerous. The final sequence of Hangover Square (major spoiler alert) takes place during a fire as Cregar—not a double or stuntman—plays the finale of a symphony while the recital hall burns around him. Brahm uses a single shot, starting on Cregar’s torso and dollying back to show him surrounded by real fire and real smoke. This sequence could not be shot today—no actor would play it, no studio would allow it, and it would probably be illegal to ask a stuntman to do it. In the final moments smoke converges on Cregar from all sides, swallowing him completely. You can see this in the screen captures below. The first thing we did after the credits rolled was pull up a bio on Cregar to see if he survived the shoot. That’s how hairy it looks. And when we saw that he died three months before the film premiered, we were certain he had perished in the fire scene.
He hadn’t, of course, but strangely, Linda Darnell later did die in a fire. When she was forty-one she was caught in a house blaze and the woman who was once crowned by Look magazine as one of the four most beautiful actresses in Hollywood was burned over ninety percent of her body and face. She died a day later in the hospital. It’s truly a shame. But she did leave behind many films, and in our humble opinion she showed that she was the equal of any actress or actor working at that time. We recommend her, and we recommend Hangover Square. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1945.