Monday, October 22, 2007

Hangover Square

“Hangover Square” (1945) is a fine, fine film, boasting one of the great film music set pieces of all time. More on that later.

The film is a splendid example of the Studio System at its apex, in this case 20th Century Fox. The film takes place in Victorian England and concerns George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) a promising symphonic composer who is working on his piano concerto. When he hears discordant noises or sudden, jarring sounds, he blacks out and goes on a murderous rampage. (Not giving anything away here, as the opening scene shows him killing a pawnbroker. The camera takes the place of Bone as he approaches his screaming, cowering victims, pre-figuring the slasher films of the 1980s).

An essentially decent (though obviously troubled) person, Bone turns himself into the police when he finds a bloody knife and awakens in the neighborhood where the pawnbroker killing took place. But the evidence is not against him, so he is free to go though a police doctor (George Sanders) harbors suspicions against Bone.

Unwinding one night, Bone goes to a music hall one night and becomes smitten with one of the singers there, Netta (Linda Darnell). After successfully writing a song for her, she sees Bone as her ticket to fame and fortune, while being cruelly dismissive of him in public.

Unfortunately for Bone, his condition worsens as the film goes on, leading to a truly memorable climax featuring the premiere of his piano concerto. More than that I will not say, though the film’s final image is indeed a haunting one, one worthy of Poe.

The film’s score, including the concerto, was penned by the great Bernard Herrmann. The last 10 minutes is a performance of the concerto and a marvelous sequence it is, with the camera swinging through the orchestra to and fro and becoming more frenzied as the concerto increases in intensity (as does Bones’ dementia). Director John Brahm pulls out all the stops in filming the sequence, and matched to the brilliance of the music is a sequence I never get tired of watching. Herrmann later dubbed the piece “Concerto Macabre for Piano and Orchestra” and it’s a real showpiece, one that has been recorded several times.

The rest of the score is mainly drawn from themes later played in the concerto, though there’s other first-rate music not included in the concerto (love those screeching piccolos when Bone’s insanity kicks in).

I’ve always marveled at 20th Century Fox’s evocations of Victorian England, and “Hangover Square” is no exception. The square itself is a marvel of production design; it’s a beautifully designed set.

Laird Cregar was one of the great talents in movies, and this was unfortunately his last film. A giant talent, both in size and talent, at one time he weighed more than 300 pounds and was determined to lose weight and become a leading man. He went on a crash diet and lost more than 100 pounds and was going to have surgery to further reduce his stomach when he died after suffering multiple heart attacks. He was 31 years old.

Linda Darnell is a revelation as Netta. Darnell earned her stock in Hollywood playing sweet virginal heroines in films like “The Mark of Zorro (1940) and “Blood and Sand” (1941) and very appealing she was too, but here her Netta is a shrewish, destructive woman who plays up to George but despises him behind his back. It’s a marvelous portrayal.

Cregar, George Sanders and director Brahm had enjoyed a huge success the year before with “The Lodger” considered by many the best of the Jack the Ripper movies. Both movies, along with “The Undying Monster” (1942), a werewolf picture directed by Brahm, were recently released in a new DVD set called Fox Horror Classics. It’s a marvelous set, and I’m looking forward to re-discovering the other two movies.

Rating for “Hangover Square”: Three and a half stars.

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