25 November 2013

Flash Review: Hangover Square

Hangover Square (1945)
Directed by John Brahm. Starring Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders, Faye Marlowe, Alan Napier.

I've wanted to watch Hangover Square for years, ever since I first heard Bernard Herrmann’s “Piano Concerto Macabre,” a concert piece based on his score. The concept of the music as part of the plot—it’s the concerto the tortured main character is composing—made it more intriguing.

However, before I rented the film, I read Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel. It’s a fabulous work of World War II British fiction… and the movie bears only superficial resemblances to it. I appreciate the film as a well-fashioned “period noir” that melds psychological drama with the Victorian Gothic, but most of what makes the novel such a grim experience is highly romanticized on screen.

Hamilton's novel tells about the British lower class in a boozy slog toward the outbreak of World War II (the final chapter occurs on the day Britain declares war on Germany), seen through the eyes of the pathetic, jobless George Harvey Bone, a man with occasional episodes of psychotic black-outs. Bone has enslaved himself to a trashy actress named Netta Longdon who leads him on just to get drinks and food out of him. Hamilton weaves in the growth of fascism as a theme, making for a vivid portrait of Britain on the edge of the abyss.

The movie’s script switches the setting to late Victorian London, makes Bone (Laird Cregar) into a concert piano composer, and Netta (Darnell) a music hall singer trying to trick Bone into writing songs for her using feigned love. Bone's psychotic episodes now always lead to him attempt to murder someone, and discordant sounds bring them on. A new character, a psychiatrist looking into Bone’s condition (Sanders), pursues Bone after the murders, adding elements of a standard suspense. There’s also a sweet romantic interest, Barbara (Faye Marlow), to contrast with Netta. Barbara has no equivalent in novel—and doesn’t serve much purpose here except to further romanticize the tale and move it away from its pub-stranded source material.

There are some superb, atmospheric parts to Hangover Square thanks to director John Brahm, who helmed some famous Twilight Zone episodes, including “Time Enough at Last” and “Shadow Play.” Among the stunning set pieces are Bone depositing a victim onto a November 5th bonfire, the corpse wrapped in a Guy Fawkes disguise; and the amazing hallucinatory fantasy during Bone’s performance of the concerto during the finale. Laird Cregar, who basically killed himself losing weight to play the part, is fantastic as Bone. Cregar made a name for himself as towering villains, but saw Hangover Square as a path toward more sympathetic leading roles. To that end, he went on a crash diet using amphetamines, lost a hundred pounds, and died of a heart attack on the operating table during a procedure for the stomach problems his diet caused. He was only 31, and tragically, Hangover Square was his best and final role.

But it's not the book. Nowhere near. Perhaps it was too grim and realistic for 1945 and a world sick of war.