The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Barre Lyndon
Based on the novel “Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton
Director: John Brahm
Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, Faye Marlowe
Release: February 7, 1945
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Percent Noir: 60%
Most consider “Hangover Square” to be a spiritual sequel to “The Lodger,” which was a surprise smash made by much of the same creative team a year prior. True, both are period and feature Laird Cregar as a murderer, but in all honesty, this feels more like a brother of something like “Scarlet Street.” Despite the fact that it’s not spoken about much today – probably because it lacks the Hitchcock connection “The Lodger” has – “Hangover Square” is actually much better than its predecessor, and worthy of reexamination.
The film belongs in that very specific sub-section of noir that involves artists losing their souls. Think “Humoresque,” “Sunset Blvd.” or the aforementioned “Scarlet Street.” Cregar stars as a popular composer named George in 1903. He’s working on his masterwork concerto when gets waylaid by a singer femme fatale named Netta (Linda Darnell), who only wants him for the cute little songs he writes for her that can help her launch into stardom. The more George gets caught in Netta’s web, the more he ignores his friend/good girl Barbara (Faye Marlowe).
Oh, and I should probably mention that George is a murderer.
When his stress level is high and he hears a loud noise, George tends to go into a rage blackout where he kills people then covers up the evidence very well. Aside from this, George is actually a good guy, so he goes to a therapist friend Allan (George Sanders) to see if he could be the person behind the recent string of killings. Allan checks the evidence (badly) and clears George’s name (wrongly).
All the while, Netta continues to manipulate George for her own ends, keeping him from finishing his concerto until he proposes… only to discover she is actually engaged to another one of her stepping stones. Looks like she fucked with the wrong composer.
In my article on “The Lodger,” (which I wanted to like – I really did) I complained that the film would have been more successful had it been told entirely from the point-of-view of the murderer. And – huzzah! – that’s what “Hangover Square” does! Screenwriter Barre Lyndon, loosely adapting Patrick Hamilton’s novel, works hard to turn George into a three-dimensional, tragic figure, and Cregar gives an astonishing performance inhabiting the character. By the film’s finale, where Cregar sets a building on fire in order to finish playing his concerto, you are genuinely moved by what the filmmakers have done.
But at only 77 minutes, all that extra character development for George equals all the other characters getting the short shift. Darnell is… fine… as the femme fatale, playing up her disgust with George a tad too much and content with being callous instead of seductive. It also doesn’t help that Cregar is way hotter than the guy they cast as her fiancé. If Sanders was wasted in “The Lodger,” he’s nothing more than an afterthought here in a role literally any actor in Hollywood at the time could have played. Marlowe does what she can with a nothing role, but at least nails the climactic moment where she takes over the concerto piano work from George.
If director Brahm’s work with the actors besides Cregar leaves something to be desired, he more than makes up for it with his visuals. Working with Joseph LaShelle (“Laura,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”), he really embraces the atmosphere and darkness of 1903 London. The title piece of real estate, which has been mostly dug up as the city lays gas lines, is very memorable, and all the major set-pieces fully engage the viewer. The first, where George carries Netta’s body to the stack of refuse about to be burned for Guy Fawkes Day, manages to be both suspenseful (is the mask he has put over her face going to fall off?!) and visually stunning. The other set-piece (also involving fire… hmm, could it be a metaphor?) is the climax, where George continues playing his concerto as the building burns around him, and it may be one of my favorites in all of film noir. The way Brahm slowly establishes the concerto and event, then weaves in the chaos of the fire, is masterful. And that final shot? Wow.
The concerto, of course, was written by maestro Bernard Herrmann, who composed the music to most of your favorite Hitchcock movies as a myriad of other classics like “Taxi Driver,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” It’s a stunner, one of the best in his career of bests, and it’s probably not a coincidence that this “Concerto Macabre” has become more well-known than the film itself. But it’s not just that last piece – throughout the film Herrmann throws in many wonderful little moments – look at his interesting note choice when George holds a knife up to his face early in the first act.
This would, of course, be Cregar’s final film role… he died two months before the film premiered. Going from “The Lodger” to this movie, it’s obvious he lost a ton of weight, and that ultimately caused complications that would claim his life. And what a shame – a career snuffed out just as he was breaking through into stardom, but at least we have this wonderful final performance, and that iconic final image of him engulfed in the smoke and flames of the inferno he created.
So yeah, this is way better than “The Lodger” in just about every respect. It’s a flawed movie, but also a very good one with a few moments of transcendence. If you’ve never seen a film with Cregar, or didn’t really care for “The Lodger,” I beg of you to give this a shot anyway. I’m so happy I did.