John Brahm, 1945
Starring: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders
George Bone, a London composer, fears he may be a murderer when he has periods of blackout and does not remember his activities. He solicits the help of a Scotland Yard doctor, Dr. Middleton, who keeps an eye on him along with Barbara, the pianist daughter of his mentor, Lord Henry. Meanwhile, he falls in love with Netta, a cabaret singer who thinks she could become famous after selling a song he wrote for her on a lark. But Netta is merely using and manipulating Bone and has fallen in love with a rich and handsome promoter. When it is revealed that she is marrying the promoter, Bone has another black out and strangles Netta. Will the police discover what he has done? Will he remember?
The atmosphere is wonderful, full of cobblestone streets drenched with fog, a Victorian setting, and enough shadows and sharp angles to make many critics consider this to be a noir film. While there are some noir elements, the femme fatale for instance, this is unmistakably a horror film with some deep German expressionist influences. Actors Laird Cregar and George Sands, German director John Brahm, and screenwriter Barre Lyndon also worked together on the equally excellent remake of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1944), which bears many themes in common with Hangover Square. As with The Lodger, the script is quite simple and centers around a troubled man killing women.
But unlike other horror films and serial killer-themed suspense films from the period, in both The Lodger and Hangover Square, Cregar’s character is likable or at least wholly sympathetic and we suffer with him throughout the films. In both, Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming, Heaven Can Wait) is the pillar on which this film rests and it is tragic that he passed away before Hangover Square was even released. Known for being a large man (over six feet tall and often over 300 pounds), Cregar was depressed about constantly playing villains and went on a crash diet to be in Hangover Square. This contributed to his early death of a heart attack at 28.
There are also appearances from Alan Napier (Marnie, Batman TV series) as Bone’s mentor and the great George Sanders (Rebecca) as the Scotland Yard doctor who tries to help Bone, though he doesn’t have quite as much to do here as in The Lodger. Linda Darnell (Unfaithfully Yours) is good as Netta, but suffers from having a thoroughly unlikable and duplicitous character.
There is a wonderful score from Berman Herrmann, one of his finest, that allegedly influenced Stephen Sondheim on Sweeney Todd. Herrmann regularly worked with Hitchcock and composed some of his finest work for the great director. There are a number of Hitchcock connections with Hangover Square. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle also worked with Hitch on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Brahms directed a number of episodes of the show. Hangover Square is based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote the source material for Hitchcock’s Rope.
Though you may not be a fan of classic horror or suspense, there are some truly remarkable scenes in Hangover Square that make it worth watching at least once. There is a scene where Bone strangles Netta and dumps her body on top of a bonfire pile of effigies to be burned for Guy Fawkes Day. This scene is chilling, rich with symbolism, and is matched only by the conclusion. Having remembered his deeds and unable to escape from the police, Bone sets the building on fire during the performance of his moving new symphony. He continues to play the piano as the building burns down around him in a truly bleak and effecting move. These are certainly two of the most stunning and impressive moments in ‘40s horror.
Hangover Square comes highly recommended and is available in the Fox Horror Classics Collection, a three disc set that includes Brahm’s The Lodger and Undying Monster with a number of very nice special features.