Hangover Square (1945)

Every week after posting a new blog entry, I have a “tradition” (if you can call it that after such a short period of time) of clicking on the tags below and taking a look at what other wordpress users recently had to say about the subjects at hand. Last week, this brought Hangover Square to my attention, a film reuniting George Sanders, an actor whom I admire greatly, and Laird Cregar, who had been unknown to me prior to watching The Black Swan (1942), but whose performance in that film I enjoyed. As it turned out, I had a copy of the movie in my possession already (such surprises being an advantage of building one’s film collection primarily around pig-in-a-poke box sets as opposed to preferring select individual releases). I took this as a sign and put the movie on my watch-it-soon pile.

The film opens with a murder: up-and-coming composer George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) stabs an antiques dealer and sets fire to the place. Next we see him, he is stumbling through the streets, confused, with a head wound, and apparently ignorant of how he came to be in that part of London. When he arrives at his home, his friend/prospective girlfriend Barbara (Faye Marlowe) is waiting for him along with noted conductor Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier), her father and a champion of George’s work. He offers George the opportunity to present his newest composition to some influential friends of his, if he can finish it in time.

After the old man leaves, George confesses that he does not remember where he has been, nor why he has a knife in his coat. When the newspaper boy comes by and cries out that there’s been a murder, George and Barbara decide to seek the help of a professional, police consultant Dr. Middleton (George Sanders). He suggests to George that he ought to take his mind off the music and have some fun occasionally, in order to alleviate the stress that may be causing his blackouts. Fatally, George takes his advice: he goes to a local bar, gets drunk, and falls for Netta, an American singer who wants to make it big but needs a great song or two to do so.

Netta (Linda Darnell) is a typical femme fatale: dark hair, dark makeup, saucy demeanour. She uses the men around her to get what she wants, flirting with her manager to score her gigs, flirting with a producer to help her get noticed, and pretending to go out with George to keep him writing songs for her. He is smitten, all but ignoring Barbara and the concerto he promised her father. Netta does end up providing inspiration for more than her trivial songs in the end, but at the price of exacerbating George’s condition.

So: femme fatale, tortured protagonist, memory loss, lust and deception and confusion as prominent themes, most scenes taking place at night, black and white photography with some great use of shadows and chiaroscuro… I’m not quite sure what this obvious film noir is doing in a collection called “Fox Horror Classics”, but I’m glad at least it’s available this way. It’s a great film.

Direction, editing, cinematography, everything fits together perfectly to create a sense of impending doom, of a character careening towards tragedy. Both the script and the staging reinforce the idea of madness bubbling under the surface of George’s consciousness. I particularly liked a nice, if a bit blatant bit of symbolism involving a cat who seems to be almost supernaturally linked to Netta, and who functions as a proxy for her (or George’s idea of her) several times.

Composer Bernard Herrmann deserves a special mention not just for his non-diegetic score, which keeps up the suspense in the film’s many scenes without (much) dialogue, but especially for the diegetic music ostensibly written by George Bone. The movie ends with a tense 10-minute climax in which music plays an incredibly important role, and the composition matches the scene perfectly.

I complained in my review of The Black Swan how underused George Sanders was in that film. To a degree, that is also true for Hangover Square, but in this case, I can’t really fault the movie. This is Cregar’s show all the way, and with a running time of under 80 minutes (as was typical of a B picture), showing more of Middleton would have been detrimental to the main story. Besides, Middleton does play a significant part in the finale, and Sanders captures his slightly condescending authority well.

As for Cregar, compared to the pirate film which was released only three years earlier, Cregar is noticeably thinner, looking more like Jason Segel than Brian Blessed. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed that it was a significantly earlier performance. I was curious about that, so I paused the film and checked online: apparently, Cregar slimmed down specifically for Hangover Square, and was so careless while doing so that his system broke down after principal photography and he died before the movie even came out. It’s a bit morbid watching the film with that bit of info in mind, I have to say, especially since it’s about a man needlessly self-destructing.

Regardless of the unhealthy lengths he went to to fit a more typical leading-man image, Cregar gives a great performance. The periods of transition – when his madness comes to the fore – might be regarded as a bit over-the-top, but I think that is the point, 1944’s idea of how multiple personalities manifest themselves. I’m not a psychologist, but I am an interested layperson: the memory loss and transition period following a specific trigger suggest what would now be called dissociative identity disorder, whereas his behaviour during those “moods” probably does not match the modern description of that disease (for one, he does not actually switch to a fully-realised alternate personality, just a blunted, primitive expression of his subconscious violent impulses).
Either way, Cregar convincingly plays whatever the script throws at him: the insecure schmuck at the beginning of the film, the almost robotic killer, the self-hating quasi-cuckold, and most impressively, the gifted man disintegrating because he is overwhelmed with his work. Thematically, Hangover Square isn’t just about a random crazy person, and Cregar captures that complexity. There is a thin line between genius and madness, and George’s dedication to his art proves to also be his undoing.

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