Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Film Review: HANGOVER SQUARE (1945, John Brahm)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 77 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Laird Cregar (I WAKE UP SCREAMING, THE LODGER, Satan in HEAVEN CAN WAIT), Alan Napier (MY FAIR LADY, MARNIE, Alfred from the 60's BATMAN series), Linda Darnell (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS), George Sanders (ALL ABOUT EVE, REBECCA), Glenn Langan (DRAGONWYCK, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN). Music by Bernard Herrmann. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (THE APARTMENT, LAURA, Pilot episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Cassavetes' A CHILD IS WAITING). Written by Barré Lyndon (THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS) and based on the novel by Patrick Hamilton (writer of the plays from which ROPE and GASLIGHT are both adapted).
Best one-liner: "'All for you. There's not a thing I wouldn't or that I couldn't do.' You wrote that for me, George. But you've never really tried to find out, have you!?"

Welcome to Hangover Square. Population: YOU.

"All my life I've had black little moods..."

And so we enter a shadowy, off-kilter world of wet cobblestone and encroaching fog, shining gaslights and miserable lunatics, raging bonfires and downtrodden masses, discordant tones and eerie echoes- it's all here in HANGOVER SQUARE. Often referred to as a film noir, I have to disagree: HANGOVER SQUARE is expressionistic horror at its finest– every canted angle, inharmonious sound, and bulging eyeball taking you closer and closer to the very edge of sanity. Your head spins with the stupor of a blackout, your breathing becomes labored from the stifling claustrophobia, your hands grow clammy with perspiration, your ears ring from the pandemonium in the streets!

I'd prefer not to give too much away with this review, so I'll limit my spoilers only to what's apparent from the film's very start. As the composer George Harvey Bone, the inimitable Laird Cregar is a man cut in two: any screeching, cacophonous noise divides his personae- and often sends him into a murderous frenzy of which the 'sane Bone' has no recollection.

Sometimes accompanied by proto-Argento POV killings!

To say that the ex-bouncer Cregar delivers an 'intense fucking performance' would be something of an understatement. He takes things so far– to such levels of commitment– that by the end of the film, you feel like collapsing. Graced with a sinister, velvet-tongued voice (shockingly similar to Vincent Price's- and more on him in a minute!) and the ability to convey sympathy, depravity, pitiability, and malevolence with ease...and generally all at once(!), Cregar was one of Hollywood's greatest up-and-coming character actors in 1944.

Generally confined to roles of villainy (I was still rooting for him), Cregar pined to play a romantic lead. A crash-diet lost him one-hundred pounds, but he succumbed to a heart attack shortly after filming on HANGOVER SQUARE was completed. He was thirty-one. At his mother's request, he was eulogized by close friend Vincent Price, who many have theorized (due to their similar vocal intonations and comparable roles in which they were cast at Twentieth Century Fox) went on to experience a career that surely would have resembled Cregar's, had he lived.

But back to the film– it's brilliant. It's the CITIZEN KANE of 1940's Hollywood horror flicks, and I say that not as an obnoxious prig, but as someone actually making the comparison–

beautiful, lavish, intricate sets; innovative, immersive, and roaming camera work from Joseph LaShelle; striking, tragic, intimate imagery; and another mind-blowing score from Bernard Herrmann. Acknowledged by Stephen Sondheim as his inspiration for SWEENEY TODD (and Sondheim borrowed certain elements of the plot as well), Herrmann's score- particularly the "Concerto Macabre" which becomes the centerpiece of the film– is in turns sweepingly majestic and horrifically unsettling. It's certainly a contender for being his greatest score, and I say that even having recently listened to his scores for CITIZEN KANE, VERTIGO, TAXI DRIVER, FAHRENHEIT 451, PSYCHO, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Because his work in HANGOVER SQUARE is actually meant to be the work of our unhinged composer-hero, I think Herrmann was able to delve deeply into the mind of the character, as well– and he emerges with some of the finest music ever composed for film.

Before I gush to the point of embarassment, here are a few more things worth watching for–

•Netta (Linda Darnell), a sleazy turn-of-the-century Rita Hayworth-type who loves a good gravy train, makes her first appearance doing a call-and-response number to a phalanx of sweaty drunks in a bar so crowded, it's gotta be in violation of some sort of fire code.

Later, she's headlining a show called "I'm A Bad Little Girlie."

•A Thuggee-knotted strangling device makes an appearance. I'm not too proud to admit that I'll always associate the Thuggee immediately with INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

•Laird Cregar's character orders up some Benedictine at one point- I heartily approve. Whatever zany nutballs out there require the idea of drinking game in order to watch HANGOVER SQUARE...take note. I pity you, but take note.

•Alan Napier. You probably know him as Alfred the Butler from the 60's BATMAN series, and here, he's just as classy, if not more so.

In the end, it's a work of tortured genius about a tortured genius, and it's a clear influence on everything from Ken Russell's 'composeramas' to Guy Maddin's THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. I hate to hand out too many five star ratings, but HANGOVER SQUARE- you earned it. R.I.P., Laird.

-Sean Gill

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