Monday, November 10, 2008

Hangover Square (1945)

As I was going down the list in my head to confirm that Hangover Square indeed met the proper criteria to be considered a film noir, on paper it seemed like a sure thing: adequate ice water running through the veins of a prominent femme fatale character – check, male lead character unable to resist devious charms of said femme fatale – check, crazy blackout and flashback sequences – check, murders occurring during said blackout sequences – check, lead character experiencing overwhelming sense of dread from events beyond his control – check, cinematographer being far from stingy with shadows and chiaroscuro lighting – check, detectives on the hunt for a killer - check. Sounds like we got all the fixings for a classic film noir right? Not so fast, Hangover Square isn’t your run of the mill noir. I’d say it’s more like a cousin to the conventional film noir. It contains much of the same DNA, but it’s not in the immediate family. Hangover Square, despite its surface appearance being incongruous to the film noir category, is a beautifully shot and overlooked thriller that merits a view through the noir lens.

George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a dull, sad sack type of figure, but he possesses a bright future as a music composer. He’s on the verge finishing a concerto that carries great potential for international recognition according to his sponsor Lord Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his talented pianist daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe). Things would be looking pretty well for George if it wasn’t for those pesky blackouts he occasionally experiences. When he comes to from them, he has the sneaking suspicion that he has committed some bad deeds under their influence. We know George’s foreboding is valid as contained in the opening scene of the film where George stabs a London shopkeeper in his store and then flees the crime scene after setting it ablaze. George commits these crimes without conscious knowledge, but he has grave concern as to the nature of his blackouts and conveys these anxieties to Barbara. She tells him not to be burdened due to his gentile nature. George however decides to speak to Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders), an acquaintance at Scotland Yard who is not a police officer but a psychiatrist figure of sorts. He allays George’s fears after checking out his latest blackout story (he can’t find any evidence to link George to the shopkeeper stabbing and fire) and tells him to relax as the stress of completing his concerto may be triggering these blackouts. These spells don’t cease however and neither does the George Bone blackout violence that ensues as the movie progresses.

To distract himself from his worries, George decides to take in a show at a local beer hall. This is where he first sees dazzling songbird Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) performing a bawdy musical number in front of a bunch of drunken blokes. After the set George goes back stage and tells Longdon he admires her singing. She’s unimpressed with the compliment until her manager, who has heard of George's talents, properly introduces her to him with the intention of George possibly writing some new material for Netta. George spot composes a tune for her, amalgamates her lyrics into it and the result is a very catchy number. It’s so good her manager sells the song for 50 guineas soon after. Netta realizes that with George’s talents at her disposal, he would make an ample stepping stone for her career. George falls hard for the gorgeous Netta and is hopelessly wrapped around her finger. She exploits his affections and musical talents for her career gain and then tries to discard him when he gets wise to her plan. Unfortunately this wisdom came after George had just sprung an engagement ring on her. His moment of clarity, in realizing Netta’s opaque motives, happened after learning of her pending engagement to a successful promoter that could shoot Netta’s star much higher into the stratosphere than George’s talent ever could.

George is devastated at this development. Upon returning to his apartment he furiously throws Netta’s sheet music against the wall where a number of his instruments are leaning up against it. The violins, cymbals and other instruments come crashing down together and the loud discordant sound (we finally learn) is the catalyst for George’s murderous blackout spells. He immediately becomes thrown into a trance and is off to Netta’s place in a state of murderous somnambulism. He strangles Netta and his subsequent disposal of her body leads to the most striking and uncannily creepy scene of the film.

George formulates a clever plan (he’s apparently capable of doing such even under these homicidal spells) to destroy Netta’s fresh corpse out in the open, in front of hundreds of witnesses. Serendipitously the evening he snuffs out Netta is Guy Fawkes Night in England. The ceremonial burning of Guy Fawkes effigies in the center of the neighborhood square happens with a towering bonfire. Before the giant pyre is lit ablaze, people pile on the effigies and George is the last to contribute his own “Guy.” George climbs up the long ladder with Netta’s wrapped body slung over his shoulder and a Guy Fawkes mask over her face. George slowly inches his way up the mammoth mound and simultaneously we see the mask starting to slip off Netta’s face; it’s becoming exposed to the sizable crowd below at the base of the pile. The tension increases as the crowd eggs on George to hurry up. They even begin to light the base of the pile on the opposite side as George climbs down the ladder after depositing Netta at the top. At the very least it’s an extremely suspenseful and powerful scene. Not only is the entire sequence beautifully shot and edited, it concludes with people dancing in a circle around the bonfire. Their huge shadows cast against buildings and streets from the fire’s light makes for chillingly effective cinema. The scene is even more unsettling however when considering Linda Darnell’s real life demise came from a domestic house fire in which she suffered extensive burns and died the next day.

Hangover Square concludes with a distinctly dramatic, but very well filmed scene where George finally gets to have his concerto played in a concert hall with full instrumentation backing him. This finale has some truly impressive sweeping camerawork that’s well coordinated with the stellar soundtrack. The police and Dr. Middleton are on to his uncontrollable homicidal ways at this point in the film. George literally goes down in flames and concludes the films trio of fiery scenes that serve as narrative cruxes for George and the viewer. Tragically, George finally gets to hear his concerto, but the price of the ticket is his descent into all consuming madness. The insanity he once grappled with now totally engulfs him like the flames that claim his body in the timeless, haunting final shot.

Much of this description may sound like a film noir, but the twist to consider is the setting: 1903, turn of the century London. The street lamps are gas powered and not electric as were used to seeing in noir, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle does a fantastic job with lighting, framing and camera movement. He especially exceeds in choosing some great low and high camera angles along with some textbook noir shots such as George showing up at Netta’s door with new song in hand for her. LaShelle and director John Braham made some clever visual choices along the way. In one sequence near the finale, Dr. Middleton (who now believes George is a killer) questions George (who now knows he’s a killer) in his flat as he prepares for his concerto debut. Braham films Middleton in near darkness while positioning George in well lit areas of the room in a nice contrast to symbolic visual conventions. Another clever touch in the scene is Dr. Middleton querying George about a particular type of knot identified as used upon some of the victims that were strangled while getting plenty of close-ups of George tying the knot on his bow-tie in tandem with all the strangulation chat.
One aspect of Hangover Square that stands out is the fantastic musical score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. He’s able to deliver a superior suspenseful score for the film, but he also does a very impressive piece of composing with the concerto finale performed at the end. Herrmann did a similar task a decade later with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much by writing a composition that served as the centerpiece of the films dramatic climax. While it doesn’t hinge on something as specific as the cymbal crash in Hitchcock’s film for example, the concerto is a device that drives the plot in the film. Hermann’s concerto piece sounds spectacular and for the story to have some weight, it had to be such. The concerto is what drives and motivates George Henry Bone to potential greatness, but ends up delivering him into actualized madness.

There is a ridiculous aspect to the film that sticks in the logic craw: the inexplicable homicidal trances that George undergoes when hearing loud discordant noises. Not only do we not know how this petite peccadillo began, but also why these types of sounds trigger this behavior in George Harvey Bone. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the William Bendix character in The Blue Dahlia that is driven crazy when he hears jazz “monkey music.” It does serve a purpose in that it facilitates the noir trope of the criminal as sympathetic victim. Its unaccountability is not so unforgivable as to completely undermine the many positives of the film. What bothered me most about the way it was not explained or handled was that John Braham didn’t seem to know how to do so in the first place. There’s a difference between being artfully kept in the dark and feeling like you’ve simply been left behind there.

The casting is strong all around with Laird Cregar turning in a truly fine (albeit slightly over the top during his wild eyed flashbacks) performance. Linda Darnell is fantastic however in the devious femme fatale role of Netta Longdon. Darnell lends enough credibility to Netta by not going overboard and hard selling her character’s selfish motives to the audience. She lets Netta’s self-centered ways show themselves in a seemingly organic fashion and unfold at a believable pace. Darnell’s less than consistent number of appearances in film over the years, before her demise, is a true loss for her fans of which I am certainly one.

While turn of the century gaslight Victorian London may not seem like an obvious setting for a film noir, at the very least it becomes a surprisingly serviceable one under the direction of Braham and the camerawork of LaShelle. The essential film noir elements are there, but more so it’s a well-crafted and finely acted thriller that deserves some recognition and kudos. At the very least it warrants viewing for the combination of Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, the score of Herrmann and those fantastic scenes combining infernos and insanity.