Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover Square (1945) is a classic historically-set amnesia film noir about madness, genius, weakness and manipulation, starring Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell and George Sanders.

Add to this some further elements of police psychology, the perils of artistic genius and a clash of class, and there emerges one of the best thrillers of the decade, albeit bizarre with facial pulls from Cregar, super-dramatic music from Bernard Herrmann, one of the cinema's greatest ever composers.

That and a whole host of Cockney side-fun, which serves to pull focus on the murderous madness which is at the centre of the action.

There is nothing quite a like a whodunnit? which reveals its murderer in the very first moments. It's a different type of storytelling, and unique to the film noir of the 1940s that we should be watching the villain find out that he is the villain for the duration of a movie.

Laird Cregar in Hangover Square (1945)

The classic film noir type of amnesia noir plays beautifully here. Only a certain type of murderer does not know that they are a murderer, and this is made all the more fun by the fact that once the investigation begins — led by the super-suave and trustworthy George Sanders — the composer hero, played by Laird Cregar — is exonerated and so permitted to further indulge in his madness.

Laird Cregar, Faye Marlowe and George Sanders in Hangover Square (1945)

Two fascinating elements pull Laird Cregar's character George Harvey Bone in the various directions of his mania.

The first of these is his musical talent and the resulting burn-out his is experiencing from working too hard to create his symphonies. In a film noir fantasy of lunacy and murder, the burn-out experienced by the neurotic and highly focused composter George is likely the most realistic aspect.

George Sanders in Hangover Square (1945)

It is this burn-out and the psychologically curative suggestion by psychologist friend George Sanders that leads to the second element — the clash of class. In order to pull himself out of the nervous collapse which is inevitable for the composer, the psychologist suggests that he heads down to the East End of London to see how the other half lives, and indulge in the simple pleasures of the working class.

Indeed, that is effectively it. The childlike innocence of elitist composer George Bone hits the East End only to be wowed by the sexually suggestive singing, dancing and lyrics of Linda Darnell's character Netta Longdon.

Leering jeering Cockneys look at a lady's underwear in Hangover Square (1945)

Anybody who knows anything about historical noir, and how informed it is by the exploits of the real life Jack the Ripper, will know that it is the fate of any lower class woman of glamour in the Victorian era, to be the eventual murder victim of a late-night lunatic.

However, this is many frames away, and few do the corrupt woman using her sexual powers to wicked ends better than Linda Darnell. Off stage, she attracts George Bone and back stage they knock up a quick tune with the help of her manager friend, and in no time at all, the tune has earned them money and she has seen a new potential cash cow. 

For the psychological expertise of the 1940s, the character of George Bone presents perfect noir logic — he is a sensitive composer who experiences murderous blackouts when he hears discordant sounds.

These sporadic violent blackout incidences are suggestive also of a Jekyll and Hyde style of story. The treacherous and untalented chanteuse played by Linda Darnell is also directly from this playbook, but her demise does not. After a confrontation which once more emphasises the childish nature of Cregar's character, he strangles her and disguises her body as a Guy Fawkes dummy, before burning her body on the top of a local community bonfire.

Linda Darnell in Hangover Square (1945)

The resulting noir is a masterpiece of melancholy, largely because of the large-scale atmosphere work done in recreating early twentieth century London. Immolation is the preferred method of disposal in this classic film noir, with fires opening and closing the fun. Fire eliminates everything in fact, and for historical noir it is the perfect foil to wipe out characters, motives, minds and evidence. 

Crowd scenes are also an important aspect of the murders in Hangover Square (1945). That teeming populace that George Sanders encourages crazed composer-murderer George Bone indulge in are very much the setting for the violence. This historical film noir also features bar-room crowds which support Linda Darnell are just as influential as the aristocratic crowds which flee in panic and create the overwhelming chaos at the fiery conclusion. 

Laird Cregar madness and genius in Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover Square does avoid any conclusions regarding murder and its psychology. The first killing is never explained at all, and  for reasons unknown, classical composer George Bone (Cregar) goes into a frenzy and kills a  shop-owner and starts a fire to cover the murder. 

Later, and in exotic and exploitatively enjoyable scenes of amnesia, Bone is distracted and amnesiac, not responding when passers-by question him. 

Little is revealed about Cregar's character, except that he's known his best friend Barbara since childhood and that he is a workaholic composer, driven to succeed in the musical world. There's appears to be no romantic interest between Barbara and Bone and they seem more like sister and brother than potential lovers. 

Psychologist Allan Middleton played by George Sanders almost makes a connection between the composer George Bone and the murder, but all of this proves insupportable and the doctor recommends that Bone relax and take in some 'ordinary' entertainment — for ordinary read 'working class'.

This elitist theme is of interest — perhaps suggesting how popular entertainment can suck the the life out of high art.

Concert hall climax in Hangover Square (1945)

Bone's erotic fixation upon an indifferent and conniving love-interest is much further explored however.  Netta finds Bone a bore, and does consciously revel in her powers to manipulate him. When Bone does try to reject her, telling her that he no longer believes that she cares for him and that London is full of other songwriters, Netta manages to hold him within her feminine powers a little longer. 

All this erotic suppression does not stand alone as motivation however, and in addition to the unexplained killing of the shopkeeper, the composer also strangles Netta's cat, suggesting a spasmodic violence, certainly rooted in a strange past that we know nothing of. 

Although Hangover Square is based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton, the finished version doesn't bear much relation to the book, or carry any of its weight.

That said, the movie of Hangover Square carries more than enough of its own weight, largely brought to the screen by the intensity of the actors, most especially the lead performer, Laird Cregar, one of the most memorable performers of the 1940s.

Enclosed in shadow and limited by the darkness of the unknown, films of the 1940s noir style often succeed because of the limited amount of characters, and a focus on the here and now rather than an effort to capture super-complex social or criminal networks and make larger social comments.

George Sanders in Hangover Square (1945)

The subsequent blocking which takes place in the human imagination is easy to handle and enjoyable for that reason. When the concert hall goes on fire at the marvellous and demented denouement of Hangover Square, that is our imagination on fire. 

When the concert hall goes on fire, it is music, love and history that is on fire in that moment. It is also a terrific opportunity for Bernard Herrmann, whose music in Hangover Square is modernistic and mad, moving and powerful, focused and unpredictable — and perfect for the mind of lunatic composer George Harvey Bone.

As was normal for many a production, the Hollywood back stories appended to Hangover Square were just as dramatic as the film itself, if not more so.

Laird Cregar was a huge fan of the original novel, and encouraged 20th Century Fox to buy the film rights. Fox agreed, but wanted to recreate the success that it had enjoyed the previous year with The Lodger (1944), and made fairly major changes to the story, including the main character's personality and the setting. 

Laird Cregar, who had ambitions of being a leading man and was worried that he would always be cast as a villain, refused the role and was put on suspension. However, Cregar came top see that he could use his romantic scenes with Linda Darnell and Faye Marlowe to his advantage in order to change his public image into a more romantic one. He then accepted the role, and began a radical crash diet to give his character more physical appeal.

As a musician, Cregar was keen to perform the musical pieces on his own, but Brahm insisted that he mime the piano playing. Cregar used amphetamines to aid his rapid weight loss, and this led to erratic behaviour, and possibly contributed to his death, which occurred even before the film was released.

Having been placed on suspension the previous year for refusing to perform in The Undying Monster, George Sanders accepted the role of Dr. Allan Middleton. 

However, Sanders was unhappy with his script, particularly the final line in the film, which required him to justify the death of George Harvey Bone by saying, "He's better off this way." 

When shooting this scene, which was incredibly expensive due to the flames and large cast, Sanders repeatedly refused to say the line. He was later involved in an altercation with the film's producer Robert Bassler, with Sanders punching Bassler. 

Concert hall catastrophe in Hangover Square (1945)

The line was later changed to "It's better this way." which makes good sense nonetheless. In terms of noir justice, equality in death has been mastered, although this death is very much a high-art suicide committed by the mad composer, and not brought about by his own failings, by fate, or by police work.

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