HANGOVER SQUARE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1945) Kino Lorber

Ill-fated character actor, Laird Cregar gave his finest – and only ‘star billed’ performance in director, John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945); arguably, one of the most unsettling and macabre noir masterpieces ever to emerge from 2oth Century-Fox. The studio actually bills Hangover Square as a ‘horror’ movie. Given its subtext and body count, frankly, it remains a wonder Hollywood’s self-imposed and equally as rigid Production Code of Ethics allowed Zanuck such liberties. With its evocatively lit and fog-laden backlot facades contributing oodles of spooky mystery, Hangover Square is a diabolical treat, teeming with the elemental box office draws of sin, sex and death; evergreens since Shakespeare’s time.  Indeed, enamored by Cregar’s portrait of Jack the Ripper in 1944’s The Lodger (also made by Brahm), studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck elected to relocate the contemporary setting of Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel (on which this movie is supposedly based) to Victorian-era London instead. Partly to infer Hangover Square as an unintended, or rather not-so-distant ‘sequel’ to The Lodger, but moreover to minimize the picture’s budget while maintaining a very high level in production value (re-using already built sets and furniture from Brahm’s private collection of vintage antiques) always good for the bottom line, Zanuck’s rechristening as a period piece, without either his star or Hamilton’s approval, effectively alienated both before a single frame had been photographed.
Cregar, who had actually brought Hangover Square to John Brahm’s attention, and was exceedingly enthusiastic to perform it as Hamilton had intended (made to believe he could use some of his own musical compositions in the movie) was virtually denied every promise in Zanuck’s zeal to keep the actor’s reputation as ‘the heavy’ intact. For his part, Cregar deplored these revisions and initially refused to partake. He was placed on eight weeks’ suspension while Zanuck toyed recasting the part with Vincent Price. Cregar served exactly two weeks of this imposed exile before reconsidering his stance. But in Laird Cregar we have a very tragic tale to tell; possibly, more harrowing and heartbreaking than anything seen on the screen. Cregar was an unloved child, good-humored and equally as good-natured. In his youth he sincerely hoped to become a leading man in the movies. Alas, his imposing girth (he seldom weighed less than 300 lbs. at a height of 6’ 3”) made him an unlikely choice to inherit the mantle of a Clark Gable (whom Laird idolized). Determined, at considerable expense to his health and screen popularity, Cregar subjected himself to a strenuous regiment of extreme dieting, pills and exercise – shedding roughly 136 lbs. by the time Hangover Square went into production. Indeed, he is noticeably thinner in the picture to the point where one could almost consider him ‘handsome’. The other stigma Cregar wished to eradicate proved more challenging: his homosexuality. At a time when to be gay was akin to suffering from a sexual aberration, Cregar invested all he could to ‘cure’ himself of this natural predilection; even squiring a well-heeled socialite who, it is rumored, he very much intended to marry. Alas, all these hard-won efforts to ‘improve himself’ came to not as Cregar, having gone under the knife for, then, highly experimental bariatric surgery, suffered two major heart attacks within 24 hrs. while still recuperating at Mt. Cedar Sinai. He died on Dec. 9, 1944, age 31, never to know the accolades garnered from his final performance.   
Hangover Square has to be one of the most disturbing motion pictures ever made. Certainly, nothing quite as perverse had been seen prior to 1945; the movie’s penultimate murder of the saucy and enterprising dance hall singer, Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), strangled by Cregar’s schizophrenic composer, George Harvey Bone, then carried by him to the pinnacle of a pyre as part of England’s yearly ritual for Guy Fawkes Night, while the crowd – unaware they are setting ablaze a newly deceased corpse, shout ribald cheers, is a moment, once witnessed, is ne’er easily forgot. For those not of English ancestry, Guy Fawkes requires some explanation. Fawkes was an anarchist who sought, along with several cohorts, to introduce a new form of government in 1605 by plotting to assassinate not only King James I, but also the entire parliament with a bomb blast in the House of Lords. Mercifully, Fawkes failed in this deadly attempt; brought to justice, along with his conspirators where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Again, just to unpack this verdict: hanged – not to the point of death, only to the brink of unconsciousness; then, to have both his genitals and intestines removed in the most barbarous of amputations imaginable, and forced to observe as each were set on fire before his eyes, and finally, to suffer decapitation; his remains then quartered (cut into four) and showcased throughout the English countryside as a forewarning to other eager anarchists, similarly inclined. Ah me, hell hath no fury like the English judiciary.
In hindsight, Hangover Square was to inflict several unintended casualties – coincidence or Hollywood curse…who can say; the aforementioned premature death of Laird Cregar a mere precursor, to be followed by Linda Darnell’s untimely passing in a house fire at the age of 42, and finally, co-star George Sanders’ even more bizarre suicide in 1972; Sanders, in effect, leaving behind a note, claiming boredom as his motive. Darnell’s death is perhaps the more unnerving, given the fate of her character in this movie; the actress suffering from a life-long fear of fire with reoccurring premonitions she would one-day burn to death; the prophecy fulfilled in 1965. We pause a moment herein to doff our caps in tribute to both Sanders and Darnell for the very fine work generated respectively in their unique and diverging careers. Sanders was readily known to play an impeccable cad both on and off the screen; 17-year old Faye Marlowe (cast as Hangover Square’s naive good girl, Barbara Chapman) remembering how Sanders, whom she deeply admired to the point of heart-sore puppy love, frowned upon her youth and inexperience, thereafter, paying her no mind at all on the set. No one could play the uppity scamp like George Sanders; perhaps because in life the affliction of contempt for his fellow man came naturally to him. In Hangover Square, Sanders is Scotland Yard’s analytical psychiatric specialist, Dr. Allan Middleton. For contrast to Marlowe, Linda Darnell plays the wickedly charming bad girl, manipulative and scheming to her own detriment. Darnell’s career would falter after she resisted to be typecast as one of Fox’s reigning sex pots. Indeed, the part of Netta Longdon had originally been envisioned by Zanuck for Marlene Dietrich – who declined the offer.
Hangover Square is set in Edwardian London circa 1903; director, John Brahm opening his dark and insidious tale with an impressive master shot, following the clutter and congestion of a typically sooty back road, up to the second story window of Scottish antiques dealer, Ogilby (Francis Ford), located in the low-rent district of Fulham. We witness Ogilby’s brutal slaying, Cregar’s George plunging a knife into the old man’s chest before setting the shop ablaze with a nearby kerosene lamp. Miraculously escaping the deluge unseen and unscathed, except for a slight cut on his right temple, George is next glimpsed stumbling blindly down the street, bumping into several men who pay him no mind. As George’s stupor begins to wear thin he arrives back at his basement flat at #12, in London’s more affluent district of Hangover Square; startled to find gal pal, Barbara and her father, Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) waiting for him. Barbara has promoted George’s abilities as a symphonic composer to Sir Henry who, impressed by his talents, now offers George a commission to write a new work he will debut on the legitimate London stage. George is moved by Sir Henry’s kindness; in tandem, making light of the fact he has not been home in two days by lying he was staying with friends. However, afterwards George confides in Barbara he has suffered another of his progressively intensifying blackouts.
Unable to account for his whereabouts for two whole days, and, having only just discovered a dagger in his coat pocket, George is quite unaware he has committed a heinous murder. Refusing to believe her beloved could do such a thing, George nevertheless fears the worst and, with Barbara at his side, voices his concerns to Dr. Allan Middleton of Scotland Yard. Middleton is caught slightly off guard by George’s candor. Indeed, George does not strike Middleton as a cold-blooded killer. Nor do subsequent forensic tests conducted by Middleton on the blood stain found on George’s coat, nor the dagger in his pocket readily made available, reveal anything but George’s own DNA. Unable to place him at the scene of the crime, Middleton explains how the human mind, overburdened by work, can sometimes create an altered state of amnesia as its respite from the outside world. Ordered by Middleton to indulge in a bit of rest and relaxation, George discovers a handbill at home for a bawdy revue at a nearby working-class pub, and elects to attend. There, to his ever-lasting detriment, he is introduced to the sassy chanteuse, Netta Longdon by a mutual acquaintance, Mickey (Michael Dyne). George is immediately smitten. Netta, however, is only interested in George after Mickey promotes him as a fine composer – someone who can help Netta in her social-climbing thirst to become a big star. Of only modest talent but undeniable raw sex appeal, Netta convinces George to set aside the concerto he is working on for the Chapmans to write a series of music hall ditties for her.
With each new song, exponentially Netta’s popularity grows. But she is utterly ruthless in her manipulation of George’s foolishly naïve heart; systematically alienating him from Barbara while courting West End dandy, Eddie Carstairs (Glenn Langan) behind his back. Barbara senses she has lost her toe-hold on George’s affections. But he is quite unaware Netta possesses virtually none for him. Netta allows George to look after her Siamese cat after her landlord refuses to allow pets in her flat. Psychoanalyst extraordinaire, Sigmund Freud would have had a field day interpreting the beautifully composed close-up of Netta’s ‘pussy’ nestled against George’s crotch as he frenetically composes his latest song for her at the piano by candlelight. At some point George, marginally jealous and as sexually frustrated at having been repeatedly – if coyly – denied access to Netta’s boudoir, makes the final miscalculation, believing the time has come to pop the question of marriage. He arrives unexpectedly at Netta’s apartment toting a handsome engagement ring, only to discover Carstairs already there. It’s too late, ole boy. Carstairs admits he and Netta are to be wed in only a few days.
Thwarted in his amour, George now suffers a schizophrenic episode, attempting to strangle Carstairs, before returning home to try his hand at murdering Netta’s cat instead with a thugee knot made from his curtain tieback. The Siamese escapes into the fog-laden night and George, still under the influence of his ‘other self’, next makes an attempt on Barbara’s life. Never witnessing her attacker, but able to let out a scream before becoming unconscious, Barbara invites a reformed George into her home yet again, along with the police grown very suspicious of George by now. Retreating to his flat to redouble his efforts on the concerto, George suffers yet another breakdown. This time, he returns to Netta’s apartment, passing by a group of children preparing their masks and stuffed dummies for the pyre in honor of Guy Fawkes’ Night. George breaks into Netta’s apartment and garrotes this harlot as she prepares for her nightly performance in Gay Love – the dance hall extravaganza George wrote for her. Bundling the corpse and placing a mask over Netta’s face to conceal her identity, George now attends the communal celebration in the park; encouraged by its supporters to climb the ladder and deposit Netta’s remains on top of this mound of highly flammable cotton, hay and rags. Unaware of the body, the revelers ignite their bonfire; George, suddenly haunted by the flames and retreating into the crowd.
Several uneventful days pass. Restored from this temporary madness, George completes his piano concerto for Sir Henry. However, as they prepare for its debut George is dogged by inquiries from Middleton, Det. Sgt. Lewis (Leyland Hodgson) and Det. Insp. King (J.W. Austin). At some point, without sufficient evidence to back his suspicions, Middleton acutely summarizes George’s activities as actually they have occurred. Recognizing that without Netta’s body as proof he has not a legal leg to stand on, but also surmising George likely burnt the corpse in plain view during Guy Fawkes’ Night, Middleton begs George’s indulgence to accompany him to Scotland Yard on the eve he ought to be giving his concert. George pretends to agree to this request. However, a short while later he turns up late to his own performance; Sir Henry – unaware of what has been going on, grateful for his ‘better late than never’ arrival. The concert begins in earnest to a ‘sold out’ house. Meanwhile, Middleton is discovered locked in a cellar by two passersby. He alerts Lewis and King who now accompany him to the concert hall to apprehend George. Recognizing the end is near, George suffers his final breakdown midway through his piano solo, imploring Barbara to take over as he is escorted to a private room upstairs by Middleton and his cohorts for questioning. But once inside, George reverts to his wicked alter ego, dousing the room in kerosene that ignites the auditorium in a hellish conflagration. As terrified attendees flee into the night, George escapes the police and takes his place behind the piano, playing his solo as the stage is consumed by flames. Middleton manages to usher Barbara from the inferno, along with Sir Henry; the pair looking on as the man they only thought they knew is relinquished to the hell from whence his mental disorder seemingly drew its perverted strength.
Hangover Square is supremely nightmarish. Kudos to Darryl F. Zanuck for his clairvoyance to will a period costume noir/thriller from this contemporary source material. At barely 77 minutes, Hangover Square manages to offer a series of dread-laden vignettes, tailor-made to Laird Cregar’s strengths as the ultimate Hollywood heavy. Zanuck’s tinkering with Barré Lyndon’s screenplay irons out so many of the kinks in an initial draft neither Zanuck nor Cregar liked. Even so, the movie deviates wildly from Patrick Hamilton’s source material that, among its many revisions, had George committing suicide by asphyxiation. The picture’s dramatic arc is sustained by director, John Brahm’s nimble touch; also, Joseph LaShelle’s moodily contrasted high and low shots – some truly stunning B&W cinematography and composer, Bernard Herrmann’s piercing and appropriately shrill underscore, punctuated by high-pitched notes he would later employ to even more nail-biting effect for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). What a tragedy Laird Cregar did not live to see the success of the only picture where he received star-billing. There is every indication, had he survived his misguided attempt at a full body transformation, Cregar would have afforded more starring roles. Zanuck, greatly admired his acting talents.  
Kino Lorber’s new to Blu release is sourced from Fox Home Video’s 4K restoration. In short, it is a marvel to behold; La Shelle’s photography looking splendidly bleak and mostly razor-sharp without any untoward digital tinkering applied. Contrast is bang-on; the gray scale exhibiting subtle shifts in tonality. One curiosity to note. George’s attempt on Barbara’s life was explicitly photographed, but then edited out by Zanuck before the final cut; only a portion of the scene surviving in flashback as George suffers his penultimate breakdown at the piano during the concert. There is a queer banding to the image occurring here, stripes of varying tonal greys destroying image continuity. I am unable to explain this anomaly, although it appears to have been created digitally, rather than inherent in the actual source material.  Otherwise, you will definitely like what you see here. Hangover Square has not looked this good since its debut in 1945. Fox is to be paid very high marks for this resurrection, particularly given their dearth of archival elements and the poor quality of those that did survive (just barely) to be of use in this restoration. The 2.0 mono DTS is adequate, showing little signs of its true age, with virtually no hiss or pop. Extras include two separate audio commentaries; the more comprehensive committed by screen historian, Steve Haberman, sharing reminiscences with actress, Faye Marlowe; the other, a somewhat sparse and meandering effort from historian, Richard Schickel. We also get a featurette on Laird Cregar, produced for Hangover Square’s 1994 DVD release – brief and riddled in digital anomalies. Finally, there are trailers, for this movie, The Lodger and others Kino is hoping to market for your rediscovery. Bottom line: Hangover Square is a bone-chilling masterpiece. Kino’s 1080p transfer is a winner. So are fans of this movie. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)