Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Hangover Square

Supplementing my recommendation of The Charmer, I offer another Patrick Hamilton adaptation, albeit one that departs more substantially from the original novel: 1945’s Hangover Square.

The plot: In Edwardian London, brilliant, troubled classical composer George Bone (Laird Cregar) suffers fugue states during which he commits violent acts which he cannot recall afterwards. As Bone attempts to hold his psyche together long enough to complete a concerto, a scheming, alluring dance hall tart named Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) tempts him in every way to devote his talents instead towards producing popular songs that will catapult her to fame. When George finally realizes that Netta is manipulating him, his mind snaps once more, propelling forward this dark tale of suspense, crime, and emotional anguish.

I am going to start my analysis of this film by getting the unpleasant bit out straightaway. The middling script of Hangover Square was written by Alfred Edgar, under the pen name Barré Lyndon (Presumably he was a Thackeray fan). Edgar drained the trenchant political and psychological observations from Hamilton’s novel (which was set during Hitler’s rise to power), added some clunky expositional exchanges while leaving other important elements of the plot strangely unexplained, and concocted a character who makes little sense (Dr. Allan Middleton, played by George Sanders, who is a clinical psychiatrist but is also somehow a front-line police detective and also apparently a romantic rival of George Bone though this is dropped after a single needless scene). Edgar’s is by no means a terrible screenplay, but given the source material — Hangover Square is generally considered Hamilton’s best novel — it should have been better.

Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square and a slide into the abyss ...

Fortunately, other elements of Hangover Square are so remarkable that they overcome the script’s flaws. The film is anchored by scintillating performances by two sadly short-lived talents: Cregar and Darnell. The character of George Bone might easily have repelled the audience, but Cregar conveys such vulnerability and ingenuousness that the audience sympathizes with him anyway. A talented musician in his own right, Cregar is also completely believable in his composing and performance scenes. Darnell, only 22 years old at he time, is just as good at being bad. She keeps every man in the movie dancing on a string with her lovely face, artful conversational dodges, and sexual ruthlessness. One central aspect of the book that the film does maintain are the scenes of love struck George letting Netta hurt him, disregard him, and demean him; Cregar and Darnell play these just right.

The visuals of the movie are as rewarding as the performances. The sets are handsome, the costumes expertly done, and the editing is spot on. On top of all that, the brilliant Joseph LaShelle (whose film noir work I have praised before) contributes gorgeously shadowy cinematography and a particularly superb tracking shot at the climax.

The other undeniable pleasure of Hangover Square is Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the best in his storied career. Herrmann had to write not just the usual movie theme music, but also the piece that Bone is striving to compose and plays in the arresting final scene. The result — Concerto Macabre — is a knockout.

Hangover Square (1945) - Overview - TCM.com

Hangover Square re-united much of the team that made another of my recommendations, The Lodger, the year before, but the second production was not a happy set. Stevens hated his closing line and got into a row about it with producer Robert Bassler that allegedly ended in fisticuffs. Cregar loved the novel and was angry about how it had been drastically changed in the script, and he and director John Brahm clashed throughout the production. Cregar was also struggling with health problems stemming from his attempts to dramatically reduce his weight, including through amphetamine use. He died two months before Hangover Square was released, but at least fate made his last scene on screen an unforgettable image that will stay with viewers of this film for many a moon.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Psycho


Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificence as a filmmaker stemmed from his restlessness. He ruled 1950s cinema, delighting both audiences and critics with big budget, suspense-and-romance movies shot in glossy color. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures expected that for the final film he was contracted to shoot for them, he would go back to the well that had made him world-famous and Paramount executives very rich. But the suits misjudged the genius’ desire to keep pushing the envelope rather than repeating himself. Hitch announced that he wanted to make a low-budget, black-and-white horror film based on the exploits of a real-life serial killer. The studio execs wouldn’t touch it, so he got the money together on his own and used the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show to shoot the movie. The result was a trendsetting, nerve-shredding masterpiece: 1960’s Psycho.

The story opens with Marion Crane (an achingly vulnerable Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) discussing how they can never get married because of the financial constraints they face. Enter one of Hitchcock’s most inspired MacGuffins: $40,000 in cash that Marion is entrusted by her boss to deposit in the bank. Impulsively, she steals the money and drives to visit her lover, getting lost on a lonely road in a rainstorm. Fortunately, she finds an empty motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his signature role). The lonely young man tends the failing motel, while also watching over his emotionally disturbed mother. As shown in one of the movie’s many beautifully scripted and acted scenes (with evocative incidental music), Marion and Norman connect with and at the same unnerve each other:

I was blessed to see Psycho many years ago with no idea of the plot or legend of this film, and for that reason I will reveal no more of the story other than to say that it’s a masterclass in horror and psychological tension, with coruscating performances, direction and camerawork (The staircase sequence with private investigator Arbogast and the subsequent shot of Norman carrying his mother down to the fruit cellar are both technical marvels). The famous score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best, and amps up the terror almost beyond belief. Credit also must go to screenwriter Joseph Stefano for realizing that Robert Bloch’s novel had to be significantly altered to work as a film, particularly in terms of building out the backstory of Marion Crane and re-conceptualizing the character of Norman Bates.

It is difficult to appreciate today how challenging it was for Hitchcock to get this film past the censors in 1960, but to give you one example of how strict the prevailing norms were, this is the first American movie to show someone flushing a toilet (Think of the children!). There is of course much more here than that to upset the censors, but Hitch mostly got the sexuality and graphic violence he wanted, thus pre-figuring what the 1960s would later bring in a flood to movie audiences. As ever, the Master was ahead of the curve.

p.s. With the aid of fellow director Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks brilliantly parodied the most famous scene in Psycho in his 1977 film High Anxiety.

p.p.s. The 2012 film Hitchock focuses heavily on the making of this movie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, I thought that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have rarely been better.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Science Fiction / Fantasy

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Graffiti messages tend to be clichéd, obscene or vapid, but once every few years I get a smile on my face when I see “Klaatu barada nikto!” scrawled on some random bit of fence or wall. It’s a critical line in Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In a decade when countless movies showed the good people of Earth being threatened by evil aliens (e.g., Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The War of the Worlds) Edmund H. North’s subtle, intelligent screenplay inverted the usual premise. In this case, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and disgorges a literate, moral, peace-loving and thoughtful alien (Michael Rennie, in his finest hour) who spends most of his movie under siege by petty, violent and backward Earthlings.

The alien, Klaatu, hopes to persuade humanity to renounce war and atomic weaponry, but mankind isn’t ready to agree (This is wistfully conveyed to Klaatu early in the film by Frank Conroy, in an uncredited, quietly powerful performance as an advisor to The POTUS). After an initial brutish encounter with the military, Klaatu escapes and decides he must learn more about humanity if he is going to save it. He adopts the name of Carpenter (ahem) and moves to a rooming house run by a widow and her boy (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray, who are believable and appealing). The two of them give Klaatu’s hope for humanity, leading him to confide in them about his true nature and mission.

The ingenious premise of the script allows this film to be as much social comment as science fiction. As the alien visitor watches human beings interact, tours the graves of Arlington Cemetery and reflects on our greatest president’s words at the Lincoln Memorial, we see ourselves through his sadder and wiser eyes, with profound emotional effect.

The special effects are solid for the period, with the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced flying saucer being a particular highlight. Yet the effects don’t overwhelm the story or acting as they often have in more recent zillion dollar CGI-laden sci-fi films. Bernard Herrman’s score is also appropriate to the visuals and themes of the movie. All of this is a credit to Robert Wise’s ability to maintain tone throughout a film. To a number of film buffs, Robert Wise is the hack who destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons, a company man who did whatever project he was assigned but had no artistic vision of his own. If you hold to that negative view of Wise, you really should watch this movie, observe how well it is constructed, see how consistently excellent are the performances, and note how efficiently and effectively the story is told. Wise won Oscars for other films, but in my opinion this movie best demonstrates his considerable skills as a film maker.

Here is the cleverly crafted trailer to this masterpiece of science fiction:

p.s. for trivia fans. There are two scientific errors in the script and they both appear on the same scene. Klaatu, whose ship we see approaching our solar system from far away during the opening credits, tells the POTUS’ advisor that he is from another part of the galaxy that is 250 million miles away (oops!) and that he knows how to talk like a contemporary American because he has been monitoring Earth’s radio programs on his own planet (double oops!).