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 -

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.

Action/Adventure Comedy Drama

Zero Hour! and Airplane! **Double Feature**

Icebox Movies: Zero Hour! (1957)

This double feature recommendation comes with a strong suggestion for viewing order. You absolutely should watch Zero Hour! first, because once you’ve seen Airplane!, you will have a hard time taking the former film seriously again. And that would be too bad, because it’s a perfectly solid drama/thriller.

Written by Arthur Hailey of Airport fame, 1957’s Zero Hour! stars Dana Andrews as former squadron leader Ted Stryker. I’ve written before about this period in Andrews’ career, during which he labored in B-movies as he struggled with alcoholism (not incidentally, his co-star here, Linda Darnell was in the same boat). Yet he managed to class up these productions with good performances, a strong jaw and leading man looks (albeit a bit drink-ravaged). Perhaps because he himself was a man whose career and life were on a downslope, he is particularly good in Zero Hour! at making the audience sympathetic with Ted Stryker. Following one terrible misjudgment during the war, Ted has been haunted by self-doubt. He has lost the respect of his wife (Linda Darnell) but is consoled by the fact that his son still looks up to him (Raymond Ferrell).

And then, before you can say “contrived plot development”, the Stryker family ends up on an airplane on which many passengers are sickened by bad food. The plane’s captain also falls ill and can no longer fly (The captain is played by Crazylegs Hirsch…a famous athlete playing an airline pilot..I wonder if someone could ever find a way to make fun of that?). A serious, silver haired physician (Geoffrey Toone) who happens to be on board intones somberly that if the passengers are not hospitalized soon, they will die. Meanwhile, the weather is worsening, becoming reminiscent of the horrible conditions during Ted’s failed World War mission. Can Ted shake off his fears, land the plane, and at the same time save his son, who is among the ill? He will have at least some help: on the ground, the hard-headed, no nonsense Capt. Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden, as alcohol-soaked at this point in his career as Andrews) has taken command at the airport and is prepared to bring the plane in safely.

Sterling Hayden, Charles Quinlivan, and Patricia Tiernan in Zero Hour! (1957)

OK, it’s a bit of a potboiler, but the acting is fine, the effects are good for the period, and the story is genuinely exciting. And this film is probably the high point of Hall Bartlett’s uneven career as a director; he gets everyone to play things super straight, which you could pull off with a 1950s audience in a way you never could with a modern one.

Which brings me to the 1980 film Airplane! Three very, very funny guys (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) saw Zero Hour! late at night and apparently laughed all the way through. They then created a movie that is hilarious in its own right and also deserves admiration for being one of the best parodies of a prior movie ever made. If you have just watched Zero Hour!, Airplane! is even MORE funny, if that’s possible. Indeed, some of the most laugh-inducing lines in Airplane! appear as dead serious lines in Zero Hour! (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking…”).