The Lodger / Hangover Square

| June 1, 2005

The American Cinemathéque screened two seldom-seen 20th Century Fox melodramas Friday night at the Egyptian Theatre. Taken together or separately, these films constituted a rare and eminently worthwhile double feature.
The Lodger (1944) is a by-the-numbers send-up on Jack the Ripper, circa 1888. The mountainous Laird Cregar plays the psychotic serial killer with creepy elan amidst the fog and damp of impressive London sets on Fox’s backlot. After taking rooms in the house of Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood, Cregar becomes fixated on their dance hall niece, gorgeous Merle Oberon, as the nocturnal Ripper murders (Cregar is a ‘doctor’ who works at night…) and build to an exciting denouement. The picture earned some off-center laughs due to the absurd obtuseness of Hardwicke and family dismissing odd behavior by their weird ogre of a lodger such as burning bloodstained coats in the kitchen at 3:00 am as mere eccentricities. George Sanders glides in as the police inspector who concurrently courts Oberon while unraveling what is not too much of a mystery. Definitely a solid, period melodrama with a few dated creaks that still works. Exceptional visuals by pantheonic cinematographer Lucien Ballard who actually wooed and won Merle Oberon during the making of this film.
Greatly superior was Hangover Square (1945), filmed immediately after The Lodger with the same writer (Barré Lyndon) and Brahm again at the helm. A slimmed-down Laird Cregar plays composer George Harvey Bone, whose professional and personal conflictions are exacerbated by a paranoid amenia that lets his unconscious mind take over and run amuck.
Set in London’s Hangover Square in 1903, Bone is working on a concerto–a beautifully composed work by Bernard Herrmann–for his sponsor, Sir Henry Chapman (the always competent Alan Napier) and his daughter (Faye Marlowe) who loves Bone unreservedly. Enter music hall temptress Linda Darnell who uses her amorous charms to trick Bone into composing popular ballads to foist her career while romancing Glenn Langan behind his back. Bone wrecks delusional and actual revenge when he discovers Darnell’s deceitful betrayal.
George Sanders appears once again, this time as a Scotland Yard psychiatrist who helps trigger one of the more memorable cinematic finales ever. The pyrotechnic ending is highlighted by Cregar finishing his beloved concerto at the piano amidst Napier’s burning house after musicians, patrons and the rest of the supporting cast have fled.
This film is a dark and moody story of tragic love, obsession and mental illness seamlessly woven together in a neat package by John Brahm. Beautiful camera work by Joseph La Shelle is melded with a haunting score by Bernard Herrmann. The Bone concerto written by Herrmann for this film was entitled Concerto Macabre and is a first-rate piece of original music by the great composer and conductor. Linda Darnell, always at her best playing a narcissistic, manipulative tart, gives one of her best performances this side of Fallen Angel (1945).
Front and center, though, is Laird Cregar, whose compelling performance as the tragic composer carries the picture. Cregar was an extremely talented actor whose career and life was tragically brief. He was a huge man who battled weight and other torments until his untimely death in December 1944, reportedly after a crash diet overwhelmed him. Hangover Square was released in February 1945, two months after he died.
One can endlessly theorize about what pictures are or should be categorized as film noir, but Hangover Square contains several seminal noir attributes and is superbly crafted entertainment. Not surprisingly, the pristine 35mm print from Fox (complete with WWII war bond pitch) on the big screen made it a total experience.
There was some commentary before the screening that Fox may release both The Lodger and Hangover Square as a double-feature DVD.
I certainly hope so.

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Filed in: Film Noir

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