The Most Beautiful Fraud: Hangover Square

Patrick Hamilton was a gentrified British version of Jim Thompson:  a disreputable alcoholic who supported himself by writing twisted pulp novels with an even bloodier jagged edge than most.  Like Thompson, he marked his work by a seedy personal perspective and a talent for the sudden appearance of the bizarre and the grotesque.  Hangover Square is his finest novel; the title is a play on London’s boozy Hanover Square, and the story is saturated in alcoholic despair and delusion.  Its sense of dread and the fiery inevitability of its ending are clear indicators of Hamilton’s terror of fascism and totalitarianism in the last carefree days before World War II, and have always put me in mind of the similar signifiers used by the Coen Brothers in Barton Fink.

John Brahm turned Hangover Square into a movie only four years after it was written, but the period between 1941 — just before the U.S. entered the Second World War — and 1945 — when the unthinkable global holocaust had finally come to an end — seemed like an eternity.  Screenwriter Barré Lyndon, he of the unlikely pseudonym and the wildly inconsistent career, took a number of liberties with Hamilton’s novel, but likely the most damaging was to kick its setting back half a century and turn it into a Victorian-era period piece.  This not only sapped it of a lot of the sordid, intense class conflicts of the book (and necessitated the wearing of a lot of silly and extravagant costumes), but it robbed it of the unique pre-war sense of coming doom that made the main character’s black moods all the more meaningful.

Brahm, a busy director who never quite reached his full potential, was probably at the peak of his powers here; he’d worked with many of the actors before and knew how to get good performances out of them, and he does the best that he can to transform some pretty cheap Hollywood backlots into the gin-soaked streets of Mayfair.  It’s too bad that even at their peak, Brahm’s powers were never that considerable, and the actors he couldn’t coax a great performance out of came near to outnumbering those who could.  It also didn’t help that the film he’d worked with most of his cast and crew on before this was The Lodger, which was similar enough that if they’d been made in the internet era would have resulted in Brahm being vilified for ripping off his own material. He shrugs off most of Lyndon’s changes to the script and doesn’t add many of his own, and while Hangover Square does begin and end with scenes that can be read as pushbacks against the Code — a memorable and fairly graphic knife murder from the camera’s point of view starts the film, and it ends with a fairly nightmarish inferno — much of the rest of the film is slightly dull and disappointing.  The novel also gets credit for painting its main character, the psychotic and possibly schizophrenic George Harvey Bone, as a fascinating maniac in the pre-Psycho era when most villains were mercenaries and thugs rather than lunatics, but the shift in setting necessitates a lot of awkward-sounding psychobabble coming out of a expositional character who seems to have gotten advance copies of Freud’s major works.

The most famous thing about Hangover Square today is likely its score; Bone, changed from a Tin Pan Alley-style songsmith in the novel to a classical composer in the film, is working on his masterpiece, which, in the hand of the always-satisfying Bernard Herrmann, turns out to be a creepy, insinuating piece of work — far more in the character of the book than anything that surrounds it — that begins with a stark atonal screech.  However, it’s worth seeing for more than that; the two leads — Laird Cregar as Bone and Linda Darnell as Netta Longdon, the manipulative showgirl who strings him along and mistreats him, to his utter obliviousness — do a terrific job of portraying a man so convinced of his own worthlessness that he’s willing to let himself be treated shabbily just for the sake of attention, and a woman who has seen through her own haze of drink enough to know when she’s found the perfect sucker — but not quite perceptive enough to see the true darkness in his heart.

This may be informed by the people playing the role; between Patrick Hamilton, Laird Cregar and Linda Darnell, Hangover Square may have the most depressing backstory of any movie ever made — never mind your The Conquerers, your Incubuses.  Hamilton was a promising young actor and writer, renowned as a ladies’ man with a handsome face and a way with words, until, just on the cusp of his success, his face was mangled in a nearly fatal car accident.  It rendered him unloved and unlovely, a bitter and cynical man whose bleak authorial voice only got worse as he aged and his alcoholism increased.  He traveled among prostitutes, drunks, and lowlifes, believing that only they could be cajoled or bribed into accepting him in his physical and spiritual ugliness; his work became more blackly comedic, and his life more numbingly tragic, until he died of alcohol-related problems at the age of 58.

Linda Darnell was a good-natured, beautiful young girl who had the misfortune of being born to an overbearing stage mother; she was handed a stellar career at a very young age, far too young to equip her for the rough life of competitive Hollywood and the casting-couch abuses that marked it.  Stardom took a hideous toll on her, and, like Hamilton, her self-image plummeted and her alcoholism increased.  She was the victim of extortion schemes, lawsuits, and failed romances; her career took a nose-dive, and she found herself unable to have children. Darnell hated the phony L.A. social circuit, and despite her charming character and personal honesty, it hated her right back.  She struggled to make it as an actress right up until age 41, when she burned to death in a fire at the suburban Chicago home where she’d been staying.

Finally, Laird Cregar may have been the man to perfectly inhabit the role of George Harvey Bone, a man endlessly taken advantage of by women, by sharpies, by exploitative hangers-on — a perpetual nice guy who internalized every rejection and tolerated every abuse — because he lived it.  Born in Philadelphia, raised in England, and destined for Hollywood, Cregar was an intelligent, talented, and painfully shy man, a gifted actor who felt every criticism in an acutely sensitive way.  Cregar struggled his entire life with a weight problem; big and soft, he longed for the romantic leads his body wouldn’t allow him to get.  He made a name for himself in a one-man show about Oscar Wilde he’d written himself, but Hollywood only let him play villains.  While he did so with gusto and flash (his role in This Gun for Hire is particularly excellent), he wanted to be thought of as something more than a hulking bad guy.  When he nabbed the lead in Hangover Square, he went on a crash diet, eating little and gobbling amphetamines; he lost a hundred pounds (and was still huge at over 200) in his quest to be seen as the matinee idol he felt his talent justified.  Two weeks later he was dead of a massive heart attack, his body unable to stand the strain of constant change.  He didn’t live to see the opening night of the movie he’d hoped would make him famous.

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