Laird Cregar provided scene-stealing support in two very early film noir entries, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and This Gun For Hire (1942), in which he played memorable, hulking bad guys. In this, a very (very) loose adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s seedy, booze-soaked novel, he proved that he could take top billing as a versatile leading man.
It was a career trajectory and an individual performance that Cregar obviously took very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he paid for it with his life.
Filled with frustration about his size, and the typecasting that he felt was hampering his career, he took drastic measures to prove to Hollywood that he could cut it with the big hitters. So he went on a crash diet, including the use of prescription amphetamines, the complications from which resulted in a fatal heart attack at the age of 31.
It is a background story that’s very much worth knowing going in to Hangover Square (1945), a film that turned out to be a case of art imitating life.
George Harvey Bone is a driven, hardworking composer, struggling with his masterwork, a concerto that is causing him to put in long hours before his piano in his dingy basement flat in South London. The stresses of composition are causing blackouts for poor George, during which he is unable to account for his actions.
George might not know what happens when he blacks out but we, the audience, do within the opening seconds. An antiques dealer is fatally stabbed and his place of business burned down. The camera pulls back to reveal George as the murderer. He stumbles away from the scene of the crime, bumping into Londoners and staring blankly at them through a haze of swirling distortions of light.
George is terrified when he hears about the murder. He fears the worst immediately and takes steps to find out if the blood on his overcoat could have belonged to the antiques dealer.
When his fears are assuaged by a doctor, he is nevertheless cautioned not to work with such intensity. He is encouraged to go out more often and to enjoy the simple pleasures of a more normal existence. Listening to the doctor, he finds himself in a low-key music hall, listening to the bawdy singing of one Netta Longdon, the femme fatale who is about to help send George straight to hell.
The first question the greedy Netta asks a mutual acquaintance about George is, “Is he important?” When she finds that he can write popular songs with the best of them, she leads him on, encouraging him both sexually and professionally.
George is smitten from the start, dropping his more suitable, cultured, piano-playing love interest for the wanton sexual allure of trashy Netta, writing schmaltzy songs for her instead of concentrating on his concerto.
Finding Netta to be the deceptive bitch she is, he is sent into a dark pit of despair — and all it takes to cause one of his terrible, violent blackouts is a perfect storm of great emotional strain and any sudden discordant sound. And somebody left some violins in a precarious position …
Hangover Square is about artistic and emotional frustration. Aspiring to achieve something truly memorable, George bravely battles with the pressures of his chosen art form, but at a very great personal cost.
What more apt role for an actor who is quite literally starving himself to death during its making? What Cregar does so brilliantly in the movie is portray the dark side of the creative process, the destructive obsessions and painful isolations that must be endured to see a life’s work through to its end.
It is an experience, I fear, that he knew only too well.
It is in the movie’s wonderful final scene that the theme of frustrated art is fully realized. His performance of the concerto — a sombre, bombastic composition from the always excellent Bernard Herrmann — is so intensely cathartic to George that he starts to remember all that has happened to him during his blackouts. Unable to continue, he hands over piano duties and is escorted from the hall.
Owning up to what he’s done, he is assured that he won’t be hanged, he is a sick man. All he wants to do suddenly, though, is hear his concerto through to the end. It is as if he senses all too well that the end is coming soon. In his frustration, he throws a lit oil lamp at those who seek to apprehend him, then escapes to a balcony to watch the orchestra, his face a mask of tortured awe and wonder. When the audience begins to flee the burning building, George is distraught and screams at them that they must listen to the concerto to the end.
The final shots of George — the film’s dramatic and thematic climax — are incredibly moving, heart breaking indeed, especially considering that they were the final shots of Laird Cregar in his Hollywood career.
As well as being an excellent, doom-laden period film noir, Hangover Square will always stand as a fitting swansong for a talented, versatile and sensitive actor, whose dedication to his craft was every bit as serious — and doomed — as that of his final character, George Harvey Bone’s.