Movies We Like
Three cheers are due for the unsung back lot maestro, John Brahm. His work is fairly ubiquitous; in his day he directed several major studio films and later countless episodes of several different TV shows, but his name isn’t found on most lists of great Golden Age directors. This is a shame because within a couple of years (roughly 1942–1947) he directed some superb thrillers for Twentieth Century Fox that gave producer Val Lewton, and directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock a run for their murder movie money. Brahm, like the Warner Brothers’ in-house dynamo, Michael Curtiz, was a filmmaker so adept at the art of directorial craftsmanship that you remember his great films more than you remember his authorial imprint on them. Though his last name never became critical shorthand for a specific style (unlike the terms “Wellesian” or “Hitchcockian”) he was a director who, with the right project, was second to none.
Hangover Square is a thriller set in London during the gaslight era and things get off to an appropriately grisly start as it opens with a brutal murder and a corpse in flames. Laird Creggar plays George Harvey Bone, a troubled pianist who works too much and is just on the cusp of greatness with the latest piece he is writing. He suffers from blackouts and he worries that he may have been the one who committed the aforementioned murder. George Sanders plays a Scotland Yard detective who doesn’t think George is capable of homicide but later learns otherwise. George leaves his fiancé, Fay (Barbara Chapman) for the low-rent charms of a burlesque performer, Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) who is conspiring against him with another of her lovers to fleece the composer of his songs for her own use. This arrangement is not, shall we say, sustainable, and pretty soon there are more blackouts and more murders.
George is a tragic figure and Laird Creggar brings an astonishing array of nuanced emotion to the role. Linda Darnell echoes Marlene Dietrich’s nasty-piece-of-work stripper, Lola, from The Blue Angel as the cheap double crosser who doesn’t realize that she’s playing with fire. There are some fairly adult themes at work in Hangover Square and, despite its Victorian melodrama origins, there’s a surprising amount of cynicism kicking around in the story. Even George’s wife isn’t exactly a saint. We see her flirting with the detective quite openly with little regard for George’s feelings.
Hangover Square defies easy categorization. It’s a gaslight Noir and a stylish horror show. It has a couple of tour de force moments of genuine menace and a haunting atmosphere as unsettling as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It established Brahm as a true film artist and its success led to Brahm getting the opportunity to make several other first-rate thrillers. He may not have had as prolific or influential a career as some of his contemporaries had but his thrillers are extraordinary and will be remembered even if he, unfortunately, is not.