Cregar instigated the project; he read the novel by Patrick Hamilton (Hangover Square; or, The Man with Two Minds), and urged Fox to purchase the rights. The large (6' 3" and close to 300 pounds), idiosyncratic actor felt that an adaptation of the book would feature a more sympathetic and somewhat more romantic lead part for him. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, though, felt that the property should more closely imitate The Lodger, so he ordered that the time period be changed from modern day to turn-of-the-century London. (This also made economic sense as far as Zanuck was concerned some sets from the previous picture could be reused for the new one). Cregar was upset by the changes and briefly threatened to walk off the film. Zanuck pressed on and brought together Cregar with The Lodger co-star Sanders, as well as screenwriter Barre Lyndon and director John Brahm.
Brahm marks the film immediately with the flourish of a startling subjective camera scene a brutal murder from the point-of-view of the killer, a London composer named George Harvey Bone (Cregar). In a Fulham antiques shop, Bone knifes the shop owner and smashes a lamp to set the room ablaze. He escapes to the street in a daze and walks home to his flat in Hangover Square. By the time he arrives he has forgotten his deed, which has occurred during a mental lapse. Bone is busy composing a concerto, which is to be conducted by his neighbor, Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier). Bone receives encouragement from Chapman's daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe), but he is also disturbed and distracted by his "black little moods" which, unknown to him, lead to violent fits of murderous rage brought on by loud, dissonant sounds. Worried, Bone seeks out Dr. Allan Middleton (Sanders) of Scotland Yard. Middleton specializes in mental problems, and advises Bone to seek stress relief by distracting himself from his work. Bone tries to relax at the local Music Hall, but there he encounters Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), a vain and ambitious showgirl who soon has designs on Bone's fragile mind for music.
Fox initially sought Marlene Dietrich for the role of Netta, but the studio could not meet her asking price. Geraldine Fitzgerald was also considered, but ultimately the part went to Fox contract player Linda Darnell. Although Darnell does not even attempt a London accent, she was well-received and the role as the manipulative dance hall girl became one of the most defining of her career. Netta is nothing less than a noir femme fatale, taking a venerable, weak-willed male and twisting his will to suit her selfish needs. Netta drags George Bone down from his position of High Culture until he slums in the low-brow world of Music Hall songs. When she hears a potential popular melody in part of his concerto, Netta pleads with him to fashion a song out of it and coos, "Oh George, it's such a little thing your concerto would never miss it."
Music plays a crucial role in Hangover Square, and the score became a showcase for the talents of Bernard Herrmann; the composer had always preferred to work during a film's production (as he had on two previous memorable occasions - for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and William Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy [both 1941]), and this project required an original concerto prior to shooting. In his book A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, Steven C. Smith describes the composer's use of repeating motifs to emphasize the themes of the film: "Herrmann carefully establishes each thematic strand in his score so that their ultimate presentation makes sense to us, as well as to Bone onscreen. First comes a violent introduction for piano, its leaping, dissonant intervals evoking Bone's dementia; it climaxes with Herrmann's favorite semitone pattern (brutally pronounced by muted horns), a leitmotiv of evil. ...Culminating each killing is Herrmann's 'fire' motif, which becomes the concerto's scherzo." Smith calls the concerto itself "a diabolical, Lisztian work that compressed the usual three movements into one, [and] was unlike any of the 'film concertos' then prevalent in Hollywood, which usually paraphrased existing works in rhapsodic, overscored fashion."
A 'fire' motif was a must for the score the film opens and concludes with blazing scenes, and perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film involves a ritualistic inferno. To dispose of one of his victims, Bone bundles the body in a blanket, and puts a Guy Fawkes mask over the face. He marches with a crowd to bring his bundle to a towering bonfire, climbing a ladder to plop the "dummy" on the top. Bone is singed during his climb down, as the revelers are anxious to touch their torches to the bonfire and get on with their celebration. Bone finds himself as awed as anyone at the enormity of the blaze which will hide the evidence of his latest blackout crime. (The scene proved to be so effective, director Brahm couldn't help but repeat it nearly a decade later for the 3-D chiller The Mad Magician , starring Vincent Price).
Brahm later commented on Herrmann's work, saying that "the music stimulated me so much. For a long time I had been dissatisfied with the photography of music in films. Musicians themselves are uninteresting; it is what they play that should be photographed. I myself could not read a note of music, but when Herrmann came and saw the finished film he could not believe it. I had photographed his music." It certainly helped in this regard that Cregar was a competent enough pianist in real life although overdubbed, his piano playing was genuine and not accomplished by cutaways, as is the Hollywood norm.
The final scene involving a blazing inferno was filmed outdoors at night on the Fox backlot, and included a small army of extras and behind-the-scenes personnel handling the fire and other physical effects. Actor Alan Napier later told of his friend George Sanders, who was determined to avoid delivering a line that he found objectionable. After several takes during which Sanders stonewalled the director, producer Robert Bassler was called to the set. "Bassler finally appeared in a raincoat and went up to George, who was seated in a little chair. Bassler was yelling at him, calling him a son of a bitch and George, without moving from his sitting position, hit him in the chin. That ended the shooting that night. The next day Zanuck, Bassler and Brahm had a meeting and straightened it all out, with George saying slightly different lines. But one must say it takes an extraordinary degree of cool, on an expensive night of an expensive picture, with complete sangfroid, to f*ck it all up."
Laird Cregar felt that Hangover Square offered him a chance to cut a more romantic figure than he had in previous films (perhaps a case where life imitated art, considering that his character, George Bone, was deluded into thinking he was more of a ladies' man than he was). Cregar dieted and lost a considerable amount of weight for the role. Following the end of shooting, Cregar continued his crash diet, and proudly posed for Fox publicity photos showing off his new waistline. The dieting caused severe abdominal problems however. Cregar went into the hospital for stomach surgery and died a few days later, on December 9, 1944, of a heart attack, at the age of 28. Hangover Square was released posthumously, in February, 1945.
The critic for Time magazine called the film a "top-drawer horror picture" and said, "the flaming, grotesque denouement of this unhappy tale may leave audiences undecided whether to laugh or blush. This may do no serious harm, for up to then the film is very good." He goes on to say that "Cregar, brilliant and touching in his embodiment of the hero's anguished, innocent, dangerous confusion, will leave cinemaddicts pondering sadly on the major roles he might have played. One of the most impressive things about the picture, and certainly the most unprecedented, is the concerto with which he accompanies his holocaust. The work of Bernard Herrmann, it is for once not a pale-pink potpourri of woman's club classics, but the lushly introspective, resourceful sort of music a promising young composer might indeed have written."
One fan of Hangover Square, and of Herrmann's score in particular, was a fifteen-year-old music student in New York named Stephen Sondheim. The future composer of Sweeny Todd wrote Herrmann a letter in praise of the concerto and received a thank-you note in reply. Smith quotes Sondheim, who recalls "I can still play the opening eight bars, since they were glimpsed briefly on Laird Cregar's piano during the course of the film, and I dutifully memorized them by sitting through the picture twice."
Producer: Robert Bassler
Director: John Brahm
Screenplay: Barre Lyndon
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Harry Reynolds
Cast: Laird Cregar (George Harvey Bone), Linda Darnell (Netta Longdon), George Sanders (Dr. Allan Middleton), Glenn Langan (Eddie Carstairs), Faye Marlowe (Barbara Chapman), Alan Napier (Sir Henry Chapman)
by John M. Miller