This movie begins with a murder.
In a foggy street in turn-of-the-century London, we glimpse an old man through an upper-floor window above an antiques shop, just as he is being stabbed by an unseen assailant. The camera then shifts point-of-view to show the murderer, played by Laird Cregar, as he throws down an oil lamp to set the room ablaze. He walks away from the burning building in a dazed state, ignoring the shouts of “Fire!” and alarm bells ringing behind him, bumping into people on the crowded street and grazing the side of his head on a large wicker basket being carried aloft. Slowly, he begins to recover as someone speaks to him, and makes his way home to Hangover Square.
The story Hangover Square was based upon was originally set in modern times, but after the enormous success of The Lodger, 20th Century Fox remade it into another gaslight thriller set in 1903 and reused the same director, John Brahm, as well as two out of three of the same stars. Laird Cregar basically reprises his role from The Lodger, with one significant difference. The Jack-the-Ripper stand-in in The Lodger was consciously and deliberately a killer of women. Aspiring composer George Bone, on the other hand, is a kind and gentle man most of the time, until loud, discordant noises–like a cartload of gas pipes crashing into the street, for example–send him into a fugue state. At such times, he’s capable of anything.
The hapless George has had several blank spells before, but he’s particularly disturbed when he learns about the death of the antiques dealer; since he came back to himself only a few streets away and found blood on his face and clothes, he’s afraid that he was responsible this murder. Which is he is, although even after several viewings I’m not sure exactly why he killed the man. No overt explanation is ever given and the only point I can see to it, to conceal the theft of a decorative and easily recognizable dagger, comes to nothing since George’s subsequent murder attempts will be stranglings and not stabbings.
On the advice of a young-lady friend who also lives on Hangover Square, George consults a doctor, a well-known Home Office analyst played by George Sanders. The doctor has the blood stains tested and finds them to be George’s own blood from the injury to his head. The doctor also states that there’s no evidence connecting George to the murder–which isn’t quite the same as saying that he couldn’t have done it–and attributes George’s memory lapses to stress. George has been working very hard on a piano concerto which he hopes will be his greatest work and make his name as composer. The doctor advises him to set aside his serious work for awhile and spend time going out and having fun. He means well, but this will only lead George into more trouble.
Reluctantly acting on the doctor’s advice, George visits a local pub, where he meets a somewhat talented and extremely attractive singer named Netta (Linda Darnell in place of Merle Oberon). He is immediately smitten and that same evening writes the first of several music-hall tunes for her. The song is a great success and even after he’s had sufficient rest, George continues to set aside his half-finished concerto to work on more popular songs for the object of his affection.
Netta thinks George is an awful bore, but she plays up to him as long as his songs are hits and further her career. While he believes they are in a romantic relationship, Netta has her eye on an impresario who can launch her into an even higher sphere as well as offer her a more lucrative marriage than a humble composer can.
George eventually finds out about their engagement. After being coolly dismissed by Netta, he returns to his own room in a rage. He throws aside a wadded up poster advertizing their last successful song, which prominently features her photograph. This causes a shelf full of string instruments–violins, violas, and cellos–to crash disharmoniously to the floor. George goes into one of his states, pulls the cloth tie off his sitting-room drapes, and heads purposefully back across the square to Netta’s flat.
That’s the end of Netta, and the beginning of the film’s big horror set piece. After sneaking Netta’s body out of the building, George is next seen attending the neighborhood Guy Fawkes Night celebration. Children have stacked their stuffed dummy “Guys” into an enormous pile for a bonfire, and George has his own Guy to contribute. As he climbs up the ladder to place it on top of the pile, its masks slips slightly and we can see the face of the murdered woman beneath. No one in the crowd notices, however, and George scrambles down the ladder just before a circle of torches converge to set the pile alight. The children dance a sort of grisly Ring-Around-the-Rosie around the fire, chanting “Die! Die! Die!” as George retreats.
He remains in his murderous fugue state until he returns home. He picks up the fallen cellos and violins as if that accident had just occurred, and doesn’t even remember the man laying gas pipes in the square telling him that his Siamese cat was run over; he calls out “Here, kitty, kitty!” as he futiley searches the room for it. (In a chilling bit of juxtaposition, the cat was killed at the same moment George was strangling Netta.) Then he sits down at his piano and finishes that concerto he’s been neglecting for so long.
When the police show up the next day to ask what George knows about Netta’s disappearance, he says with sincere belief that he was alone in his room all evening. But the gas-pipe man he talked to on his way home can tell a different story.
In light of this incident and an interrupted attack on George’s young-lady friend, the Home Office analyst’s suspicions are roused. He confronts George and tries to convince him turn himself in–but it just happens to be the night of the big concert where George will introduce his piano concerto to the world.
We get to hear nearly all of the concerto (actually written by Bernard Herman) in the film’s second big set piece in the final ten minutes. It’s a lovely piece of music. As George plays piano amidst a full orchestra, the music takes on some darker overtones and his memories return–we see them repeatedly in flashes. The police arrive at the concert hall; while George now knows the extent of his guilt, he’s determined to play his masterpiece if it’s the last thing he ever does…
Even though this movie is a studio ripoff of its more successful film, The Lodger, I prefer it. It’s the reason I bought the John Brahm boxed set containing both as well as the silly and contradictory The Undying Monster. The story is better constructed and better paced. In spite of the emphasis on music, there aren’t so many musical numbers and the ones that are there are important to the plot and do not feel like padding.
Most important of all, Cregar gives a wonderful, sympathetic performance here instead of straight villainy. The DVD commentary provides a lot of information about Cregar’s career, and his tragic end.
Tired of playing film “heavies,” Cregar hoped to switch to romantic leads and, toward that end, went on a crash diet to lose weight during the filming of this movie. You can see the effects of this in certain scenes, where he is noticeably more slender than usual. Immediately after filming of Hangover Square concluded, he went into the hospital for stomach-reduction surgery–a radical and very risky procedure back in the 1940s. Complications set in and he was dead within a week, never seeing his final and, in my opinion, best film released.