DVD Review: Hangover Square

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.
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DVD Review: The Lodger

Having done about all I can with Old Dark Houses, I’m moving on to Gaslight Thrillers–that is, crime and suspense dramas set in the late Victorian era.

The Lodger is a 1944 film, a remake of the silent version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927; both are based on a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes in which a married couple suspects that the gentleman renting their room upstairs in is fact Jack the Ripper. (You can read the original story on the Gaslight Web site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/lodger.htm)

Hitchcock’s earlier film took greater liberties with the story–the principle change being that the suspected man was innocent. I’ve heard different accounts of how this came about: either the star himself, Ivor Novello, or the film’s producers didn’t want him to play a villain. The star of this later version, Laird Cregar, had no such objections and his performance is the highlight of the film.

There are, however, a few noteworthy differences in the 1944 film. The first is a matter of social class. In Lowndes’ short story, the couple are retired servants long used to putting up with the eccentricities of gentlemen; in the film, they are middle class, a former businessman and his wife forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet. They can’t afford to turn down five pounds a week even when their lodger’s odd behavior begins to trouble them. Another alteration has to do with the film production codes of the day. The murder victims are not prostitutes, but women who have at some time appeared on the stage–down on their luck actresses, music-hall performers. Even so, their names recall those of Jack the Ripper’s real-life victims: Katie, Annie, Lizzie, Jane.

Which brings us to the most important change from short story to film: a young daughter who doesn’t live with the couple has been transformed into a grown-up niece named Kitty, played by Merle Oberon, who does live in the house. A talented singer and dancer, Kitty has just returned to London from a triumphant tour in France. Her act consists of saucy little can-can style dances with a dozen or so young women in a chorus line behind her. We’ll be seeing two of these numbers in full during the course of the film.

Kitty's big dance number

To begin at the beginning: Our story opens atmospherically in the foggy streets of Whitechapel. Bobbies walk in pairs and mounted police and citizen patrols roam the streets as well. A drunken music-hall singer leaves a local pub and, after giving us one last jaunty Cockney song, heads for her home–“just around the corner.” The moment she’s out of sight, we hear her speaking to someone she’s surprised to encounter. Then she screams. A cloaked figure scurries away. Police and citizens rush to the spot, but it’s too late. The Ripper has claimed another victim.
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