Director John Brahm—one of Hollywood’s many German emigres driven to the United States by the onslaught of WWII and Nazi oppression—is one of the unsung talents of the early years of horror cinema. Perhaps because he directed for Fox, not Universal, his films like The Undying Monster (1942), The Lodger (1944), and Hangover Square (1945) have been all but forgotten by contemporary genre fans. And though he directed in other genres, including a lot of cult television like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, as well as a few mystery/film noir titles and The Mad Magician (1945) with Vincent Price, perhaps his finest hour is the chilling, haunting Hangover Square. Made in the wake of films like Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) and Lang’s M (1931), Hangover Square is an example of Hollywood’s attempts to develop, and maybe even to understand, the burgeoning wave of sexual violence across America than inspired a growing trend: the serial killer film.
Essentially beginning with Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943) and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), these ‘40s films are worlds away from the serial killer thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s and offer up something a bit eerier… and a bit closer to home. In the case of Hangover Square, the film’s tormented killer is its protagonist, a device pioneered by Lang in M, but rarely used in later serial killer films. Brahm reunited with star Laird Cregar, who reprised a similar role as his killer-as-protagonist in The Lodger, a remake of Hitchcock’s silent film that is far closer to its source material. I should probably have given a spoiler alert, as Hangover Square plays cat and mouse with its audience for some time. Is Cregar’s character the killer? Or is he just having coincidental blackouts during the time when women are murdered? But anyone who has seem some of Cregar’s films will know his hulking presence can only mean one thing. Sort of meant to be a similar, if more menacing type as Vincent Price, Cregar’s career was snuffed out far too early when he died at just 31 years of age from heart failure: after years of crash dieting. Few actors routinely typecast as villains are so able to make their characters sympathetic, yet Cregar managed to be that in such a tragic, devastating way and, as such, gives Hangover Square its heart and soul, though he is a great deal warmer there than in either The Lodger or something like film noir title I Wake Up Screaming (1941).
In Hangover Square, Cregar stars as London composer George Bone, who is tormented by periods of blackout and memory loss and begins to fear that he might be a killer. His tentative love interest, Barbara (Faye Marlowe), also a pianist and the daughter of his musical mentor (Batman’s Alan Napier), laughs off his fears, but agrees to keep watch over him with the help of Scotland Yard’s Dr. Middleton (the sublime George Sanders, also returning from a similar role in The Lodger). Barbara loves Bone, but he distances himself from her and pursues a ruthless, selfish cabaret singer, Netta (Linda Darnell), whose implied but never delivered upon promises of sex dangerously trigger his neurosis. Netta is the sort of cruel femme fatale who we are not sorry to see murdered. Though it seems horrible to say, the genre was peppered with such characters; they could also be found in I Wake Up Screaming, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945), and film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), among many more.
But Brahm and Cregar work to transcend these types and once Bone kills Netta, the film because something truly beautiful and strange, as the plot sinks ever into his obsession and burgeoning madness. Bone never loses his sensitivity—he is more or less a stereotypical tortured artist, a trope that makes for an odd bedfellow with the serial killer type he is also expected to embody—and becomes more pitiable and tragic and the film barrels towards its completely unexpected conclusion. Part of this may be due to the fact that while Bone suspects he is capable of horrific violence, he is essentially unaware for most of the running time of what he has actually done. This leaves behind a skin-crawling sense that Brahm is implying—as Lang did in M—that these murderous impulses are latent in everyone and are inextricably bound up with frustrated sexual desire. And like M—and Brahm’s The Lodger—Hangover Square is also concerned with the notion of communal violence. In one of the film’s greatest and most unexpected set pieces, Bone disguises a body and dumps it on a sacrificial pyre of effigies and discarded furniture that will be lit to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Day. While masked revelers joyously crowd around him in the streets, they have no idea that they’re all complicit in the disposal of a corpse.
This is also a rare Hollywood horror film to end with suicide. And not just suicide, but suicide as communal spectacle. Unable to escape from his own inner torment, Bone decides to end his agony and evade capture by the police during a performance of his new symphony. He sets the crowded concert hall on fire and remains, playing the piano, as the building burns down around him, accompanied by one of Bernard Herrmann’s most melancholy scores. Known for being Hitchcock’s composer for a time, Hermann is one of the many connections between the Master of Suspense and Brahm. Patrick Hamilton, who wrote the novel that inspired Hangover Square, also wrote the source material for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). The two directors’ styles are completely different, though it’s interesting to contemplate what Hitchcock would have made of an adaptation of Hangover Square. His beloved “wrong man” theme could be used to great effect here, but instead Brahm transforms it into a Gothic tale of latent monstrosity and psychological horror that wouldn’t be out of place in Edgar Allan Poe’s universe of guilt and repression-induced madness.
Finally, Hangover Square has the presentation it deserves thanks to a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber that has a surprising number of extras. In addition to looking and sounding great, there are two commentary tracks packed with information about the film and its players: one from film historian Steve Haberman that covers a wide range of the film’s history, with contributions from actress Faye Marlowe about her memories of being on set. The second, from journalist and historian Richard Schickel, covers similar historic ground as Haberman, while offering up plenty of fresh information and analysis. There’s also a featurette, The Tragic Mask: The Laird Cregar Story, that I wish was nine times as long but is a great introduction for anyone unfamiliar with this wonderful actor, and—as an added bonus—there’s an audio extra of Vincent Price’s radio version of Hangover Square. I would love to see The Undying Monster and The Lodger receive similar treatment and come out in some sort of special features-laden Brahm box set, but this is a wonderful start.