Guilty pleasure: Watching classical composer become crazed murderer in 'Hangover Square'
Part of the Labor Day weekend was devoted to a guilty pleasure, discovering the 1945 film "Hangover Square," thanks to Turner Classic Movies. (Have I mentioned that TCM is the best thing to happen to television since "I Love Lucy"?) I was surprised, and intrigued, to hear the ever-dapper host Robert Osborne say that "Hangover Square" was Stephen Sondheim's favorite movie. Who knew?
I found the movie very entertaining, but I did feel a tad conflicted about a plot that uses a classical composer in late-Victorian London as the villain, a serial murderer driven mad every time he hears a discordant sound. I guess it's not such a far cry from the famous tale of another composer who creates his own little reign of terror at the Paris Opera House. Still, it's a bit of a downer to see a classical music type who goes in for some vile deeds and has a penchant for treating corpses to theatrical cremation.
Anyway, I'd say the best thing about "Hangover Square" is the score by Bernard Herrmann, whose music for subsequent films, especially several Hitchcock masterpieces, is much better known. There's one heck of a piano concerto at the heart of this film, a piece that poor George Harvey Bone -- isn't that a divine name for a composer? -- struggles to finish, in between churning out popular ditties for a vapid music hall singer he falls for and, eventually, kills.
When Bone finally gets his chance to premiere the concerto, he's being pursued by the police, who, at long last, have figured out that he's been quite the naughty fellow. The performance goes on anyway, ending with a conflagration-suicide rivaled only by that of Brunnhilde in "Gotterdammerung." Way over the top, but
a scene that certainly sticks in the mind. (So does the sad fact that Laird Cregar, who lost a lot of weight to play the role of Bone, died of a heart attack at the age of 28, just before the movie was relased.)
Herrmann's genius for scene-setting and for revealing subtext through music can be easily appreciated throughout "Hangover Square," and the piano concerto that proves to be Bone's roasted swan song makes quite a statement about dark forces of the mind. Given time limitations in film, it's not a full-fledged, three-movement concerto, but Herrmann packs a lot of material into the piece, including a very haunting theme that offers a foretaste of what he would create for "Vertigo" years later.
Here's a fine performance of the concerto, accompanied by stills from the film: