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September 7, 2009

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:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 PM | | Comments (3)


Just referring to the movie, I guess this gives new meaning to "serial murderer" -- definitely sounds like a thinly-veiled polemic against dissonance ("Kids, for goodness' sake, _please_ don't listen to Schönberg or Hauer -- you just might become a chainsaw-wielding zombie freak!"). Odd.

I remember a (lousy) movie where Chris Sarandon played an electronic composer who quickly devolved into a rapist (and then a _total_ psychotic nut-job) -- I started watching it because I was listening to what he was doing in his studio (something very "musique concrète"), and then the film took a complete left turn -- I found myself going, "What the bloody 'eck _is_ this crap?" Was this supposed to be a cautionary tale against electronic composers? ("Here comes Xenakis -- better get the grenades ready!")

So happy to read your mention of Bernard Herrmann's music. Some of the greatest orchestral music of the 20th century was written for films, and not just by "famous" composers like Herrmann, Korngold, Copland, etc. A lot of crime thrillers and film noirs of the '40s and '50s sport superb underscores from gifted composers of the era. Your mentioning the music will hopefully make people more aware of the musical contributions to motion pictures.

Without music, films from that great era would just not be as effective. And you're so right about the gifted, less famous composers at work then. Thanks for commenting. TIM

Gorgeous piece! Also, I love seeing classical musicians in atypical roles ... Jane (Susan Sarandon) as a cellist in The Witches of Eastwick, the homeless cellist Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in The Soloist ... wait a minute. That's a lot of cellists! I guess Lestat de Lioncourt (Stuart Townsend) in Queen of the Damned could be counted although he was a rock violinist vampire... Either way, we need more!!

Thanks for the atypical examples. Cool. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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