Wisconsin winters are a leveling force. Ground zero. Then there’s thirteen degrees below ground zero. Like today. The choice is clear: you can watch yourself go nuts, or, better still, you can watch a superb new DVD about a schizophrenic composer and let the guy in the movie go nuts. Hangover Square (1945) was the last film to star Laird Cregar, one of Hollywood’s great forgotten talents. He died, age 28 (or 31; his date of birth has been given variously as 1913 or 1916), while the movie was in postproduction. Weighing some 300 pounds in earlier roles, Cregar put himself on a crash diet (i.e., amphetamines) that resulted not only in his losing 80 pounds for Hangover Square but also brought on a stomach disorder, hospitalization, and finally a heart attack. Typecast once too often as an overweight psychopath, he yearned to unleash his inner matinee idol. Whether or not the sexually conflicted Cregar might have transformed himself into a proto-Montgomery Clift is anyone’s guess, but there’s no disputing the fact that few actors before or since have played an overweight psychopath with such soulful, wrenching menace and pathos. Film noir fans know him as the disturbed Inspector Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Horror buffs know his Jack the Ripper in The Lodger (1944). But nothing compares with Hangover Square. Cregar is George Harvey Bone, a frustrated composer of serious music (whose dissonant “Concerto Macabre” for piano and orchestra was written for the movie by Hitchcock’s great film composer Bernard Herrmann). The story is set in fog-shrouded turn of the century London, a backlot cost-cutting decision that allowed for using the sets left over from The Lodger.
The psychotic sad sack Mr. Bone falls under the spell of a femme fatale music hall singer played by Linda Darnell. He also suffers blackouts that send him on murderous rampages, killing cats and antique dealers and anyone else who ticks him off. Hangover Square boasts at least two bravura sequences: Bone’s hauling a corpse up a ladder to the top of a massive Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, and the climactic performance of the Concerto Macabre with Bone madly pounding away at the piano with the concert hall engulfed in flames. It’s a potent metaphor for the artist’s imagination and the thin line between creativity and self-destruction. An inferno guaranteed to keep you toasty on the coldest of winter nights.