Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween hangover

I know that Halloween has come and gone, but I figured I’d post a couple of mini-reviews on the horror films that ultimately made the cut during last night’s Halloween film festival here at Rancho Yesteryear. Before you read any further, you need to be warned that there are one or two spoilers contained in this post, so in case you’ve not seen the movies, click on the Radio Archives button and amuse yourself with that until this all blows over.

After the traditional showing of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I decided to go with the rest of the titles in the recently released Fox Horror Classics boxset—beginning with The Lodger (1944). The Lodger really isn’t a horror film (at least, to me it isn’t) but more of a Gothic noir; it tells the familiar story of Jack the Ripper (the film is based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who wrote about a Ripper-like murderer rather than Springhill Jack himself) and is even set during the same time period, with a mysterious pathologist (Laird Cregar) named Slade (leasing rooms from a husband and wife played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood, respectively) who’s suspected of murdering several actresses in the Whitechapel area. (Yes, I know Jack knocked off prostitutes in real life—but he didn’t have to deal with the censors at Fox plus if you stretch it, the two occupations aren’t that far apart.) Lovely Merle Oberon (who would later marry the film’s cinematographer, Lucien Ballard) is the niece of Hardwicke and Allgood—and an actress to boot, making her a potential target; George Sanders is the man from Scotland Yard who ends up putting the pieces together and fingering Slade. The Lodger is a well-worth-seeing film (though I prefer the 1926 version directed by Alfred Hitchcock myself), with the stylish direction one expects from John Brahm, and top-notch performances from the principals (plus cameos from silent comics like Jimmy Aubrey and Billy Bevan, and the one-and-only Walter Tetley as a messenger boy). Cregar himself is fantastic as Slade, though his mere presence in the film sort of telegraphs to the audience from the get-go that he’s the villain.

Laird Cregar appeared in only sixteen films during his tragically brief acting career in Hollywood (he died at the age of 31 from a heart attack brought upon by complications from surgery in December of 1944), but was such a commanding presence as a villain in films like I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Joan of Paris (1942) and This Gun for Hire (1942) that his career simply cannot be considered a mere footnote in the history of American cinema. He was a first-rate character actor—the only problem being Cregar didn’t want to be a character actor, and he made a desperate bid (despite the objections of Fox studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck) to move into leading-man roles with his last film, Hangover Square (1945), by going on a crash diet (in which he lost 100 pounds) and planning to have an early form of stomach-stapling surgery. Although my favorite Cregar performance is in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943; his urbane, suave take as the Devil is for me the definitive portrayal of Lucifer in any film), his role as classical composer George Harvey Bone in Square is in a lock for second place. Square is patterned a great deal after Lodger (same director, same screenwriter, the presence of co-star Sanders, etc.) but it’s clearly the superior film; as Bone, Cregar creates a lovingly melancholy portrait of a man prone to murderous fits of rage upon hearing discordant sounds. Sanders is a doctor working in tandem with Scotland Yard in this one, while Linda Darnell plays a conniving bitch who cozies up to Bone in order to get him to write songs for her (questionably-talented) singing career. As always, director Brahm combines a Victorian setting (something that was not in Patrick Hamilton’s novel—and Cregar was none too happy about the change) with his trademark German expressionism to fashion two unforgettable sequences in the film: the Guy Fawkes’ Day bonfire (the ideal place to stash Darnell’s corpse once Cregar has strangled her) and the fiery climax (fire is a repeated metaphor in the film, symbolizing Bone’s descent into madness) in which Cregar attempts to finish a concerto (a marvelous, eleven-minute piece written by the renowned Bernard Herrmann) while engulfed in the flames from a burning theater. Again, you can’t really call Square a horror film (though there are moments of goose-pimply suspense) but you can identify it as a triumph for an actor who left the soundstage far too soon.

1 comment:

Tony Kay said...

Thanks for the much-appreciated salute to Laird Cregar, one of Golden Age Hollywood's greatest (and sadly short-lived) character actors.

He was a sublime heavy, but I've always loved his Captain Morgan in THE BLACK SWAN, a hearty, vigorous treetrunk of a man whom any scallywag'd be happy to share a flagon of ale with.