Hangover Square (1945) John Brahm

This review contains spoilers

Director John Brahm waste no time getting the suspense moving, as the film opens we see an older man fighting off an unseen attacker. From the camera’s POV a knife soon appears plunging into the chest of the man and then a quick shot of the killer tossing a gas lit lamp on to the floor, a deadly fire begins to rage. It is a powerful opening to a visually stunning film worthy of Hitchcock. Laird Cregar stars as George Harvey Bone a turn of the century classical composer inflicted with increasingly frequent blackouts that result in a murdering rampage. When Bone meets dance hall singer Netta (Linda Darnell) who plays up to him, manipulating him to write a few popular type songs she can include in her act, the old boy is hooked. Netta uses Bone, flirting yet continually resisting his affection. Of course, Bone eventually realizes he is being used by the cheap floozy and seeks his revenge by killing Netta and dumping her lifeless body on to the top of a barn fire set during a celebration on Guy Fawkes Night.

Fire plays an important part in this film occurring in at least in three significant points including the finale as Bone meets his own demise in a concert hall, where his piano concerto is being performed. The madman sets the theater on fire as the police attempt to surround him. The final image is one of Bone at the piano regally performing his work as he is engulfed in ever growing flames.

“Hangover Square” was a follow up reuniting in fog bound Victorian London director John Brahm, screenwriter Barre Lyndon (whose screenplay is based on the Patrick Hamilton novel), two of the three films stars Laird Cregar and George Sanders all who collaborated in the successful 1944 version of “The Lodger” just one year earlier. The setting of the original source novel was just prior to England’s entry into the war with Germany. For the film the creators changed the setting to turn of the century London to more closely resemble the mood and atmosphere of the prior year’s hit film.

 Brahm use of a subjective camera and low-angles united with Joseph LaShelle’s noir cinematography make for a first-rate entertaining piece of filmmaking.  The other major highlight in this film is the music of Bernard Herrmann who not only composed the incidental music but also the major concert pieces performed.  The film is a major vehicle for Herrmann’s work and one of his best scores. Both Herrmann (Psycho, North by Northwest, Marnie, Vertigo) and LaShelle (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) worked with Hitchcock, which this film could have easily been directed by. Brahm does an inspired job and like Herrmann and LaShelle would work for Hitchcock himself later in his career directing many episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”    Brahm also did some very good episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, “Thriller”, “The Outer Limits” and “The Man from UNCLE” among many others.  

Sadly, this was Laird Creager’s final film in a life that was way too short.


The Lodger (1944) John Brahm

The opening murder scene sets the stage for the remainder of this darkly drenched eerie atmospheric horror. A woman is walking home late at night in foggy London; the streets are so wet they almost glisten. The woman turns into an alleyway out of the camera’s eye, we hear a scream and she is soon dead. We see her hand in a close up on the sidewalk curb as water trickles by along the curb. Jack the Ripper has struck again. If you ever wonder where Hammer Films  found  its stylish look for horror,  well it just might have been here this 1944 20th Century Fox thriller.

The 1940’s are generally not considered a high point in time for horror films yet this production of “The Lodger” is the exception to the rule. Directed by German born John Brahm, this remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s original silent version is directly influenced by the German Expressionist film movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with its harsh lighting and superb camera placement. Laird Cregar’s magnificent  expressionistic and moving  performance fits right in.

Cregar’s Mr. Slade, as he is called, is a sexually twisted individual obsessed with his dead brother (he was a genius!), ruined by women, actresses specifically. We see Slade’s almost manic obsession with his brother in one scene when he is holding a photograph of him and practically pouring out his love in a way that seems to be more than just well, brotherly love. Slade takes out his revenge by killing off these “actresses” (really prostitutes but this is a 1940’s film) slicing and dicing them up.

Slade has rented a couple of rooms from Robert (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Ellen Bonting (Sara Allgood). Soon after the new lodger settles in, he discovers the Bonting’s niece Lily Langley (Merle Oberon), an actress of course,  also is living in the same quarters, and he becomes quickly obsessed with the young beauty. The elder couple slowly become suspicious of their new border suspecting he is the infamous Jack the Ripper when they discover him oddly going out late at night. Later on, Lily finds him mysteriously burning some soiled clothing. A dandy like police inspector, George Sanders, in a rather dull role, tries to woo Lily and hunt down the Ripper at the same time.

While the story is more or less what we have seen now over and over in so many other Jack the Ripper tales, it is the visual storytelling ability of John Brahm and the performance of Laird Cregar that rank this film so high on the scale. Cregar manages to make his perverted, sexually twisted character frightening and strangely sympathetic at the same time. You know this guy is sick, and a murderer, but he somehow comes across as a sadly wounded bird. The film is beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard whose long career included such works as “Berlin Express”, “The Killing”, “Pay or Die”, “Will Penny” and “The Wild Bunch.”

Brahm and Cregar would reteam again the following year in “Hangover Square” where Cregar would again portray a maniac type killer. Sadly, Cregar died in 1945 at the age of 31 after battling with a weight disorder. After “The Lodger”, John Brahm had two more good films in him “Hangover Square” and “The Locket.” In the 1950’s and on into the 1960’s Brahm’s best work would be in television where he worked on episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” ,”The Twilight Zone”, “Thriller”, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” among others.


The Moon and Sixpence (1942) Albert Lewin

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel,”The Moon and Sixpence” tells the story of Charles Strickland (George Sanders), who leads a respectable life working for the London stock exchange. He has a lovely wife, married for seventeen years, and children. Then one day, at forty years of age, Strickland walks out on his life.  Leaves his family, his job and goes to Paris to live a bohemian existence as an artist.  No explanations are given nor does Strickland care about his wife and children’s future, He pretty much says “They somehow get along, I can’t worry about it.”  

Like the novel, the film is narrated by a third person character; author Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) who seems to be a fictional stand-in for Maugham.  Four years later Marshall would literary portray Maugham in “The Razor’s Edge.” Wolfe follows Strickland through his life as he runs off to Paris, living the life of an artist in search of the elusive truth. He refuses to sell any of his works, searches for no praise and does not seek desire to prove anything to anyone. He is an artist purely for art sake. At the end of the film, after his death, based on his request his wife destroys his work.

At one point when Strickland becomes ill, another less talented artist, Dirk Stroeve (Steven Geray), and his wife Blanche (Doris Dudley) take him in bringing him back to health, Strickland repays his artist/friend Dirk by stealing his wife. Later when he decides to go off to find himself in the South Seas (Tahiti) and no longer having any use for Blanche, he indifferently dumps her despite her promises she will kill herself. He leaves, she dies, he shows no remorse.  In Tahiti, Strickland does find someone he cares for, a pretty native, Ata (Elena Verdugo) who he marries and who loves him dearly. He also paints at a voracious speed however, within a few years Strickland dies a hideous death with leprosy.

“The Moon and Sixpence” is the portrait of the artist as a cad and who better epitomizes the cad persona than George Sanders who made a career of being unscrupulous and uncaring.  In “All About Eve”, he was Allison DeWitt, the cynical scathing theatre critic and in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” he was the immoral Jack Favel. As the callous Charles Strickland he utters the lines “the more you beat women, the more they love you for it.”  A line that easily displays the unsympathetic contemptible smug outlook he had for life and especially women. (Sanders found himself in the center of a storm when women’s groups protested his verbiage. As he stated, defending himself, in his 1960 autobiography, “Memoirs of a Cad”, these were Maugham’s words he was saying, not his own).

Maugham’s novel is a surface only fictional recreation of the life of Paul Gauguin. Don’t look for a fictional Van Gogh, who Gauguin spent some two months painting with in Arles. And since Strickland had to die a hideous death to pay for his contemptible life he was blessed with leprosy where as Gauguin died from syphilis.

The film moves at a slow pace, laden with too much narration, not only does the author Wolfe narrate but later in the film two other characters as well.   Also, there seems to be too many unnecessary scenes with secondary characters that could have been eliminated.  While the aforementioned Sanders does well, Herbert Marshall as the writer Wolfe is rather stiff and looks uncomfortable for the majority of the film. Director Albert Lewin makes an interesting if not totally successful use of film by shooting most of it in black and white, separating the Tahitian scenes from the Paris scenes by giving a reddish tint to the Tahitian segment and for the final scene displaying Strickland’s masterpiece mural, in full color (Lewin would use this technique again in his 1945 film, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”).  Lewin was wise not to show us Strickland’s paintings throughout the film (except for the final color sequence) which leaves the audience to depend on the words and judgment of the other characters.  Subsequently, we are not forced to look at poor substitutes and think they are masterpieces.

The VCI DVD contains two versions of the film, the original theatrical release in B&W/Color and a full black and white version.


Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Anatole Litvak

The effects of what was happening in Europe during the 1930’s changed attitudes of many in Hollywood. Anti-fascist groups organized, some led by movie stars like Paul Muni, James Cagney Melvyn Douglas and Sylvia Sydney. Most of the American public was still recovering from the depression and were not concerned about the potential war that was about to erupt in Europe and felt that American interest were best served by staying out of the furor building up over there. As late as 1939, Joe Kennedy, America’s Ambassador to England was at odds with President Roosevelt over Roosevelt’s providing ships to aid Churchill and England who feared an invasion by Hitler.

Warner Brothers, the most socially committed of all the major studios, led by Jack Warner, always persisted in making films that provided more than just entertainment value. In the early 1930’s Warner’s produced films that were ripped from “today’s headlines”, films with a message, “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “Heroes for Sale”, “The Public Enemy” and “They Won’t Forget” to name a few. In the late 1930’s Warner’s, unlike MGM, closed their business operations in Germany after their offices were attacked by hate mongers that resulted in the death of one employee. This was done despite the fact that Germany was Hollywood’s largest European customer at the time.

Based on a series of articles by former FBI agent Leon G. Torrou, who had been active as an agent investigating the infiltration of Nazi spies in the United States, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is considered the first anti-Nazi film to come out of Hollywood.

The story involves Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) a propagandist who has come to America to rally support for the Nazi cause focusing on German-Americans. He brings forth the Fuehrer words that Germans are Germans first and Americans second and that they need to help bring down the evils of democracy.  An unemployed disaffected man name Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer) joins the cause, agreeing spy for the Nazis. Schneider manages to obtain sensitive troop information deceiving a German-American soldier (Joe Sawyer) into providing the data.  A German passenger ship, the Bismarck, is continuously transporting new agents into America, including Hilda Kleinhauser who will eventually be apprehended by FBI agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) who has been assigned to investigate the case. When Miss Kleinhauser confesses and Schneider is arrested, the domino effect of the entire spy ring begins to crumble.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was a powerful document for the time, awakening Americans to the threat that war at their front door. Believing that Hitler and the war was Europe’s problem only, many American’s wanted to continue an isolationist policy. For making the film, producer Jack Warner would face accusations of being a warmonger. The film is done in a semi-documentary style incorporating actual news clips throughout the story.  Overall, the film is fast paced and thoroughly engrossing. Edward G. Robinson delivers a typical strong performance as the lead FBI agent Renard expounding  on the evils of the Nazi threat and America’s do nothing policy. The real acting highlight belongs to Paul Lukas as Dr. Kassel whose pro-Nazi rants are frighteningly as real as those you see of Hitler himself. George Sanders is also on board playing Nazi officer Franz Schlager. 

It should be mentioned that many actors and behind the scenes artists who worked on this film feared a backlash back in Germany. Actors and crew with family members still living in the fatherland feared for their safety. Some actors resorted to changing their names to help in hiding their identity.  Composer Max Steiner and cinematographer Ernest Haller received no credit on this film, which may have been purposeful on their part fearing a backlash to relatives back in Germany. The film was banned in both Germany and Japan as well as other European countries that had fallen to the Nazi machine. It is rumored Hitler promised to kill everyone involved in the making of this film after Germany has won the war.

Considered the first film to be released on the topic of anti-Nazism the film was released six months prior to the start of the war in 1939, awakening Americans to the danger of Hitler’s Germany. Still, there were isolationists who refused to take heed. There were groups in America who considered anti-Nazism to mean you were pro-communism. Supporters of Germany branded actors like Edward G. Robinson, Frances Leader, studio head Jack Warner and others communists or at least communist supporters.   In the film if you look closely you will see a propaganda flyer headline that accuses then President Franklin Roosevelt of being a communist.  

By 1940 and after, other filmmakers and studios jumped on the anti-Nazi bandwagon as Hitler’s terror spread across Europe with films like “All Through the Night”, “Foreign Correspondent”, :Man Hunt and “The Mortal Storm.”  After MGM released “The Mortal Storm in 1940, Hitler banned MGM films.  “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” remains the most blatant and one of the most interesting. 

One last note, director Don Siegel worked on the montage sequences of this film.