FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
I'll probably never read the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel that gave rise to the various film versions of THE LODGER, so I've only spotty information on how close they are to the source material. I've been informed that Lowndes, though she drew upon the 1888 "Jack the Ripper" murders, renamed the killer in her short story "the Avenger," which is the name he was called in the famous Hitchcock silent adaptation, reviewed here. I commented on how exigent circumstances kept Hitchcock from following Lowndes in portraying the mysterious lodger as a killer, and how instead the same character became in Hitchcock's film an innocent victim of mob rule. A 1932 remake, THE PHANTOM FIEND, had it both ways, both indicting mob rule but providing a definite monster, in contrast to the silent work:
Hitchcock chose to diverge from the Lowndes novel by placing all of the dramatic emphasis upon the unfairly-accused lodger, and the offscreen capture of the Avenger appears as little more than an afterthought, making it possible to clear the lodger. Someone involved in the script-- possibly Novello himself, who allegedly made script-contributions-- apparently decided that the original ending didn't provide much of a payoff, and so the story is substantially altered to involve Angeloff in the capture of the Avenger. Arguably some viewers may find this development more capricious than Hitchcock's conclusion. Yet the altered ending has one advantage" the "perilous psycho" is a real presence in the film, rather than a chimera-- and for that reason the Elvey film registers in my system as belonging to the uncanny domain.
Director John Brahm and scripter Barre Lyndon dispense entirely with the victimization angle, and bring in the name "Jack the Ripper" for the first time. That said, the script doesn't seek to duplicate the particulars of the Ripper killings, least of all in his targets, who are actresses of Whitechapel rather than prostitutes. Yet from the first night that the tormented-looking Mister Slade (Laird Cregar) becomes a lodger in the private home of the Bontings, it's clear that he conflates actresses with the "scarlet women" of the Bible. To be sure, it's clear that the actresses in turn-of-the-century England are selling sex on occasion. Slade's landlady Mrs. Bonting seems to have no problems with actresses showing off their goods in racy dances like the can-can, not even when one of them is her own niece, Kitty (Merle Oberon), who resides in the same house.
Not surprisingly, while the Ripper can murder the scarlet women with impunity, it's not so easy for him once he meets Kitty personally, and begins to care for her in his demented way. At the same time, Kitty has a suitor who's a police inspector (George Sanders), following the pattern of the Hitchcock film in this regard. However, though there are references to mobs panicking over the Ripper's rampage, the film is closer to PHANTOM FIEND in emphasizing the peril of the killer. It's probably sheer coincidence, but FIEND just happens to give its lodger a twin brother who is the real Avenger. Slade also has a brother, but the brother is long dead, and Slade makes a point of showing his landlady a portrait of his beautiful but deceased sibling, as if the brother's face proved an anodyne to the charms of scarlet women. The script never explicitly identifies Slade's psychosis as arising from a homosexual fixation on his own brother. Still, if Slade is homosexual, he seems to have some hetero currents in his makeup as well. When Sanders's inspector descants on the nature of the Ripper's serial killings, the murders are made to sound much like a man satisfying himself sexually. Later, the inspector deduces that Slade's brother was "ruined" by a scarlet woman, and that after the brother killed himself, the Ripper took his first victim, the woman who brought about the adored brother's death. Nonetheless, it's not impossible, given Slade's later demonstrations of fascination with the feminine, that the motive for the first killing became subsumed by Slade's desire to kill for his (hetero)sexual pleasure.
Yet Kitty is different. As the police finally conclude Slade's true identity, they close in on him as he confronts Kitty. He clearly desires her as something more than a quick one-off, even though he wants to "cut out" the evil within her, which viewers understand to be his own evil. Recurrently Lyndon's script resorts to images of water that presage Slade's final doom, as well as his wish to escape the dark currents of his own contradictory personality.
I'm sure I'll also never read the source-novel for HANGOVER SQUARE, but then, to 20th-Century Fox the original work was merely a vehicle through which they could seek to duplicate the box-office success of THE LODGER. Purportedly this was exactly what lead-actor Cregar did not want when he lobbied for Fox to adapt the story. But once more the studio called upon the same director and scripter, Brahm and Lyndon, to convert the original thriller into the barrative of a psychologically aberrant serial killer. In addition, the setting of the novel was also changed to one much like that of THE LODGER, and George Sanders was once more tapped to play a character who eventually figures out the killer's identity.
However, if LODGER may be a little too pat about identifying the source of its killer's psychotic rages, HANGOVER avoids making any conclusions whatever. Indeed, the first killing is never really explained. For reasons unknown, classical composer George Bone (Cregar) gets into a row with a Scottish shopkeeper, later characterized as a fence for stolen goods. Bone, going into a frenzy, kills the shop-owner and starts a fire to cover the murder. After he escapes, Bone seems distracted and amnesiac, not responding when passersby see that he has a bloodied temple. Later, his friend Barbara, who knows all about his recent spate of blackouts, consoles him, even when he half-suspects that he may have done someone an injury during the recent blackout.
Little if anything is revealed about Cregar's character, except that he's known Barbara, since childhood, and that he's driven to get ahead in the musical world. Surprisingly, there's little if any sense that Barbara has any romantic interest in Bone, nor he in her. They seem more like sister and brother than anything, and they share a common love of music, as she's keen for him to finish an important concerto that can make his reputation as a composer. Bone, whose entire life seems devoted to his art, consults with Doctor Middleton (Sanders) in order to solve the problem of the blackouts. Middleton almost makes a connection between Bone and the recent murder, but the connection proves insupportable and the doctor simply recommends that Bone relax and take in some entertainment.
It's at this point that HANGOVER moves into deeper sociological waters than did THE LODGER. Bone takes in a show at a pub and becomes enthralled with a mediocre female singer, Netta (Linda Darnell). Netta for her part figures out that Bone's skill with musical composition can translate into greater money and fame for her, so she talks him into using his talents to write her popular songs.
The film doesn't spend a lot of time with this elitist theme-- that of popular entertainment sucking the life out of high art-- for its main focus seems to be that of Bone's erotic fixation upon an indifferent, conniving love-interest. It's quite as if scripter Lyndon decided to dramatize the unseen relationship of Slade's brother with an evil woman. Netta has no interest in Bone personally, finding him a bore, though she does seem to revel in her power to manipulate him. At one point, he tries to reject her, telling her that he no longer believes that she cares for him and that London is full of other songwriters. Yet Netta still tries to keep Bone within her feminine "net" a little longer, as if anticipating a better moment to destroy him.
Bone's own murderous rages aren't the result of erotic suppression alone-- in addition to the unexplained slaying of the shopkeeper, the composer also strangles a cat, though it is a creature he associates with Netta. In place of the pat psychologizing of LODGER, HANGOVER has Bone killing out of spasms of violence, loosely but not consistently connected with loud, discordant sounds. Yet Bone's own music often draws upon discordant chords, and so one wonders if Lyndon had in mind some loose parable of the artist's main problem: that of being drawn to the impure world of common life, even while seeking the sublime joys of art.
Yet. even if Lyndon's script seems slightly dismissive of popular culture, with the music-hall songs having none of the effervescence of similar numbers in LODGER, the author roots the film's most famous scene in the "pop culture" of archaic religious practices. After Bone strangles Netta, he again seeks to dispose of a body with fire, this time in a bonfire prepared for Guy Fawkes' Day. It can be fairly objected that no corpse would be more than charred by the heat of a bonfire. Still, the scene in which Bone situates the disguised corpse of the singer amidst the dummy-victims representing the fiendish anti-monarchist plotter Guy Fawkes has a special resonance. As the blaze goes up, the crowd cheers--- and even though viewers know that the ordinary citizens are not implicated in Bone's crime, the celebration still takes on the air of a pagan sacrifice, not unlike that of the Celtic Wicker Man.
The Fawkes scene, as well as a concluding scene in which the mad pianist plays his concerto in the midst of a fiery cataclysm, are the standouts, but John Brahm suffuses the entire film with a masterful use of closeups and crane shots, easily exceeding the excellence of THE LODGER. In closing I should mention that this time, in contrast to LODGER, the detective figure is more involved in abetting the madman's crimes. Middleton's recommendation that Bone take in common folk's entertainments has the fortuitous result of severing Bone from Barbara as well, giving Middleton a clear track with the young lady. Further, though Middleton is recommended to Bone by Bone's doctor, and thus the two haven't known each other long, at some point Bone conveniently reads a Middleton-authored essay on the practice of thuggee strangulation-- and this is one of the ways the mad musician uses to assault the two women in his life, though Barbara survives and Netta does not.