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Posted October 1, 2010
In any account of the horror films of the forties, two studios dominate. The juvenile but wildly popular Universal "Monster Rallies" wherein Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man are constantly crossing paths, and producer Val Lewton's atmospheric and sophisticated RKO films such as Cat People and the 7th Victim. There was also a third studio angling for a piece of the horror market, Darryl Zanuck's Fox, and this new box-set showcases their efforts. The first title in this collection of Fox films is the Undying Monster, a seeming hybrid of the Lewton and Universal styles, creating an ungainly mish-mash of RKO mystery coupled with a very Larry Talbot-esque werewolf in the last reel. The whodunit aspects are a complete wash-out since we the audience "both today's and the original" have seen the werewolf on the promotional posters and know the secret of the strange "unknown beast" preying on the cursed Hammond family. The movie is not helped by the fact that our ostensible hero is a near omniscient jerk, smirkingly blase about the people around him and their legitimate fears. Bad science, half-hearted attempts at humor, and a some obvious red herrings round out this mediocre film. The other two films in this set are a remarkable improvement, equal to the best of Lewton's productions, and arguably even to the war-time efforts of Hitchcock and Lang. The first, the Lodger, had been made before as a Hitchcock silent with Ramon Navarro, but this version is far superior. Laird Cregar gives an astonishing performance in the title role, completely dominating the film with his nuanced and sympathetic, yet still frightening portrayal of madness. The Lodger is also a beautiful looking piece, with evocative shadows, fog, and gaslight grounding its Jack the Ripper storyline in the kind of wondrous Victorian London fantasyland that can only exist on a studio backlot. The film's other leads are George Sanders, who, though cast in a part he could play in his sleep, does a great job as our hero, while a never sexier Merle Oberon is the chorus girl stalked by the menacing Ripper. While the Lodger alone is worth the price of this box-set, the last film is perhaps even better. After the Lodger proved a commercial hit, Zanuck assembled the same director, screenwriter and two male stars for the follow-up, another London-based period thriller, Hangover Square. While in the Lodger the screen time was split up more or less equally among the three leads, Hangover Square is the Laird Cregar show from start to finish. His character, George Harvey Bone, is a composer with the unfortunate tendency to go into a sort of fugue state when he hears any loud dischordant noise. In this state he is dangerous, but has no memory of his actions after the fact. Bone is even more innocent of his deeds than Dr. Jekyll, and retains the viewer's sympathy even after he kills the manipulative Netta "Linda Darnell" and disposes of her body during the film's reknown and oft-copied Guy Fawkes sequence. This taut thriller culminates in a climax that is a poetic and moving tour de force of acting, music, and direction. During the first public performance of his concerto, Bone is confronted by Scotland Yard, who plan to place him in asylum. Rather than face that end, he sets fire to the music hall, and then finishes the piece as the building burns down around him. The music is by Bernard Herrmann, and it deserves to rank among his best. Cregar makes the playing of the piano as suspenseful as any murder, and his expressive face and eyes illuminate his every thought for the audience. A genuinely brilliant film, and a performance of true genius from an actor with far too short a career.
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Posted November 6, 2009
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